Thursday, September 22, 2016

Bonfire of the Vanities - books

Avus's recent post about discarding books, and his daughter hhb's helping with some of the difficulties of this by re-homing them on beautiful new bookshelves, and how e-book reading has come to fill a different role in his reading life, and encouraged him to explore different writers, struck some chords. We've got rid of a great number of books this summer; it hasn't always been easy, but it has been thought-provoking and generally fairly liberating. Detachment again.

I've come to the conclusion there's rather a lot of precious nonsense talked about Books. I've probably talked quite a bit of it myself at one time or another, and may well be about to again.

Dale said lately one of the things he's had to let go of is his own idea of himself as a well-read person. I too used to consider myself so, and enjoyed the epithet as a compliment sometimes, but lately I've come to mistrust it. I'm aware also that, what with blogging at one time, and browsing around on the internet generally, or knitting, or walking the dog, or watching fairly lightweight telly for the sake of companionship with Tom (and more knitting time) or whatever other interest I might currently be following, and also with my own loss, with age, of patience and staying power for reading matter, I'm no longer a great reader. I have a reasonable catalogue of stuff read and remembered, and I'm glad of it, but it's not such an essential part of who I am now.

I've also come to see that owning and having read a large number of books does not, in itself, make you a serious and cultured person anyway, any more than travel necessarily broadens the mind. I have one older acquaintance, who hauls her battered old library around with her from one move to the next, sometimes adding haphazardly to it, priding herself on never throwing one out and cramming them into smaller and smaller accommodation so her living space is so cluttered you want to scream (she has a hoarding problem anyway). She is, frankly, shallow, casually prejudiced and not very clever (with friends like me...), in spite of how well-read she appears to be, and in spite of the pretentious way in which she says 'Oh but I couldn't be without my books!' or expresses disdain for e-readers because 'There is simply nothing like turning the pages of a real book!' On the other hand, our young sculptor friend, for example, who has too much energy and need to be doing to bother much with reading, is no less deep-minded and cultured for all that, far from it.

E-readers can be cover for those who don't want to give away the less than edifying nature of their reading tastes (50 shades etc) but they are also a good antidote to books as vanity. It's gratifying to be seen to have a lot of books, showing off your taste in reading, books do furnish a room, look at me, I'm a reading person! etc etc. But who knows what you've got on your Kindle, could be Proust, could be Mills and Boon, a slim grey electronic device can't brag or pose - despite the ridiculously overambitious stuff most of us collect on them, because hey, it's out of copyright and free! (Or nearly) Edmund Burke anyone? The Complete Henry James for just two quid? Michelet, in French? What's your bit of pretentious Kindle vanity? But at least your only mostly pretending to yourself.

There are many things, though, I'm really pleased to have on Kindle, and which, like Avus, it's encouraged me to read when I might not otherwise have done, since I don't have to find shelf room for them; the Patrick O'Brian canon, which I'm working my way through in fits and starts - I know it's time to get the next one when I find myself struggling with something else and thinking 'why am I reading this when I could be reading about Aubrey and Maturin? - are so much nicer to have stored electronically, always to hand, than taking up a whole great shelf of physical space in a bookcase. I weakened with one, baulking at paying the e-book price when I could get a second hand copy for a penny plus postage - and now I regret it, the lone scruffy paperback - even with the beautiful Geoff Hunt cover painting - floating about when it should be in the set with the others on the device.

It is true that some types of book don't really work on the e-reader: poetry isn't great (line lengths etc), though I do read some there, or a lot of non-fiction or reference, anything with pictures, obviously, anything in fact you need to dip into, move back and forth in, get your fingers in amongst the pages of, browse randomly. Indeed, it's best for more traditional fiction with a fairly linear narrative, I find, even some modern novels with unconventional structures which you need to shuffle about in can be better in good old codex form, though the search function on the e-reader can be handy too, and the built in dictionaries are great, even help me to read a bit of French there.

Yet to make too much on the whole cult of the 'real' book as object is only a short step from the vulgarity (far be it from me to be judgemental...) of Reader's Digest, and their upmarket doppelganger the Folio Society*, 'luxury' 'collectable' 'sumptuously bound and presented' editions, all tooled and hefty, supposedly there to look good and decorate one's shelves, to satisfy, again, some kind of vanity,. It should be the text itself that counts, not the vehicle for it.

