Tag: TBR

No furniture so charming as books.
~Sydney Smith

To add a library to a house is to give that house a soul.
~Cicero

Your library is your portrait.
~Holbrook Jackson

I was in Ephesus, Turkey, recently on business.  For those of you who don’t know, Ephesus was for many years the second largest city in the Roman Empire, ranked only behind the capital, Rome.  By the 1st Century B.C., the city’s population had swelled to over 250,000 people, making it the second largest city in the world at the time.

The present day site conveys the size and extensive cultural development that occurred here during ancient times, although an estimated 85% of the original city still remains unexcavated.  From one end to the other, the ruins encompass an area of over four square kilometers, and include the Temple of Hadrian, the Temple of Artemis, and what is thought to be the largest outdoor theater in the world, in addition to many other smaller wonders (I’ll post a few pictures from my trip in a separate post).

The photo above shows what is left of the facade of the Library of Celsus.  According to Wikipedia, “it was built in honor of Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus”, the Roman Consul at the time, and was completed around 135 A.D.  In its day, the library housed over 12,000 scrolls and reportedly also served as monumental tomb for Celsus himself.  Burying a man with his books must have been considered a pretty high honor back then.

Standing in front of this huge edifice was a humbling experience.  I wonder whether the architects and builders who constructed buildings like this ever imagined that human beings would still be viewing them with amazement nearly 2,000 years later.

2,000 years from now, will people be touring the ruins of the New York Public Library in a similar manner?  Looking at this picture makes me feel like I could walk through the library doors and go missing for a month.

But I got to thinking about what kind of library I’d build for myself.  I have a collection of books now, stuffed in several book cases, thumbed often, reorganized occasionally, but I can’t with a straight face tell you it’s really a library.  With all the globetrotting and living on Navy ships and in far away locales, I’ve never really put together a reading/writing space that fits the library definition.  Nonetheless, I’ve always felt there’s a proper library somewhere out there in my dreamy future.  Do you feel that way too?

Curious what others have done in this regard, I found this revealing article with pictures of a number of celebrity libraries (incidentally, that’s Jimmy Stewart’s library, not Rod Stewart’s).

Finally, after a lot of soul-searching, which these days is called internet surfing, I found my dream library:

photo by Andrew Moore

(Read more about this amazing library here.)  What about you?  If time and money were no object, what kind of library would you build for yourself?

I have to admit my reading habits are extremely idiosyncratic–as I’m guessing everyone else’s are (does that mean idiosyncratic is the wrong word choice?  Hmmm….).  In my own literary world, I tend to bounce back and forth between reading the newest, hottest thing out there, and returning to old classics, sometimes repeatedly.  I’ve floated–with great pleasure–through Golding’s Lord of the Flies perhaps a half-dozen times since my first introduction to the work in high school, for example.
For me, reading definitely isn’t about bragging rights or ego or keeping up with the Joneses.  I find, rather, that picking up a certain book feels more like choosing the right brand of coffee for that week’s brews or picking a particular ale to go along with my steak dinner, of an evening.

Still, I think it’s a useful exercise to re-examine where I’ve been once in awhile.  I’ve seen this list of the BBC Top 100 Books floating around and was curious how many of them I’d read–especially in the last year.  Here’s the breakdown, with the ones I’ve read bolded:

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee (this year)
6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare (benefit of a BA in English)
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulk
18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch – George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis
34 Emma – Jane Austen
35 Persuasion – Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe
37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy.
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding (this year)
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel
52 Dune – Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth.
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
72 Dracula – Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses – James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal – Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession – AS Byatt.
81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell (on my nightstand presently)
83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
94 Watership Down – Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare 
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

If history is any guide, this little exercise will generate a trip to the used book section of Amazon–although I should hold myself in abeyance at least until Christmas passes.  :)

What about you?  How many of the Top 100 have you read?  What authors do you think are missing from this list?

I am behind on my blogging as you, no doubt, have already discerned.  My only solace is that I have a good excuse: in June, the Navy is sending us to Sigonella, Sicily (and sending me back to flying aircraft instead of desks.  Woo Hoo!).

Thus, Furnace Girl and I are in the midst of sorting and organizing the contents of our household– boxes everywhere!–in preparation for the move (Muffin, the two year-old, helps where she can).  Most rooms in the house are in a topsy-turvy state, and with boxes stacked to the ceiling, I’ve found it difficult to even find my laptop, let alone get up a post.

Today however, an idea struck me, one I felt I needed to share with you, dear reader.

You see Furnace Girl and I are members of a breed of the most terrible interminable kind of packrat (the sickness will be on the little one soon as well, I fear).  We keep everything.  Old pots.  Pictures.  Gardening equipment.  Motor oil.  Christmas decorations (OK, maybe this last one is allowable).

