Monday, November 4, 2013

Too many books

Some days when I am feeling either particularly blue and/or particularly morbid, I do wonder about all these books.  I am not quite ready to convert over to Kindle or Nook or what have you.  Now I did see that Amazon is trying to convince people who bought books through them (though I believe only new books) to shell out just a bit more and get a e-book version.  The problem is that of all the books I have, probably fewer than 15% were bought new, and particularly new and from Amazon.  The reading copies I have are used, sometimes quite beat up reading copies, which means I have to read them in analog format...

But Kindle -- it simply sucks for art books.  Art books are probably my best "investment," in that I have probably looked through nearly all the images and skimmed 25% of the various essays, and I really do return to them again and again.  For a while when my son was really into Art, I would make a point of going through those books.  Perhaps I shall again (and with his sister), though at the moment he is really into fantasy books and some of the easier SF books.  I had probably 200-300 of these books that I finally purged and much of what I did keep is still a bit too mature for him.  It's actually hard to get classic SF appropriate for juveniles, whereas many of the books I did keep are still in print.  I don't know about Toronto, but the Vancouver library has very, very thin pickings for classic SF outside of Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke and Heinlein.  They have barely any Clifford Simak or Fritz Leiber and not even that much Harlan Ellison (not that this would be appropriate for him).  The Chicago Public Library definitely did better in keeping these lesser known figures in circulation.  For that matter, the tiny library I grew up with had a pretty good SF/fantasy section.

It's so hard to know what to keep and what to purge, but I am starting to cast at least an occasional eye on my collection and wonder if I should keep books that I am pretty sure I won't have time to get to a second or third time.  How much will my children want to inherit all this highbrow lit (since that is pretty much what I plan on retaining)?

I guess all I can say is that I have slowed down the book buying, and roughly 25% more books are leaving (being donated mostly) as are being added.  I suspect that in my 60s I will have a better sense of whether I will keep working, semi-retire or retire, and that will determine how many books I think I can still get through, and I will start a systematic purging then.  Unless of course my children have taken an interest.  I still remember how I thought (as a child) that I would help establish a library or fund a wing at least, and by the time I would be in a position to do that, hardly anyone reads print books anymore.  The libraries are fairly full, but more and more the patrons are seeking electronic books or, more frequently, free computer access.

This cartoon sums up my home situation so perfectly (except I collect the books):

Now interestingly, I have the best of Borges (in English) in two volumes, but I occasionally pestered friends/acquaintances to help me score this in Spanish (where it is a full 4 volumes).  I don't know why.  I don't read Spanish well enough to have really profited from having this in Spanish, but I do feel compelled to have the absolute greats in their original language.  Indeed, for quite a while, I owned a fairly complete set of Goethe in German, but I finally parted with that.  Anyway, I have managed to get a complete (or complete enough) electronic version of Borges in Spanish, so that is one thing I won't have on my shelves.  And indeed, I have digitized a lot of non-fiction books (at least key chapters and core concepts) to get them off my shelves.  These are books that would have been better off staying at the library, except that the way I worked (as an academic) meant I needed to have all these urban books at my finger tips as I wrote my papers late at night.  But those days are finally past me.

Another slightly different issue on the theme of too many books is that sometimes I read so much that things just get lost in the shuffle.  I am starting to go off on a tangent where I will probably read Witold Gombrowicz's Ferdydurke, but I am slightly haunted by the idea that I have read it before and simply don't remember.  Now that probably is not the case, but I do remember reading some Eastern European book that was all the rage in the UK about 5 years ago and I simply cannot track it down.  I think it was about a young man who was visiting cousins in a remote village (in Poland?) and then there was some stuff about a pig and that's about all I can recall.  I actually didn't care that much for it (it was supposed to be somewhat experimental and "deep"). I mostly want to find the name of the author, so that I don't read anything more by him (I think it was a male author).

I used to keep a list of all the books that I read, and I have sort of restarted this practice, but there is probably a 20 year gap.  So sometimes I just flail around and can't quite remember the book, particularly if two books on similar topics or themes were read together (this is actually a tendency I have -- to pair books).  If it works (and I like the books), then they reinforce each other.  If I am a bit down on one or the other, then they go into the memory hole and don't come back much.  While in general, I am glad that (most) libraries no longer have a list of books that patrons checked out (to make it impossible to track reading habits), it would often be nice to go back over those lists.  Well, I have been going over old journals and personal emails, and that may help me reconstruct another large group of books I have read in the past 10 or so years.  (My how time flies...)

What might be interesting would be to try to recall some of the books, trendy or not, that I have tackled since moving to the UK, then back to Chicago and then up to the move to Vancouver (most of the post-Vancouver books have been documented in some way).  This will definitely be a work in progress and am making no attempt to put in the actual order I read them in.  I am definitely not going to add in poetry, though at some point I may throw in the full-length plays that I read (quite a few actually as I was on the board of a small theatre company!).  I probably will mis-classify quite a few into the wrong location and of course forget some novels that were particularly forgettable...