Mistake me not, I do recognise the beauty of a truly well-made book, and many old books are lovely objects, I'm as much of an admirer as the next person of sturdy cloth bindings, good creamy paper that doesn't yellow, nice old fonts and printer's flowers and all that. Even a good quality paperback can be a very pleasant thing, but books aren't treasures any more, they are cheap, disposable and don't last. Nothing wrong with that, but dragging them round as a badge of our superiority, or like a trail of scruffy, lame old wrinkled retainers who've seen better days but there's some perceived sense of mutual obligation between them and us is, I think, a mistake. I looked at my old paperback novels I've kept from as far back as the seventies and eighties, and saw that they are simply no longer of any real practical use; the spines threaten to crack and lose pages, the paper is yellowed and brittle, the print looks cramped and uninviting. In the generally unlikely event of my wanting to revisit and reread them, I'd be far better off getting them as e-books, which mostly should be possible.

For that's another thing. Books that were deeply, life-changingly important to me in my twenties, say, simply no longer are. Sorry, but Doris Lessing seems more and more to me a profoundly humourless, self-important writer, whose take on feminism was downbeat and discouraging to say the least, her attitudes to sex depressingly heteronormative (I got that from our grand-daughter, good eh?) to the point of Lawrentian, and to mental illness surely often unhelpful, and whose later vision of the destiny and purpose of humankind was almost laughably wrong and a little too close for comfort to Erich von Daniken. To the dechetterie with her!

Even the shelf of chunky out-of-copyright Wordsworth Classics, which Tom got me the Christmas before we came to France, and which I worked through in the first hard, hard early days here - Vanity Fair, Great Expectations, Villette, The Riddle of the Sands, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, etc fond though I am of the memory, can go. They are easier to read as e-books, available for free, and the memories are not dependent on their physical presence, which goes, of course, for so much of the stuff to which we shackle ourselves for sentimental reasons.

That said, there are many books I've not been able to part with. I was barely able to get rid of any of the poetry, even the ones I don't much care for I find I have a mawkish attachment to, almost a sense of responsibility - who will take them in, no one will want them, where will they shelter oh where will they sleep? It doesn't help that there's nowhere really to send second hand books with any certainty they could be found and appreciated by anyone; Emmaus does have an English language section, and a lot went there, but they're overwhelmed with books anyway, I gather. The dechetterie has started a book drop, from which they are distributed to schools and libraries, and they said they accepted English language too. But this concern for their afterlife, as Tom pointed out, is a distraction, we need to simply leave them at on the doorstep and forget them. Still, there are those whose connections with people,times and places are simply too important to let them go; detachment's one thing, ripping your heart out is not required.

A Paris food blogger I follow, living in very restricted space so frequent decluttering is essential, photographs her books for the memory or the record when she turns them out. We considered this but didn't do it, it threatened to hamper the action, and we didn't really see the point. One of my knitting buddies told of how her son-in-law has used old books as insulation in his roof, visible, I think, but not really accessible. Tom says that's one way to have very erudite mice.

* here I must plead guilty to having fallen for the Folio Society con once,a long time ago, long before the internet, when we were actually quite starved of reading matter in English, a state which seems incredible now. They were offering some good reference books as bait, a Brewer's Phrase and Fable I still have and like to keep in book form, and some other things. But the overpriced and overweight 'Stones of Venice'  in its stupid box has gone and good riddance.


Les said...

A woman after my own heart. I love my Kindle e-reader and have read more books since using them (I'm on my second, I think, in 5 or 6 years). Besides having whatever I'm reading handy on the device, along with maybe another lined up (or a couple of samples), it's easier on my old eyes to see - well-lit always, adjustable to the room or outside, and you can always boost the font size!

