Down the TBR Hole, #1

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.)

51i2hbyuo5lBook #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 Norbrook51ni8eb9pql-_sx325_bo1204203200_

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.

51s6nofzgwl-_sy346_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 Greene41znbbtwill-_sx323_bo1204203200_

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!

51v7morcjel-_sx307_bo1204203200_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 Trollope9780141199863-uk

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.)

51ajq2m9stl-_sx321_bo1204203200_

The FACE on him. #sideeye

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

220px-a_history_of_the_world_in_100_objects_book_cover

Shiny covers are a bastard to photograph, I guess

 

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.

51ejioetspl-_sy344_bo1204203200_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 Vonnegut4120yizu-2l

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.

Of Mount TBR

Lovely Naomi of The Writes of Woman tagged me in this, and I’m a big fan of general book talk, so here we go: a set of questions about how I store and manage the books I haven’t yet read, or, in book bloggers’ parlance, the To Be Read (TBR) stacks!

I don’t have one of these, but give me time, give me time…

How do you keep track of your TBR pile?

I don’t own that many books I haven’t read, mostly due to space constraints. I used to keep all of my unread books on the floor–they earned a spot on the shelf as they were read–but living with The Chaos, who is, perversely, tidier than I am, has scotched that. I have a to-do app on my phone (it’s called Clear, if you’re interested) where I keep two TBR lists, one of books that have been requested from publishers and one of books that I’ve bought myself. I also have a “to-be-read” shelf on Goodreads, but that’s to keep track of the books I want to buy/acquire/borrow in future, and I think of it more as a “to-investigate” list than an actual duty.

Is your TBR mostly print or e-book?

100% print. I don’t read on screens, partly because my eeeyyyeeesss, and partly because it’s just not something I grew up doing and it doesn’t really occur to me as an option. Also because I have a curiously materialistic streak and I love book covers. If you’re reading on a phone or tablet, you can’t see the cover design, can’t feel the book in your hands, and you miss out on that little satisfaction.

How do you determine which books from your TBR to read next?

If its publication date is within the next week or so (or has already passed), it goes straight to the top of the list. If I’m picking off my own list, I have all sorts of little strategies: the random number generator, asking a friend to choose, doing themed reading, spreading out a selection on my bed and reading a bit of each… It’s all rather onanistic.
A book that has been on my TBR the longest?

I’ve had David Copperfield since August 2013. It’ll be this year’s airplane/Christmas book.

A book you recently added to your TBR?

I haven’t actually bought myself a book for ages. I’m borrowing The Chaos’s copy of Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels at the moment, to kick off my Women’s Prize reading project.

A book on your TBR strictly because of its beautiful cover?

Actually, most of the books on my TBR right now are gifts, so I can’t say whether they were chosen specifically for the cover or not! Recent books that I’ve been drawn to because of cover design include Landfalls by Naomi J. Williams, Katherine Carlyle by Rupert Thomson (review coming soon!), and The Shore by Sara Taylor.

A book on your TBR that you never plan on reading?

I don’t plan to never read anything! (Except for Atlas Shrugged. Ain’t no one got time for that, either literally or ideologically.) I’ve been putting off some books because they’re thick and probably a bit melancholy, though, including Of Human Bondage and Guantanamo Diary. Sigh.

An unpublished book on your TBR that you’re excited for?

Eimear McBride’s second novel, The Lesser BohemiansA Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing was amazing, although I kind of want her to do something completely different this time around. Whatever she does will be worth checking out.

A book on your TBR that everyone recommends to you?

Nights At the Circus. I’ve tried, I really have. Every time, it just feels a bit camp and excessive and I just think you kind of need to be in the mood for vaudeville, y’know? I got about a third of the way through last time. In most Angela Carter novels I get this sense of creeping, impending disaster, which will then be treated as though it’s not a disaster at all, and in this one it’s really throwing me.

A book on your TBR that everyone has read but you?

See above. What am I doing wrong?!

A book on your TBR that you’re dying to read?