J. J. Armas Marcelo - Ships Afire 
Marie Darrieussecq - Pig Tales: A Novel of Lust and Transformation
Marina Lewycka - A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
Irene Nemirovsky: Suite Francaise
Alexei Sayle - The Weeping Women Hotel
Jose Saramago - All the Names
Jose Saramago - Blindness 
Cormac McCarthy - The Road
Anthony Powell - A Dance to the Music of Time (yes, all 12 volumes)
Chimamanda Adichie - Half of a Yellow Sun
Haruki Murakami - Hard-Boiled Wonderland And The End Of The World (actually read on a trip to Japan)
Robert Newman - The Fountain at the Centre of the World
Orwell - Down and Out in Paris and London
Albert Camus - The Myth of Sisyphus
Hilary Mantel - Beyond Black
Tom Holt - The Portable Door
Tom Holt - In Your Dreams
Tom Holt - Earth, Air, Fire, and Custard
Ali Smith - Hotel World
Mark Haddon - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
Ian McEwan - Saturday
(I discovered Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next books towards the end of my sojourn in England.  I also read a bit of British SF and a fair number of Terry Pratchett's books as they were published)
Jasper Fforde - The Eyre Affair
Jasper Fforde - Lost In a Good Book
Jasper Fforde - Well Of Lost Plots
Jasper Fforde - Something Rotten
Jasper Fforde - The Big Over Easy
Howard Jacobson - Kalooki Nights
Andrey Kurkov - Death And The Penguin (apparently the sequel has just been translated, so I might look into this)


Kevin Brockmeier - The Brief History of the Dead
Ayi Kwei Armah - The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born
Dorothy Baker - Cassandra at the Wedding
Stephen Crane - Maggie: A Girl of the Streets
Zadie Smith - White Teeth
Stefan Zweig - Chess Story (and some novellas)
Walter Kirn - Up in the Air
Joshua Ferris - Then We Came to the End: A Novel
Jess Walter - The Financial Lives of the Poets
Arthur Nersesian  - Chinese Takeout
Salman Rushdie - Haroun and the Sea of Stories
Ben Elton - Popcorn (I suspect this was actually read in Chicago, pre-Cambridge)
Maxx Barry - Syrup (ditto)
Steven Sherrill - The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break (ditto)
(Some of these are books bought in the UK but read in Chicago)
Sarah Waters - The Night Watch
Stella Gibbons - Cold Comfort Farm
David Mitchell - Cloud Atlas
Malcolm Bradbury - Rates of Exchange and Why Come to Slaka?
Gary Shteyngart - Absurdistan
Anya Ulinich - Petropolis
Carol Anshaw - Aquamarine
John Rechy - City of Night
Brad Kessler - Birds in Fall
Tess Slesinger - The Unpossessed
(Hard to believe I completely forgot my foray into South African literature)
Alan Paton - Cry, the Beloved Country
Alan Paton - Too Late The Phalarope (nowhere near as good as his first novel)
Marlene Van Niekerk - Triomf
Can Themba - Requiem for Sophiatown
Zakes Mda - Ways of Dying
Bloke Modisane - Blame Me on History
Athol Fugard - Tsotsi
Nadine Gordimer - Something out There
Es'kia Mphahlele - In Corner B
Phaswane Mpe - Welcome to Our Hillbrow
Kgebetli Moele - Room 207 (also set in Hillbrow*)
Amos Tutuola - The Palm-Wine Drinkard
Amos Tutuola -  My Life in the Bush of Ghosts 
Claire Messud - The Emperor's Children
Patrick McGrath - Ghost Town: Tales Of Manhattan Then And Now
Steven Millhauser - Dangerous Laughter
Ferenc Karinthy - Metropole
Oliver Rolin - Hotel Crystal
(also went on a SF kick for a while. A few of the more memorable ones)
Richard Morgan - Altered Carbon
Alastair Reynolds - Revelation Space
Alastair Reynolds - Redemption Ark
Alastair Reynolds - Chasm City
Alastair Reynolds - Absolution Gap
Alastair Reynolds - Century Rain
Demetrio Aguilera-Malta - Seven Serpents and Seven Moons
David Bowman - Let the Dog Drive
Glen David Gold - Carter Beats the Devil
Matthew Kneale - English Passengers
Michael Frayn - Headlong
(there was a long stretch of Indian and Pakistani literature)
Kiran Desai - The Inheritance of Loss
Aravind Adiga - The White Tiger
Aravind Adiga - Between the Assassinations
Amitav Ghosh - The Shadow Lines
Amitav Ghosh - The Hungry Tide
Mohsin Hamid - Moth Smoke
Uzma Aslam Khan - Trespassing**
Uzma Aslam Khan - The Geometry of God
Kamila Shamsie - Burnt Shadows
Kamila Shamsie - Kartography
Kamila Shamsie - Broken Verses
Jhumpa Lahiri - The Namesake
Sonia Singh - Goddess for Hire (Indian chick lit)
Maxx Barry - Jennifer Government
J. G. Ballard - The Drowned World
Lorrie Moore - Self Help
Mary Helen Stefaniak - Self Storage and Other Stories
Italo Svevo - Confessions of Zeno (apparently quite different in a new translation) 
Goffredo Parise Abecedary
Goffredo Parise Solitudes 
(Brazilian dectective novels for a real change)
Luiz Alfredo Garcia Roza - The Silence of the Rain
Luiz Alfredo Garcia Roza - December Heat
Luiz Alfredo Garcia Roza - Southwesterly Wind
Roberto Bolano - The Savage Detectives (I did not care for this)
Junot Diaz - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Antal Szerb - Journey by Moonlight
Michael Chabon - The Yiddish Policemen's Union
(Then I went on a bit of a Russian kick)
Yevgeny Zamyatin - We
Vladimir Voinovich - The Ivankiad
Vladimir Voinovich - The Fur Hat
Vladimir Voinovich - Moscow 2042
Venedikt Erofeev - Moscow to the End of the Line
Bulgakov - Black Snow
Jess Walter - The Zero
Albert Camus - The Stranger
William Gibson - Spook Country (well, I think this is the one I read)
Julia Glass - Three Junes
Jonathan Coe - The House of Sleep
John Banville - The Sea
Haruki Murakami - After Dark
(Towards the end, I was reading quite a few books by Narayan and Nabokov, but these are tracked elsewhere, so I won't list them here.)
Ismael Reed - Flight to Canada

