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September 22, 2009


two wondrous books read recently
A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book
and Hilary Mandel's Wolf Hall
(both on the Booker short list)
also Robertson Davies (reread all of them recently)
John Cowper Powys (currently rereading Wolf Solent)
pretty much everything by Iris Murdock
the Marvelous Terra Nostra by Fuentes
J. M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello
everything of Dame Francis Yates
that's how the summer went

When I was a little girl we went often to the local public library branch. I was allowed to check out ten books each week. Each week I would finish them, return them, and check out ten more. They were small books, I'm sure, but it still felt very impressive, plunking the pile of them down to be stamped and handed back to me with their little return slips inside the back pocket.

These days I read almost exclusively online and for school. New media and old media (some of the oldest!) side by side. Someday when I am ordained I wonder how and whether I will make the time and space for Torah study, and whether reading more contemporary poetry and nonfiction will encroach on that discipline. Always a balancing act.

I borrowed a pile of books when we went on vacation in March and have been slowly reading through them ever since. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich particularly stand out for me. Right now I'm reading Atonement by Ian McEwan; it's growing on me, though at first I found its canvas irritatingly small.

For a period of about four or five years, because of a medical issue, I was incapable of reading with attention -- but I collected books against the day when I could read again. I filled bookcase after bookcase with them. Finally, my issue resolved, I have been moving through my shelves, left to right, top to bottom, enjoying what I stored.

Some examples: anything by Patrick Leigh Fermor; the poetry of Lyn Hejinian; a collection of Jewish penitential prayers ("Selichos").

My taste in books is eclectic. My mother wasn't a reader, but my father was, and is, a voracious one. There weren't bookshelves in my home. I had the largest collection in the house by far, and they were stacked one on top of another on wide shelves Daddy built in my closet for toys and clothes. They went back into the wall two or three feet, and I can remember being too small to reach the ones in back without climbing in. I grew up in a small, rural community, too, and our library was equally small but it wasn't lovely like yours. It was more institutional. I still loved it and could spend hours browsing. One of my favorite books as a child was a children's biography of the Tallchief sisters. There were pictures of them in dance costumes as children, performing on the stage in New York and the Paris Opera, and one that I especially loved of Maria as the Firebird. I no longer remember the name of the book, but I remember it nonetheless.

Recently I've read Anthony Trollope's "How We Live Now", Stephen King's "Green Mile" and his "On Writing", Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland", Margaret Atwood's "Writing With Intent", Molly Wizenberg's "Home Life", Hobson Woodward's "A Brave Vessel", Julia Child's "My Life in France", Markus Zusak's "The Book Thief", and I'm working on Joan Didion's "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" with Ivy Pochoda's "The Art of Disappearing" waiting on my bedside table. I have so many more that I'd like to read. I have a habit of seeing a book that I want, usually on-line, then clicking over to Amazon and buying it right away. As a result, I have stacks of unread books and 15 pages of Kindle titles, two thirds of which are unread. I don't really decide what I want to read as much as I see something I can't live without. I also have a lovely friend who sends me books sometimes just because she thinks I'll like them. That is always a wonderful surprise, and she's quite good at guessing what I'll like. My family also buys books for me. I have something like 150 books on my Amazon wishlist. Honestly, if I won the lottery, I think I'd have to buy an entire building just to house my books.

Hi Suzanne - Sounds like you had a fantastic summer of reading! How was the Fuentes? And Davies is someone I've never read, amazingly enough - a good idea for the future. Thanks for sharing this list with us all.

Rachel -- Yes, it's strange and good, too, to read modern stuff and ancient texts almost side-by-side! I like the story and image of you as a young girl taking out all those books.

I see reading as self-preservation so I hope when you're ordained you'll continue to make the time for it, even if it's just a little bit of time before bed.

"Atonement" didn't please me, either - please let me know what you think when you're finished - we should write something about it!

Jonathan: Thanks a lot for this comment. The idea of not being able to read for an extended period of time fills me with dread - few things would be harder to bear for me, and I don't know how you did it. But what a story of hope, to store up books for the day when you'd be able to read again, and now to be doing it! Thanks for these suggestions - I don't know Fermor or Hejinian's work at all and will look them up.

Kaycie, I always like your comments and stories. Your book-buying habit sounds luxurious after all the weeding-out we've just done; I secretly wish I could buy all the books I covet. I had a birthday recently and now that my mother isn't buying books for me, I only got one: the screenplay for "Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould." A good choice. Everything you've read recently sounds fun to me!