I do have a lot of books I Sherpa'd from place to place for many years, though I have thinned out the bookshelves a few times to donate some. Now that I've been in one place for 8 years, I have rarely added anything new and can't remember having pulled anything off the shelf to thumb through in ages. Maybe my 501 Spanish verbs at some point. I do also have a nice collection of cookbooks as I love a good cookbook with photos of the prepared dishes. (Do I cook from these though? Probably more rarely than I search online for something that matches what I have ingredients for or have in mind. Still, love gazing at those scrumptious dishes!)

the polish chick said...

with each move the number of books on our shelves diminishes. i've left behind many of the shoulds - nothing like a disapproving serious author staring at you from the shelf as you dig into some delicious but far less serious fluff.

i worked the canadiana section in a second hand bookstore several years back. and when it came time to cull, i had no problem with politics, science, religion etc., but fiction? oh, i could not! and for the very reason you described - what would the afterlife be of the collected works of the brilliant but no longer fashionable robetson davies? and from the second hand book store, there weren't many places these books could go, and so i culled the books that let me cold, and hung on to the ones that warmed my heart, and hoped against hope that someone would take them home.

as for my e-reader, i like it, though i do tend to forget it exists, but i have little faith in the permanence of our civilisation and if it all crashes down, what will i read? then again, if i'm out hunting rats for dinner, perhaps dickens won't seem quite as important, but who knows? (ah, there i go with my post apocalyptic thinking again. sorry!)

Avus said...

Lucy - your thoughts are mine to a "T" (whatever a "T" is). You have said all I would want to.
Polish Chick's comment, last paragraph, brings to mind Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451

Rouchswalwe said...

Ahh, Robbie was the one years ago who wrote about his e-reader in connection with summer vacation. That got me thinking, and then after discovering that I was able to check books out from the library with the device, I was in. This last move, I culled most of my book collection, except for the volumes in Old German Schrift, art books, Japanese pottery guides, poem collections, Egyptology books, and dictionaries and atlases. Oh, and my small but beloved graphic novel collection. I recently bought Irmina, by Barbara Yelin, in hardback. It's quite a tale and long, so the book includes a ribbon bookmark. Well, Fiddlesticks, I suppose I do still have quite a few books, but mostly they're in the bedroom, where I do quite a bit of reading and so they aren't on display. My e-reader fits into my handbag and goes with me for lunch-time and pub reading. This has led to some funny moments as often, a person sitting next to me will ask, "Whatcha readin'?" I try not to roll my eyes or sigh too heavily.

So yes, your thoughts resonate with me, too. This e-reader has made it easy for me to be able to read books by writers from across the world, and I'm so grateful for the backlight and the font manipulation (I can read in bed without my glasses, hooray!).

Catalyst said...

Judy bought me a Kindle Fire quite a few years ago and I'm ashamed at how little I've used it. I have downloaded several books to it that I've never read. I guess I still like the old-fashioned books in hand. Judy has been on a purge lately, reading and discarding and got me to do the same. But we still have shelves and shelves of books that I still want to read. Someday. And I can hardly bear to toss a cookbook away. We must have dozens of them and I never use them except to graze through. That's a problem with having a great cook for a wife. Still with all of that, we had to go out last evening and as we rounded a corner we saw a house with a lighted window and Judy said "Oh, look, bookshelves!" They were floor to ceiling stuffed with books and as I commented probably all science books. The man is an elderly rocket scientist (really) and his wife is a mathematician.

Roderick Robinson said...

Aha. What a surprise! All long comments. And here's mine, even longer. But in effect we're all talking about the air we breathe.

I wasn't making much headway with Joe, re. books as things beyond rubies. Joe (whose house had bookshelves in every room and especially the kitchen) had had three-dimensional love affairs with every book he'd acquired, rhapsodising about their feel, their smell, their agedness, etc. I didn't begrudge him this since I felt this way about a handful of my own books, but always triggered by what was inside.

In affectionate reaction I wrote this passage for Out Of Arizona. As you know Joe was a terrific and conscientious editor of my fiction and he couldn't say that this opinion didn't fit the character of Chris Day, Jana's transformative "lover". He had no suggestion on how it needed changing and I was forced to ask if he'd noticed it. He said he had, And Hmmm.

Might I have gone too far?

HER APARTMENT had remained half-furnished. Books provided the main signs of occupation, some she’d bought but mostly those he had taken from his shelves and forced into her hands. Gifts that brought their own burdens. Raggedy paperbacks that were too intimate, so much a part of his character; she feared she might not do them justice.