Every three years or so, each time we move, we pledge to winnow down our household menagerie, to commit to garage sale-ing the excess, to find a way to dig up willing foster parents for those items we can bear to part with.  Historically, we’ve had some success, but never as much success as we’d like.

In the field of Packrattery, I am undoubtedly the most skilled–uh, er, the worst offender, and I am positively incurable when it comes to keeping books.  Most of our furniture stands against walls in the form of bookshelves whose sole purpose it is to receive with open arms the many many dozens of texts purchased over the years.  How-To’s.  Travel guides.  Reference books.  Poetry.  Fiction.  Non-fiction.  You name it and we probably have it.

But a decision has been made: No more!  Recently, Furnace Girl and I vowed to each other (and to whomever else will listen) to live more simply, to lighten our load, to decrease our footprint.  In plain language, that means owning less stuff.  For me–and here Furnace Girl gives me THE Skeptical Eye–less stuff equals fewer books.

That brings us to this morning.  As I dove into my assignment–beginning to sort through the various texts to choose the ones to give away–the literary equivalent of butterflies stewed in my stomach (OK.  Not really.  But I want to be a fiction writer, so bear with me).

Steadily, my discard pile grew–books like Vonnegut’s “The Sirens of Titan” and “The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens” and a biography of Tesla by Margaret Cheney and “The Story of Sushi” by Trevor Corson.  I felt good.  I sipped coffee between rounds of purging.  All was going well.  When I stopped to survey my progress, I realized that the books chosen to be put up for adoption fall neatly into two categories:

1) Books I read long ago but now realize I will never read again (“Sirens” is one example, a book I truly love);

2) Books I purchased hoping to read, but now realize I will never read (at least not in the next twenty-years);

Sitting here typing this, I am looking at the pile of books in this second category with some amazement.  You see, dear reader, there’s been a change.  I’ve discussed TBR management before, but gazing upon these volumes, I somehow feel a sense of relief.  I think I know why.

Let me explain.  In years past, when I bought a book, I felt certain at the time that I would read it–and soon.  However, after some intervening period, the unread book went on my shelf and became part of the tableau, part of the stock scenery in the house along with other volumes–some read, some simply eye-candy.  Even then, my intent to eventually devour the book’s contents still existed.  For awhile.

But sooner or later, the book inevitably stopped having a mental or physical presence in my life; rather it became an idea, an aspiration, a “maybe someday.”  That’s when I should have gotten rid of the offending text.  But I didn’t.  I couldn’t.  Somehow doing so would have felt like giving up.

Now, after having been away for a year, after having lived for weeks at a time with only two or three books by the bedside, finding myself surrounded by several hundred “maybe somedays” feels all wrong.  It doesn’t fit.

It’s like all these books are someone else’s “maybe somedays.”  Giving them away feels like the right thing to do now.  Let them go out into the world and brighten someone else’s days.

Rest assured, there are still plenty of volumes I have dubbed keepers: Joyce; Hemingway; a hundred others; a few unread books to inhabit my bookshelves and bedside and TBR; it is not as if I am giving my soul away.  But I can tell already that once these books are gone, the lack of clutter will breed focus, and I suppose that’s what we were after all along.

What about you?  What steps do you take or have you taken to clear away the clutter and sharpen your focus, both in your writing life and in other areas?

For most things in my life, my ambition far outstrips my level of effort.  I can report this trait has been a hallmark of my personality for a long time.

In one notorious example, when I was ten or so, I convinced a bunch of friends–and my mom–that we could break the world record for continuous uninterrupted play of a game of Monopoly (the Hasbro, not the robber baron variety).  I don’t exactly remember, but I think the standing record at that time was like twenty days.  We did do enough homework to determine that the Guinness rules involved a five minute break every hour (or maybe two–I don’t recall) to go to the bathroom or have a quick bite to eat.  The rest of the time we were required to be sitting in front of the game, playing.  For twenty days.

Looking back now, I realize my mom must have known what would happen.  After all, what parent in their right mind agrees to have her house taken over by Monopoly for almost three weeks? (I don’t know what my friends’ moms’ excuses were).  But after about five hours of gruelling non-stop play, we decided we’d had enough and quit.

You may be relieved to know that when it comes to matching my effort to my ambition, my success rate has improved marginally since the Monopoly Marathon Fiasco of ’78.

Yet, there are still pockets of over-ambition in my life.  Book reading has long been a constant source of trouble for me in this regard, although there have been occasions when I didn’t get into trouble. 

I remember one summer, on a visit to Ireland for a six week vacation, being rather bored at the outset.  Vacations are really for the grownups if you think about it, so as my father and my grandmother and my other relatives all sat about the table and drank tea, talking about the weather and the high price of gasoline (89 cents!), I found myself with nothing to do.  Until I dug under the bed in the upstairs bedroom and pulled out a cardboard box brimming with old books!  I was thrilled.  I don’t remember the titles of all the books I read, but I can tell you I was one pretty content kid for the rest of the summer.  I had more books than I could ever wish for and nothing but days and days in which to read them.

As a grownup, it doesn’t always go so smoothly.  It is difficult–strike that!–impossible for me to go to a bookstore and come home empty-handed.  I’m worse than a kid in a candy store.  The covers of the books are so shiny and bright, the smell of ink and the binding glue so inviting–even as I write this I am reviewing in my mind the list of books I want to purchase next.  Make the mistake of setting me loose at a garage sale or flea market and I will come back, arms filled to overflowing, with paperbacks.  Furnace Girl raises the now famous Eyebrow of Disapproval and I feel like a goof, but sure enough, the next time I do it all over again.  Add to this tendency the wide variety of time-sucking activities that come with having a “life”, and that means I bring home far more books than I will ever have time to read. 

In response to this dilemma, I made a concerted effort to pare things back over the last year.  I thought coming to Iraq would simplify this process, but it’s actually made it worse.  Book trading is practically a professional sport here.  Everywhere you go, there are tables and bookshelves and nooks and crannys (when I build my retirement home, I’m going to tell the builder to include at least three crannies.  They’re so useful!) filled with FREE books–some very good ones too. 

Despite that, I’ve been relatively successful at not overdoing it.  Right now–as evidenced by the pic on the right–I am in the midst of reading Lehane’s “Shutter Island.”  I’m liking it so far, although I’ve never been a big detective novel kinda guy.  I am also reading John Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction” which is very good for helping me knock the rust off my writing skills.  I read it once before, but it’s one of the best fiction how-to books around, so a second time through felt like a good idea, and I’m hanging on every word.  I’ll be sure to share a few pointers here from time to time.

In the queue I also have Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” (another repeat) and I just picked up (for FREE) Stephanie Meyer’s “Twilight.”  Another Gardner book, “On Becoming A Novelist” is high on the short list as well and two others that I haven’t picked up yet are “The Book Thief” and “Hunger Games”.  But that’s basically it.  This short list is a wide departure from the days when a stack of a dozen unread books literally teetered on my nightstand and taunted me each evening as I climbed into bed.  So I’ve been relatively successful at focusing my reading effort.

The exciting side benefit as I dig more into writing fiction is that the reading choices I am making have changed.  I still feel a bit the neophyte on the current fiction market, so I am following Faulkner’s advice to “Read everything–trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it.”  So far, so good!  In the past I stuck primarily to literary fiction, but this new approach–and the added variety which it brings–is yielding results.  Already I see changes in my writing based on tips and tricks I’m gleaning from the authors I’m reading. 

What about you?  How do you go about choosing what goes in your TBR list?  What’s the relationship between your TBR choices and your writing process?

Before we get started, don’t forget about Heather at See Heather Write’s contest–with confetti! Win a signed copy of Dennis Lehane’s “The Given Day” or Anita Shreve’s “The Pilot’s Wife”!

And a super special thanks goes out to Liza at Middle Passages who put up the nicest post about me yesterday.  For a sampling of her great work, go read this post about a recent trip she made to an Italian Food Emporium.  Her writing is so visual, I promise you you’ll be hungry all day.  I’m getting peckish now just thinking about it.

Now down to business.  There’s a great old story by Donald Barthelme that I love called Me and Miss Mandible (story at the link).  The story tells of Joseph, a 35-year old former insurance adjuster who, through a clerical error, is mistaken for an eleven year-old and ends up in Miss Mandible’s sixth-grade class.  The other kids know the system and have the day-to-day routine down pat while clueless Joseph struggles to make sense of it all, despite his maturity.

Looking at my TBR list last night, I realized I’m a lot like Joseph.  The “A-ha!” moment happened when I noticed how many older works are in my queue.  For example, I am about half-way through re-reading John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace”.  The copy of “To Kill A Mockingbird” I ordered last week arrived from Amazon yesterday.  Other recent conquests include “Catch 22” and “Requiem for A Dream” (my review here). 

I know, I know!  I need to update my reading list!  But I don’t know the first thing about what’s hot right now.  The best seller list has never been a good guide for me.  I hear lots of talk about young adult (YA) fiction, and I have to admit I don’t have a clear grasp of what’s good and what’s not in that genre.

Can you guys stear me in the right direction, both for YA and for other genres? 

If I wanted to get a good picture of what constitutes cutting edge publishable fiction right now, what novels should I pick up?  What have you read recently that you liked or thought was noteworthy?