I had the marvelous, marvelous luxury of being left alone to read for many years in the highschool years, since I went to a "free school" -- and my life still allows me many hours' reading time daily. Only gradually have I realized how rare and precious that was. Even in college, I could so much pick what I wanted that mostly I just spent my time reading through the lists that I, like you, made. Reading my way through major literatures. When I got to grad school I found I was by far the best-read person (as far as old original texts went) in my class.

At least half my reading is rereading now. I'm rereading Coleridge, for instance, and (as I often do now) reading a biography of him as I do. I wonder how much capacity I have for absorbing a really new masterpiece now. I may have done that part of my life already. I hope not :-(

Alas and alack, no time to read novels

One day, one day, I will have the time to read something other than books on computer viruses and French grammar and Reverse Engineering

One day, once I have eaten these stringy greens of technology and digested the unappetising plates of manuals

Fuentes' Terra Nostra
is one of the most astounding books
I've ever read
(and I've read lots o' books. . . )

I would be highly satisfied to see the man
win a Nobel for his work

Beth, your post has inspired me to write one, chronicling the books that I have been reading since my school days, through my college years and thereon.There is another thing that your post has motivated me to undertake - to revisit the books that I have been reading all these years. I was tempted to start with Conrad when I read your 'Reading Conrad'. Thanks for giving me a direction.

I do tend to re-read — for two main reasons, I think. First, it's just too expensive to buy books on my income, and because I live out of town, I'd have to pay a substantial fee to join the city library (I do spend a lot of time there, but can't borrow books without joining). Consequently, most books I read that are new to me I tend to borrow from friends. Rarely, I'll buy a second hand book, but the kinds of books I'd want to read aren't common second hand. Second, some of the books I re-read are just so wonderful I find it hard to imagine reading anything better, or I don't want to risk wasting time reading something mediocre. Not entirely logical, I'll admit (perhaps not logical at all, but I'm not sure logic has much to do with my desire to read a particular book). As for authors whose latest books I'd hunt down if I could afford them: well, Sven Lindqvist (Desert Divers et al.), followed by people like Haruki Murakami, Geoff Dyer, Michael Ondaatje, Colin Thubron, Barry Lopez and Peter Matthiessen. Probably many more if I thought hard enough. Sadly, we'll see no more from Bruce Chatwin, but I find myself wondering: if he were still alive, what would he be writing? Ah, all those unwritten books.

I love that photo — the slight blur; the glimpse of another life, unaware; the spontaneity; the moment that was, now gone. I can almost feel those papers rustling, the slight rocking and rhythm — the marvellous melancholy of being in motion, going somewhere.

Speaking of Southern Lit, I've been spending a lot of time with Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird." I'm writing an essay for a collection, and I've really enjoyed spending time with these characters again.

Mouse, ach, that would be rough! I read when I'm exercising and for however many minutes I can spare before bed, which means only incremental progress during the busiest times, but I find it's better than not reading fiction at all.

Uma, so glad this post inspired you. I'm happy to find your blog and hope others will go over and read your writing too.

Pete's comment here makes me wonder if once in a while we shouldn't post "wish lists" of books we'd like to read but might not buy, and do an exchange. I'm fortunate to be able to borrow from the Bibliotheque Nationale of Quebec for free, because I also tend to be pretty firm with myself about what I buy, and if I do buy books, they're often second-hand. Pete - I'm delighted that you like the photo - I do too - that's a real compliment, coming from you! Your list of authors is a great one - and makes me wonder what Matthiessen has written lately. I don't know Colin Thubron or Geoff Dyer...?

Kristin - "To Kill a Mockingbird" certainly remains a formative book for me. Let us know when the essay is done, I'd love to read what you think about it now.

When I was a child we couldn't afford books except for christmas and birthday presents. I haunted the public library - first a small, old, fusty one in the town where we lived and later the big modern one next door to my high school. I read randomly and often unsuitably and left home with no very clear picture of the evolution of literature. But thanks to that childhood experience, I've read some weird, wonderful and obscure early and mid 20th century mostly fiction that a lot of my age group haven't - the old fusty library, especially, had very little that was new.

I think for quite a lot of my adult life I've read mostly what took my fancy on the New Titles shelf in the bookshops or what I liked the sound of on the tv (when I had one) and later the radio arts review programmes - either buying or making notes in the shop and then going to the library. Often what took my fancy was the latest from an already known and loved author, but just as often it was something that caught my eye or ear for who knows what reason.