This has brought up a lot of interesting books, some of which I no longer own or only checked out in the first place, and I may make one more list of the key books I read before the move to the U.K. so that these don't vanish into the mists.  But not today.

Anyway, I am going to throw out some that are just plot summaries (sorry but there will be some spoilers). I hope to track them down. If you have any ideas, feel free to post in the comments.

That contemporary Polish? novel

There is one about a man with a long-life, spent mostly hanging out in the modern art scene. It is vaguely in the style of Kalooki Nights, but a bit more restrained.

One about a man who helps run a bookstore and his impossible next door neighbor. It turns out he is recruited to pass as "the boyfriend" on the neighbor's last trip to his family.  After the neighbor passes on, he finds that he (the neighbor) had a crush on the bookstore worker and wonders if he should have acted on this. Julia Glass - Three Junes

A novel about a woman who lives in a polluted part of Russian/Ukraine, who gives up her baby and eventually becomes a mail-order bride for a slobby American.  Eventually she recovers her passport and escapes to a family in Chicago? Anya Ulinich - Petropolis

A book about a man whose father was a fairly famous Russian engineer but who died (was crushed?) and was sent to either cold relatives or an orphanage.  Somehow he makes it to the U.S. (Jewish relations?)  He is not a particularly suitable husband but there is some reconciliation with his wife or girlfriend.  (Actually, now I am wondering if this is the father's story from Petropolis, but I don't think so.  Still I might be compelled to go double-check at some point.)

Now there is one novel (that I didn't even like) but is nagging at me.  This was an "audacious debut" or something like that, where there was this odd institute that the narrator was hired to join.  At least a few (maybe the majority) of residents didn't speak.  I vaguely remember there was some bomb that was going to be triggered.  While most of the reviews called the author a modern-day X (Kafka? Flann O'Brien?), I thought it kind of shamelessly ripped off Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday.  This one may actually nag at me the most, so I assume I will come back to it until I eventually fill in some of the blanks.

Ok, one more just popped up.  This is a post-9/11 novel with flashes of Fight Club in it.  The main character gets involved in a CIA-like group and starts going too far when interrogating suspects, but then can't remember any of it.  I should be able to find this one. Jess Walter - The Zero

And there is a book that is almost certainly inspired by Bradbury's Rates of Exchange where this linguist ends up in a country where he can't speak the language nor can he escape its chief city.  I probably can track this down as well. Ferenc Karinthy - Metropole

* Hillbrow is this quite interesting neighbourhood just off Johannesburg's CBD.  It had a lot of high-rise apartment towers that were luxurious for a brief moment in time, then the neighbourhood was taken over by students from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).  Hillbrow also was on the forefront of racial transition, becoming a "grey zone" where racial mixing occurred but a bit of a blind eye was turned (perhaps due to the needs of property owners to keep these residential towers filled).  Later, Hillbrow became a dangerous slum and sore spot for the post-Apartheid governments (this is the period described in Room 207).  Ivan Vladislavic's The Restless Supermarket has a slightly more upbeat take on things (or perhaps covers a slightly earlier period).  This is a book that I've been meaning to read for a long time and should get to in 2014/2015.  When I get around to that, I may also try to read Lauren Beukes' recent SF novel Zoo City, which is set in Hillbrow in the near future.

Anyway, enough withdrawals from the memory bank for the first pass through.  What I am finding is that thinking this hard about books that I have read in the relatively recent past, just makes me want to start reading those books I haven't yet read...

** I read this fairly recently, and actually I don't think I read it before, i.e. in Chicago.

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