I’ve had a hard time focusing enough to write criticism recently. I’ve had a hard time finding enough time to read; it’s halfway through the month and I’ve just started the month’s sixth book, which, given monthly totals so far this year, is glacial. So to fill the gaps here, I’m turning to this meme, which I spotted on Jillian’s blog (originally created by a blogger called Lia) and which has the virtue of actually being mildly productive.
It goes as follows: set your to-read list on Goodreads to “date added” in ascending order, then go through five to ten books in chronological order to decide which ones are keepers and which ones you’re really, for whatever reason, never going to read. (My TBR, by the way, only represents books I’d like to read—they’re not necessarily books I already have.)
Book #1: Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens
Why is it on my TBR? Obviously, I want to read all of Dickens’s novels (and I’m getting there! 9 out of 15), but they’re not all listed on my Goodreads TBR. Given the date I added this—February 2013—I suspect I was impelled by a viewing of the film of Nicholas Nickleby. You know, the one with that pretty boy.
Do I already own it? Nope.
Verdict? Keep—I’ll own it one day, probably when I decide I’m sick of having mismatched paperback editions of Dickens and just buy a complete set that’s actually attractive.
Book #2: The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, 1509-1659, ed. David Norbrook
Why is it on my TBR? David Norbrook was one of my favourite lecturers. Also, there was a time when I thought my academic interest was almost precisely one hundred years earlier than it actually is.
Do I already own it? Nope.
Verdict? Keep—I really like Renaissance poetry, its vocabulary of allusion and the tensions between public and private that are inherent in a literature composed mostly by horny courtiers under constant surveillance. Plus it’s at its best when anthologised, and I suspect Norbrook’s is the best of those.
Book #3: The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene
Why is it on my TBR? I went on a bit of a Graham Greene kick in the summer of 2012; I presume this is a hangover from then.
Do I already own it? I don’t think so.
Verdict? Keep. It’s Graham Greene, for heaven’s sake.
Book #4: Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene
Why is it on my TBR? See above. I’ve had a thing about Brighton Rock for a while, though; it occupies this space in my mind as being about someone properly evil, although I’m not sure that’s actually true.
Do I already own it? Yes! The Chaos has a copy on his shelves.
Verdict? Slightly tricky, this. I tried it last year and simply couldn’t get the hang of it at all. But, again, it’s Graham Greene, and perhaps I wasn’t trying hard enough. KEEP!
Book #5: A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel
Why is it on my TBR? Adored Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, enjoyed Beyond Black and Fludd, thought this was worth a go.
Do I already own it? Nope.
Verdict: Keep, obviously, oh God this isn’t going well as a culling exercise
Book #6: The Last Chronicle of Barset, by Anthony Trollope
Why is it on my TBR? I read the entire Palliser series, and the entire Barsetshire series except for this last installment, between 2012 and 2014. I’m a completist, and the Penguin English Library cover is gorgeous.
Do I already own it? Yes! Although it is in my grandparents’ garage in West Sussex.
Verdict: Keep, but maybe this particular version of it can be given away—the entire Barsetshire series was released as Penguin Clothbound Classics and I stare at them daily from my desk at work, wondering how long it will be before I just snap and buy them so that all my Trollopes match and look nice, like adults’ books, instead of the awful mismatched copies that I have now. (It is exactly the same sitch as with Dickens and I do not enjoy it.)
Book #7: Essays, by Michel de Montaigne
Why is it on my TBR? I first encountered Montaigne in a high school class called Humanities, which is probably responsible for saving the lives of several hundred bright, desperately bored kids in my hometown (Charlottesville, Virginia). I came across him again as an undergrad. The idea of writing essays—literally, “attempts”—to explore your own soul was hugely appealing.
Do I already own it? Sort of. I own a selected edition, but not the big-ass Penguin paperback that represents the complete version.
Verdict: Sigh. Keep, obviously. I’ve read a few of them and I really like him, as a writer, as a person. It’s just that there are so many.
Book #8: A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor
Why is it on my TBR? My dad got it one Christmas, and it looked comprehensive and interesting.
Do I already own it? No—the plan would be to read it when visiting my parents.
Verdict: Finally, a firm no! I’m sure it’s great, but MacGregor did it as a podcast originally, and I think this is basically just a print tie-in. Unnecessary.
Book #9: The Embarrassment of Riches: an Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, by Simon Schama
Why is it on my TBR? 1: I used to fancy the pants off Simon Schama. (It was an early manifestation of a clear preference for older fellas.) 2: This is precisely the period I’m interested in. 3: Dutch paintings make me want to swoon with joy. 4: Material culture is fascinating.
Do I own it? Nope.
Verdict: Of the four reasons to read it given above, three are still applicable and legitimate, so keep, duh.
Book #10: Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
Why is it on my TBR? Astonishingly, I escaped American public high school without ever having read this.