Go Set A Watchman. I was going to read it over the summer, and for some reason it always kept getting delayed. Now I’m going to have to read it before Christmas, which is so annoying–Maycomb, Alabama is a summer place, not a winter one! Maybe it’ll provide some relief from the grey of London?

How many books are on your TBR shelf?

I’m actually embarrassed by how few there are, at least in real life, which is unheard of for a book blogger: only seven! (On my Goodreads “to-read” shelf, however, there are 152.) And I’d like to say, in my own defense, that all this means is a) I’m good at pacing my acquisitions, and b) I don’t have very much space!

Most of my shelves

People I’m tagging:

Rebecca at Bookish Beck

Alice at OfBooks

Naomi at Consumed By Ink

Stefanie at So Many Books

Teresa and Jenny at Shelf Love

Esther at Esther Writes

A Weekend Miscellany: the Pulitzers, bell hooks, and What To Read Next

Thing One: the winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was announced last week. This year, it goes to Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. This frustrates me for several reasons, one of which is that I haven’t yet read it, and I now have to decide whether it’s worth reading yet another WWII novel simply because it won the Pulitzer. I’ve heard very mixed reactions, from people telling me it’s poetic and beautiful to the Guardian reviewer asserting that its poeticism is overblown but made up for by a gripping plot. (I’m inclined to believe the Guardian reviewer). I like reading the prize winners because it provides a certain level of order and some common cultural ground to my reading list, but at the same time, I’m not sure I have that much interest in a 700-pager about occupied France. Has anyone out there read it? Is it worth a go?

Thing Two: I read bell hooks’s book of cultural criticism All About Love last week. I’m not going to write about it. I vacillated for a bit on this, but I think I have a few solid reasons, one of which is that it’s a book that requires time to percolate. The first few chapters of my copy now have heavy pencil underlining, and the idea of a “love ethic” in daily life is something that I want to sit down with and unpack on my own time. For precisely that reason, it’s not very review-able. It’s a book that will continue to resonate with me personally, privately, for a long time, and I don’t want to write down my thoughts too hastily and then send them out into the ether. Some books need to be experienced in privacy, and ongoingly. (I know it’s not a word, but now it is.)

Thing Three: What do I read next? I finished Blake Morrison’s amazingly good collection of poetry Shingle Street yesterday, and went to the random number generator to choose my next. The first time, the computer suggested #2 on my list: Of Human Bondage. I’ve just finished a Somerset Maugham (The Moon and Sixpence, for the Classics Club, review coming soon), and I’m going through some life changes at the moment which mean that I don’t want to be dealing with a particularly large book. I tried again. Infuriatingly, the computer next suggested #4: Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which is about 900 pages long. Eventually, I decided that I had denied myself the pleasure of Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven for long enough, and started on it. (It’s very good. I’m going to review it here, properly, because none of the reviews I’ve seen have given even the slightest indication of what the experience of reading the book is like; most have been content to state the premise.)

But that made me think: maybe the Internet has some ideas. So, below is my current TBR list (these are all the books in my room that I haven’t yet read). It’s shorter than most peoples’, because I’m a young professional and my room isn’t very big, and also because there are more TBR books in my grandparents’ garage, which I’m not even going to get into right now. If you have any suggestions for where I should go after finishing Station Eleven, leave them in the comments!

  1. The Golden Pot, German fairy stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann.
  2. Of Human Bondage, by W. Somerset Maugham
  3. The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth
  4. A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth
  5. Alms for Oblivion: Vol. 1, by Simon Raven
  6. Grits, by Niall Griffiths
  7. David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens
  8. Guantanamo Diary, by Mohamed Ould Slahi
  9. The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture
  10. Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn
  11. Nights At the Circus, by Angela Carter
  12. The Holy or the Broken, by Alan Light
  13. The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber (it has literally taken me this long to realize that his name is not Michael, but Michel. Seriously! Look closely at the book cover, then ask Wikipedia.)
  14. The Electric Michelangelo, by Sarah Hall
  15. Tiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed (also known as Dear Sugar)
  16. Just Kids, by Patti Smith
  17. Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward