The Bookcase Project (TBP) 1

There was no suspense about the inaugural book of this collection review project. I chose The Lord of the Rings, a book special to me for multiple reasons and secure in its continued place in the Bookcase. I’ve read it only twice earlier, I think, possibly three times but it had been quite a few years in any case since the last time.

It’s special, in the first place, because it’s a truly wonderful book and a thrilling read each time. Tolkien’s singular achievement was to infuse his scholarship (languages, medieval literature) into a high fantasy story. He created a Heroic Romance for the modern reader, one that engages our emotions as well as our imaginations. Of course I remembered the humor and the great characters, but I had not remembered the sheer propulsive quality of the story or the pleasures of his descriptive language. When the great horse Shadowfax ran fire flew from his feet and the night flowed over him like a roaring wind.

It was good to recover the text, too, as the films were muddling my memories. I like much of the movie adaptation but there are, in my opinion, serious flaws. Everything with Arwen is made up for the movies and is entirely a mistake (true, the ride with Frodo to the ford is terrific but she doesn’t need to be there). That I dislike, but what I loathe are the Gondor scenes. The whole lip-smacking meal while the fair knights go to their doom sequence is the worst kind of overwrought cliche. Why make up something so lame when there’s plenty of good material available in the book?

My copies of the three books are early printings of the American edition from Houghton Mifflin. I bought them as a retirement gift to myself.img_0621

The pleasures of rereading are different from the first time, of course; we never read the same book again. I really enjoyed returning to Tolkien’s world but it couldn’t ever compare to the overwhelming experience of the first encounter in 1973. The book was becoming a cult favorite on college campuses and among the rather small audience, at the time, for science fiction/fantasy work. I’d heard of it but didn’t know anything about the story and wasn’t particularly interested. Then my fiancé expressed surprise that I hadn’t read it and pressed his copy into my hands. “I’m not sure I could marry someone who didn’t love this book” or similar words accompanied it.

I was pretty sure he wasn’t serious about that, but I couldn’t help but feel a touch of anxiety as I opened the first volume. Happily on all accounts I was immediately gripped by the story and delighted with this marvelous new world. My marriage was saved and I had discovered a genre of fiction that has continued to give me pleasure through the many subsequent years.

The Bookcase Project

“If it’s books, it’s not hoarding”

I saw that on a T-shirt so it must be true. But it’s not easy to put limits on the number of books to have in the house, though limits there must be. I have a semi-ridiculous number of books that I think I will somehow have time enough to read in this life, but they stay quietly out of sight in various nooks and corners. But once a book has been read…to keep or not to keep? That is the question.

I’m not a book collector. My husband is. He has specific limited topics of interest and rarely retains any title that doesn’t enrich the extensive collections he has built. I used to say that I just accumulated books, but that’s a little harsh and not completely true. Now I might call myself a book keeper. I keep books, not too many, mostly fiction, ones that have particular meaning for me.

It’s not possible or rational to keep every book that I’ve enjoyed or admired. I do make good use of my public library and feel confident that many titles that I might have an urge to reread are readily available. I love Dickens but have no space for his collected works; I keep Bleak House and a charmingly illustrated The Pickwick Papers and let the rest hover out of reach but available. I give disproportionate space to works by lesser known authors or more obscure titles that would be difficult to recover if the whim should prompt it. It took me years to find a copy of The Greatest Slump Of All Time by David Carkeet and I’m not about to let go of it.

There are some books that are special for other reasons. I could readily find a copy of Moby Dick when I want to read it again but I love the Modern Library edition illustrated by Rockwell Kent. Again, not about to let go of it. I have a few comfort books, ones to read when I need a lift or a laugh, and a few with sentimental associations. The copy of Austen’s Emma is nice enough but unremarkable. But I treasure it as the gift from my future husband when we were on our first date. He took me to a used bookstore – some things are just meant to be!

So, those are reasons to keep a book, but we still have to deal with the question of limits. Years ago I decided to dedicate one bookcase to these special-to-me books, six shelves and no more. There’s some movement on and off, new discoveries sometimes nudge an older one from its place. Sometimes I have double-shelved a little or laid a book across the tops of others, honoring the letter of the law if not the spirit. But it’s worked well for me. It makes me happy to have special favorites where I can see them every day.

Now I feel the urge to revisit these books, for pleasure and for curiosity. Some I’ve only ever read once and I’d like to know if I will respond in the same way. Others I would just like to spend time with again, like The Lord Of The Rings. It was hard to justify rereading a book when my reading time was more limited. Retirement has given me this great opportunity to read more, like I haven’t since those golden childhood summer vacations.

The “Bookcase Project” is my plan to read my way through this assortment of books, with no timetable, in no particular order. It will be fun and interesting to see which ones maintain a place on the shelf.

2019 In Books

I had a good year in books with a total of 68 read. My goals were to read more fiction in translation, something I’ve been consciously pursuing for several years, and to read at least one nonfiction work each month.