Do I own it? The Chaos might have a copy somewhere, but I don’t think so.
Verdict: I have to keep this, really. There is no reason in the world to decide I’m never going to read it. It’s just one of those books—like The Picture of Dorian Gray and A Tale of Two Cities—that has mysteriously never quite been compelling enough to be next. (But I read A Tale of Two Cities in January, so I bet I’ll get round to this.)
Conclusions: The very earliest stuff on my TBR is stuff I still want to read, either because it’s classic or canonical or because it’s about subjects I’m still interested in. This is kind of a nice thing to know. As we get closer to the present day, however, I fully expect to see the influence of increased exposure to bookish media—blogs, review sites, Twitter, etc.—and a trigger-happy index finger.
Am I wrong about any of these? Is Vonnegut not worth the hassle? Is Graham Greene a waste of time? (No.) Is Neil MacGregor’s book 1000% worth reading? Comments welcomed.
22 thoughts on “Down the TBR Hole, #1”
Everything Graham Greene wrote is essential. Everything!
I knew it! 😉
Ha! I love your ‘culling’ exercise… But I completely understand all of your arguments.
I’m definitely going to find ones that I’m not as interested in as I move up the list! But it seems like these early ones are still pretty interesting to me.
You live in hope…
Thanks for the kind reference to Humanities class. I’ve never read all of Montaigne, either, though I have three different editions. Donald Frame is the best, but you don’t want to ignore Florio. The rest of the list looks great. You should own all of these books, except Vonnegut–you won’t want to go back to him.. When you get a Dickens set, make sure it has the original illustrations.
I definitely intend to own them. Because of my job, my focus at the moment is much more heavily weighted towards contemporary fiction (which is good; there’s a lot there that I’ve missed too, such as Don DeLillo – I read White Noise last month and really liked it). I’m waiting til I’ve settled in at the shop and built up a slightly more substantial body of knowledge on mid- to late-C20 writers; then I’m going to give myself permission to go back to exploring earlier work.
You’re quite right to focus on the late 20th century. When I went to work in a bookshop after graduating from college, I found it was the perfect perch from which to get to know post-war literature. Something about handling the books, reading a page or two, attending to the talk around me by writers. No blogs or twitter in those days. White Noise is the best DeLillo, I think. By the way, I read somewhere that Trollope himself thought The Last Chronicle was his best book, so you have a special treat in store there. When I read Trollope I find myself smiling on every page and sometimes laughing out loud. (I’ve been reading the Palliser novels–far behind you in that respect.) Not many writers can do that to a reader.
I’d like to read Libra, too, and Underworld, but White Noise was pretty great.
Trollope gets a lot of respect from me, both for being as funny as you say and for being surprisingly good at writing nuanced, convincing women. He does often use six words where one would do (usually prepositions and/or conjunctions), and it gets steadily more noticeable in the Palliser books (by the time I hit The Prime Minister, I was re-writing sentences in my head every other page), but he’s still worth it.
I’ve somehow never read Vonnegut. Is he usually on syllabi? And my only Greene is The Quiet American, but I know I’d like to read more from him.
So you and your fella haven’t merged your book collections? That must make things complicated!
He was definitely on syllabi in my area, and I think my brother read him in school (but a different school, which might account for it).
Well, we’ve sort of merged (there’s a miscegenated shelf in the hallway, and some overlap in the sitting room), but my books are mostly in the bedroom, and his are mostly salvaged from his grandparents’ house and take up the majority of the sitting room shelves. It’s a bit of a ‘mare, I should probably catalogue them all, but there’s just enough fluctuation in the collection to make that a headachey proposition…
I seriously need to cull my Goodreads TBR. It’s over 7000 titles now, which is beyond absurd.
Oh WOW. Down the TBR Hole for you, then! (I pre-culled a couple of months ago, so this is sort of cheating, but I think it’s good to reassess one’s priorities every so often…)
Thanks for joining! Awesome! I hope it’ll help you get through your tbr 🙂
Hope so! Thanks for inventing it 🙂
You’re welcome ☺
While reading your post I was starting to doubt my understanding of the word Culling. I think we own the Simon Schama book somewhere, but re: your reasons to keep it, well, Simon Schama… really?
Yeah, I would call the culling portion of this exercise a complete failure. And I totally did fancy Simon Schama when I was about fourteen; I have no excuses. (Or did you mean that his scholarship isn’t worth keeping? I’ve got a physical copy of Landscape and Memory, so it’s worth knowing if so.)
Do keep it by all means! There’s an added value to scholarship if you fancy/have fancied the writer imho.
N’est-ce pas. And also, if you used to fancy them and the reason you don’t is because you realised they were terrible (as opposed to you just growing out of it), it’s more fun to poke holes in the scholarship too.