He had an answer. “Don’t read them cover to cover, dip in, taste them, chuck ‘em into a corner if they don’t suit. Don’t treasure them as things. Books are what they leave behind, they’re not interior decoration. Hardbacks made me uncomfortable even when I had money. Too big, too stiff, too unnecessary. You can stuff a paperback into your pocket. If it falls out buy another. Better still don’t replace it; rely on what you can remember.”

They had been standing in his apartment at the time, looking for a specific title. She said, “You’re such a liar – yet sweet with it. All these shelves prove you accumulate.”

“In effect the shelves are a card index. Reminders that a book exists. If I had the energy I’d glue the spines to the walls and save bags of space.”

Otherwise I'll limit myself to "well read". For a time, because I'd read a lot of books, plus The Man Without Qualities, I reckoned I was well read. No more. Being well read surely presumes the reader has followed a plan touching only on titles which define the culture he or she belongs to. This could conceivably be held to five-hundred titles in a lifetime, although those who claim they are well read (which may be a literary crime in itself) tend to suggest they're still "at it."

Mind you I had my pretensions, imagining I'd still be on target if I managed to complete The Brothers Karamzov, which had previously fallen from my failing fingers at page 150 on the third time of asking. On this occasion, the fourth and last, I got all the way to page 350 but knew I couldn't recall a single fact or utterance from the previous hundred pages. I now envisage a visiting card carrying the rubric Indiscriminately Read.

Zhoen said...

Must be something missing in me, maybe to do with working in libraries for so long. And my father's active hostility toward book reading. Had to hide when I read, never owned more than picture books. Read constantly, but anything was fair game, from cereal boxes to magazines to novels. Was, am, a big coward when it comes to Literature.

It is nice to have books on hand, but this is a fairly recent addition to my reading life.

Lucy said...

Thanks all.

Leslee - I still havemy old grey lightless Kindle, I'll get a paperwhite some time. Yes, we keep cookbooks, though we've ditched a lot too, and gardening books and I have a modest pile of knitting books, but it's occurred to me too that for practical purposes I'm more likely to go to the internet for recipes too.

PC - I have kept some stuff I think I might yet get around to reading, but I think anything that makes your heart sink with guilt or obligation has to go. I think come the post-apocalypse we'll most likely be burning books to keep warm!

Avus - good, thanks for the prompt!

R - Oh I'm not saying you or anyone only has books for showing off. I have in fact got rid of some glossy photo books because in fact they really aren't as rich and glossy as they might once have seemed, colour printing has improved hugely of recent times and a lot just look rather faded and dull now. And photography generally is so readily available and high quality that it's not the treasure it once was.

Cat - cookbooks again, same as Leslee, above. I think that's probably a permissible pleasure! I'm not sure the Kindle fire is as good for actual reading, it's more like a tablet isn't it, which you can use as an e-reader, but being back lit like any computer screen it will still give you eye strain.

Robbie - that is a lovely passage, pleased to know it was in reaction to Joe. In fact though, he was one of the people I think who encouraged me to go for the Kindle, about which he was enthusiastic. I seem to remember he very much enjoyed being able to get the volumes he wanted instantly. In fact since I began hanging out with the company I do on the internet, and maybe with living in France too, it's become pretty clear I'm not especially well-read. But as you imply, perhaps it's an irrelevant term anyway, well-read by whose standards? And if it's merely a question of acquisition, and if you can't actually remember much or benefit from what you've read anyway what's the point? I sometimes, in some company, feel that I'm able to quote and allude but in spite, or because of, this, I'm fairly socially ill-equipped.

Z - libraries, I'd forgotten about them. In fact for much of my life that was where books mostly came from, or lends, or second hand sometimes, but in fact the acquisition of numbers of books is really of the the last 20 years or less, since we've been here. I don't see a lot of point in worrying about Literature, or whether one is well-read or whatever, the universe of written matter has become so huge that while discrimination is still to be valued, one really can't be familiar with every area of value, and some things are less valuable than they're made out to be anyway.

Sabine said...

I grew up in a house where bookshelves covered the sitting room walls from top to bottom. My mother used to hide her trashy detective novels with their tell tale covers behind the rows and rows of "proper" books. I inherited the almost complete works of Goethe and Schiller - they all went into the dump last year, together with a mold covered 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, a proud possession of my father in law (who left school during WWII to work at the Belfast docks).