Fiction: 46 (27 in English translation)
Nonfiction: 22

Here’s my 10 + 1 list of books I most enjoyed and admired this year. I had to make it +1 because I read Moby Dick and it just seems silly to measure anything against it.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada
Homeland by Fernando Aramburu
After the Banquet by Yukio Mishima
The Wake
by Paul Kingsnorth
The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov

Almost Nothing: The 20th Century Art and Life of Jozef Crapski by Eric Karpeles
The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai by Han Jin
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
A Primer For Forgetting: Getting Past the Past by Lewis Hyde

The post “Books Read 2019” lists all the titles with a capsule description/comment for most.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Books by Leah Price

Most of the talk about a supposed imminent and inevitable “death of the book” reflects a sincere concern, no doubt, but is generally too confused and dramatic to be helpful. I want a definition of terms before I can evaluate the danger…just what is meant by book? Is the concern for the physical object, its tactile pleasures, history or beauty? Is the concern for the kind of content and form of expression we experience in books? Perhaps it’s worry that the change of delivery technology will diminish the benefits we associate with reading?

Leah Price points out in her recent book What We Talk About When We Talk About Books that all of these issues have caused anxiety among readers for a very long time. There was never a “Golden Age” of reading but always a mix of purposes and quality for books and other forms of printing. I love books, in any definition, as much as the next reader. While for years I only cared about the content of what I might be reading, I’ve developed a strong interest in book history and appreciation for the artistry and craft of production. There will always be people who appreciate the beauty of fine printing, so I am confident that the book as art object will continue. I don’t expect to ever own one of those small press run gems but I can enjoy the trade edition.

There is unquestionably a lot of trash/junk/drivel, pick your own label, published now. But does it actually drive out good writing or is that an illusion? The range of fiction writing in the nineteenth century was similarly wide but we only think of the great works that continue to speak to us. As a bookseller, I sighed to see children loading up with the Babysitter or Goosebumps series; in a few years will they be the adults with the latest James Patterson or Danielle Steele novel? “At least they’re reading” isn’t a comfort. Reading is a skill that needs to be developed by engaging with good writing. The readership for literary fiction has never been large; it’s hard to make a case that it’s any smaller today.

I’ll admit to sharing some of the concern for the possible implications of the new delivery technologies. Tiny screens, blue light, multiple constant visual distractions, never reading more than a few sentences at a time…what might these do to our physical brains, to our abilities to concentrate, to think? Price writes about the explosion of new kinds of print media in the nineteenth century – pocket-sized paperbacks, news digests, tabloid newspapers – to meet new needs in the urbanizing, industrializing society. People needed something convenient to read for short intervals of waiting in lines, in offices, on the train or to provide isolation from the strangers around them. Sounds a lot like how we use electronic devices, so perhaps we’ll survive them too.

Price tells an interesting story of William Morris, the great champion of design and craftsmanship, who criticized the small paperback book because it is difficult to hold for comfortable reading. He also recognized the human bias to value things based on scarcity and effort required. His books are designed to encourage what we might call “slow reading”, by which the physical qualities of the book call attention to the quality of the content. By restoring the sense of occasion that he associated with medieval manuscripts, Morris hoped to forestall the always-on reading that we equate with the smartphone but that he blamed on cheap print. Like familiarity, ubiquity breeds contempt.

Those of us who love books, who love to read for any of the many reasons there are to read, want books to continue to be valued in our world. We respect the power of good writing to focus critical thinking and to enlarge our lives. It’s the writing that matters. A book is thinking and feeling made visible. The ‘book’ has had many forms over the centuries. How will it adapt in this one? That is what we should be talking about when we talk about saving books.

If you value the union of opposites brokered (sometimes but not always) by long-form, long-term reading–emotional absorption with intellectual reflection, inwardness with empathy, the capacity to withdraw from those around us while remaining attuned to distant minds–then the book may no longer be the only place to look. If we think of printed paper not as an inert collectible but as a cue or catalyst, then fetishizing the wood pulp and thread or glue onto which attentiveness, curiosity, and imagination have sometimes piggybacked means looking in the wrong place. More useful might be exploring what new–or old but forgotten–ways of circulating and sharing and responding to words might allow those habits to flourish.

Reading Fiction

The term fiction entered the English language in the early fifteenth century with the meaning “something invented or imagined.” It derived, etymological dictionaries tell us, via the French, from the past participle of the Latin verb fingere, which originally meant “to knead or form out of clay.” Fiction is then a sort of verbal Adam molded from the primordial dust in the Author’s image and infused by the Author with the breath of life. Perhaps that is why, contrary to appearances, fictional characters at their best often seem more alive than our friends of solid flesh. Far from sticking to their stories, they change the plot at every one of our readings, bringing certain scenes to light and obscuring others, adding a startling episode that we had mysteriously forgotten or a detail that previously remained unnoticed. Heraclitus’s warning about time is true for every reader: we never step twice into the same book.

Alberto Manguel
from Fabulous Monsters: Dracula, Alice, Superman, and Other Literary Friends

A Poem, a comment

Rather the flight of the bird passing and leaving no trace
Than creatures passing, leaving tracks on the ground.
The bird goes by and forgets, which is as it should be.
The creature, no longer there, and so, perfectly useless,
Shows it was there—also perfectly useless.

Remembering betrays Nature,
Because yesterday’s Nature is not Nature.
What’s past is nothing and remembering is not seeing.

Fly bird, fly away; teach me to disappear.

Alberto Caeiro  (pseud. of Fernando Pessoa)

The chief use of the ‘meaning’ of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be…to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a bit of nice meat for the house-dog.  This is an ordinary situation of which I approve.

T. S. Eliot