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.