Yet, we still have shelves and shelves of books. I love them. When I cannot sleep at night I walk along them and pick one and read until I grow tired, sometimes not at all.

I was a bookseller in Dublin for a couple of years and I actually display our books (I know, shiver) and sift through them from time to time, getting rid of the obvious dead articles by passing them on to one of the open libraries in my city.

As for e-readers, I am contemplating it. Earlier this month I spent a few days in hospital and brought a heavy book which I could not read because holding it up with an infusion catheter in my arm did not work. I was furious!

I buy books second hand, always have. That or the library. I don't mind how they look.
Years ago, I followed a blog by a Canadian woman: She noted the book a person next to her on public transport or in a cafe etc. read, incl. the approximate place/page, went to a bookshop and blog the excerpt together with a short (kind) description of time, place and person. It was a lovely blog until it got a bit repetitious.

As for Doris Lessing, I am ready to defend her, fiercely so. But maybe another time.
But if you tell me that Hemingway is somewhat dated, I am all with you.

Lucy said...

Sabine - hi, thanks. On both books in general and Doris Lessing in particular, I am playing devil's advocate with myself as much as anyone else. I was a bookseller once too, and loved it (apart from the atrocious pay) and I'm not saying we should keep our books hidden away, not at all, or that having them on display is necessarily unacceptable showing off! I always feel a bit odd about houses which have no visible books in them, and enjoy nosing on other people's bookshelves, and I suppose I still inevitably make judgements about them by what I see.

Not being able to physically browse one's collection is a disadvantage of e-readers to be sure, though the touch screen ones are a bit more visual like that. Lately going back to the house, at odd moments I've taken to picking a book at random out of the shelf in the way you describe and reading a short passage; I realise I've been carrying a lot of them around without looking at and appreciating them. I think I also need to shed the idea I need to commit to a book from start to finish too.

I felt a bit bad about the Doris Lessing rant; you prompted me even to consider re-acquiring them on the Kindle, but I don't think I will, there are too many other things I want to read before I die. I wonder if to some extent I'm reacting to her a little as she did over her communist faith: rejecting violently something which at one time seemed of all-consuming meaning (only of course Doris didn't invade Hungary...).

I didn't any longer have a copy of The Golden Notebook; the one I first borrowed from a university friend became so tattered and scruffy from endless carting about and re-reading, dipping in and out, reading each notebook separately, reading it backwards etc, that I ended up buying her a new one, but then my sister-in-law borrowed the tatty one and I never saw it again. The Martha Quest series I gave back too, but she gave me the Canopus in Argos set, saying she could never quite 'get' them, and those I still had. Reading over Amazon reviews of them, there was a quote along the lines of 'nothing dates like prophesy, especially if it's about the future'. That stark and apocalyptic vision which resonated with me deeply as a younger person seems inappropriate now. Yet it took a long time to shake off the vision that this world is here as a kind of test-bed, a partially failed experiment, being invisibly fought over by different empires, or that there are presences among us who are here to lead us onward, if they can escape the corruption of simply being here, or that there are zones beyond but surrounding this world where the patterns are being worked out in other ways. Nothing necessarily new in those ideas perhaps, but in the form she gave them they made a strong impression, and perhaps led to a later interest in Gnosticism (and maybe more banally, the TV series Babylon 5!). I tried Idries Shah later, but without success, though I can see the myth of the ship fits in (that's about as far as I got, maybe I ought to try again, if I haven't ditched him too, or there's always the internet).

Apparently Shikasta and the series gave rise to a cult in the US who saw it as real end-time prophesy; they asked Doris to tell them when the Canopeans were next going to visit. She said they weren't, it was just a story, to which they replied 'you're just saying that to test our faith!'

She also remarked in her autobiography, which I read a couple of years ago and found interesting in its showing of her, her life and relationships, in rather more nuanced, pragmatic and possibly banal terms, as most bios do, that in all the unwanted (by her) reaction to The Golden Notebook as feminist polemic, no one seemed to comment that it had a rather interesting shape. I was quite pleased with myself to realise that was one of the things I enjoyed about it.

Just found a good NYT review of the fourth C in Argos volume here:

Sabine said...

Thanks Lucy, interesting link!

The Golden Notebook was the second novel I managed to read and understand in English (the first was The Magus by John Fowles which I didn't quite understand at the time and when I tried reading it again last year I simply couldn't get into it at all) so it is somewhat special. At the time, the late 1970s, I was involved in a lot of feminist stuff and no, this book was not part of it, too conventional, too tolerant of the men etc. while we were marching to reclaim the night. It was easy reading, I could follow one of the diaries for a while for the romantic love story, switch to another for the friendship story, another for the political stuff and so on. It seemed endless.

I read Shikasta in the winter after Chernobyl, around the time we watched Threads, the BBC drama on nuclear winter. Well, imagine the combination.
I still think she got some of it spot on, the corruption, the pollution, the chaos in the "Northwestern landmass". But I did not read more of her sci-fi stuff, simply because it's not my thing.

The Four-Gated City is one of my most favourite books, despite the fact that it is tedious reading for most parts. But I found the ending amazing (I know sci-fi). There is this scene when Martha realises that "this is all there is" after all her struggles and arguments and disagreements that rings so incredibly true I could read it over and over again.

What fascinates me about many of her books is the recurrent theme of abandonment, mothers who abandon their children and vice versa, mothers who are not all forgiving and who certainly will not sacrifice their own life for motherhood etc. That and the resulting breakdowns.

Have a go at her later books, The Grandmothers, and The Fourth Child. You may find them more interesting and readable.

In the introduction to the one of the US reprints of the Golden Notebook (paperback 1979) she writes: "There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag - and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or a movement."

As for browsing one's own (and other people's) collection, printed or digital: Have you tried Library Thing ( It's the independent version, whereas goodreads is wholly owned by amazon.

Lucy said...

Hello again Sabine. Yes, I was kind of surprised when I read the GN that it was considered a feminist bible, it seemed too fatalistic about women suffering and being too much at the mercy of lousy men. I imagine I might see it more in its historical context now.

I did read The Fourth Child, that was interesting, The Grandmothers I don't remember. I didn't much fancy The Good Terrorist, and that non-fiction reportage thing she did about Afghanistan irritated me quite a bit, so that was perhaps where we parted company. In fact, I really liked and might still like those two she wrote as a hoax as Jane Summers, she seemed to really start liking people again; I gave them to my mum and we were able to bond a bit over them at a difficult time for us. Not long after the deception was revealed I came across a copy in Marylebone public library when I was living in London, from the first print run when it was still published as being by Jane Summers. I still slightly regret not borrowing it and not giving it back, as it would presumably be worth a fortune now. It didn't occur to me to do so though, and of course I don't steal library books!

She was lined up for the Nobel prize long before she finally got it, I gather, but the sci-fi stuff rather did for her reputation. Ironically real sci-fi buffs can't be doing with it either.

I've never read The Magus, but they did a dramatisation of it on radio last year I think. Awful cold-blooded unremitting cleverbuggery, I thought, I got fed up with anticipating the next twist and the next one, it seemed pointless.

Thanks for the librarything link, I shall have a look!

Pam said...

Oh, I have to disagree (apart from about Doris Lessing). I have a Kindle but only use it on holidays by train or air. One of my problems is that you can't really read a Kindle in the bath, but also I like to flick to and fro and read the end half way through and this isn't so easy with a Kindle. And I read a lot of out-of-print and second hand books that aren't Kindle available. But also... sorry... there's nothing like a proper book.

Crafty Green Poet said...

I love real books and don't have an electronic reading device (as far as I'm aware no one's ever been mugged for the sake of a paperback book, which isn't true of Kindles etc. That said, I'm not snobby about them, they're just not for me. And I'm not precious about my books, if i read one that i don't then think I'll want to read again it goes out, to a friend or a 2nd hand shop or a 'take one, leave one' bookshelf somewhere.

Doris Lessing, much over-rated I agree, though I did once think she was worth reading...

marly said...

My favorite part: "I was barely able to get rid of any of the poetry, even the ones I don't much care for I find I have a mawkish attachment to, almost a sense of responsibility - who will take them in, no one will want them, where will they shelter oh where will they sleep?"