A couple of years ago I began to sicken of the bookshops. Too many books. Too many of them too similar. Too much aggressive promotion of a few titles (and I'm afraid I was too susceptible to the '3 for 2' offers).

In the past few years I've got many of my recommendations and made many wonderful discoveries thanks to online friends. In the past year this has ranged, in fiction, from Heimito Von Doderer (thank you!) to Gabriel Josipovici, more widely than which you probably cannot range.

Friends and colleagues in London are less of a source, as most people's lifestyles here are sadly too busy for much reading. If I didn't spend 2 to 3 hours five days a week commuting to and from work, I'd be the same - I tend to get through two or three books every week on the bus unless they are exceptionally fat.

Books are the one thing I spend extravagently on. I wish I didn't, as I can't really afford it. It's not the worst extravagence I might have, but does feel rather out of control. I would never voluntarily give up reading. But I did identify somewhat with this reflection by buddhist teacher I met last week: http://sucitto.blogspot.com/2009/08/direct-pleasure.html I'd like to devour books a bit less voraciously, linger longer over fewer and savour them much more slowly.

Jean, thank you so much for this long, thoughtful comment about books and the practice of reading, including the physical practice and energy it requires.

I just read the post by the Buddhist teacher you pointed to - thanks - it's very interesting and I identified with a good deal of what he said too, though he's at a place that feels extreme to me. As extravagances or obsessions go, reading seems like one of the least damaging --either to ourselves or the world around us -- because we do actually enlarge as people if we read with some care and discernment, don't you agree? His point that I especially appreciated in his writing was that anything we do can actually make us less aware of ourselves and the world around us if we use it as an escape or anesthesia or constant pattern; we need to be aware of what we're doing and how our most habitual activities are affecting us by taking breaks from them occasionally and watching what happens.

And while the Buddha was talking about breathing here, it seems like he was also pointing us toward a kind of relaxed approach to life, in all that we do:

[the Buddha] is reported as saying that a skilled contemplative is one who fashions his/her own pleasure; and mindfulness of body, far from being a practice of screwing your attention into a brow-knotted state of concentration is one of making ‘the rapture and pleasure born of seclusion drench, steep, fill and pervade this body’

Your reading is so deep and wide, it has to have permeated your life from that very early age you speak of, and made you into a very different person than you would have been without it. Stepping aside from the marketing-side of bookstore promotions and booklists into more carefully considered (but still wide and deep!) choices as we get older seems like it's sensible on both an intellectual and emotional level...

I loved our library, which was quite large for a then small town. And we were blessed with a wonderful children's librarian. Summer mornings I could walk to the library, take out four books, go home and read them under the elm tree and do it again the next morning. As I get older, I could happily do the same thing if I had time.

I should have been a children's book editor. I've read almost everything written for 8 up and I still love children's books the best. I also read the "I went to France and renovated a house books". I used to read somewhat intellectual stuff and then realized I was more of a romantic than an intellectual so I let that part take over. Love Robertson Davis and have all of his books. I am the family book seeker and go to the library to choose reading for my in-laws which they devour. For them, anything that takes place in Scandinavia. We also love books that take place in Northern Canada, for some reason.

Ah, to have access to a "real" library. Mine is small and charges a fee for rural users.
But I pay and read. For years I read only university course texts, now I'm finding my way back to fiction.

As an alternative to amazon:http://www.abebooks.com/ and http://www.powells.com/home.html.

I'm taking notes on what people suggest here, even though my library is small it has interlibrary loans.

Beth- did you mention in an earlier post that you kept a book list online? Can't find it here...

My start with libraries was inauspicious. In grade 6 or 7 in Northern Manitoba in the 1960's I was invited to write a longish essay, which would comprise a large percentage of my final mark in English for that year.I had to choose a topic from a list provided. I chose "My School". I wrote my school sucked and it did so for a number of reasons, including it had no library to speak of. I got a zero for this effort from my irate teacher who negatively commented on my pensees to the class. As a result I barely passed English that year.
Honesty compels me to admit I also wrote that my teachers at my school sucked. I am convinced this event was the start where the rot set in for all subsequent teacher evaluations to my parents....fails to apply himself....fails to work to his potential etc....blah, blah....
Today I read almost exclusively nonfiction and I have some of the same taste as pohanginapete in travel and adventure literature. In Calgary we have two large annual used book sales sponsored by the Calgary Herald and the CBC respectively to raise money for worthwhile causes.
There are plenty of books of that genre for a buck or two and its great fun looking.
Interesting comment about reading habits and our personalities. I usually have 3 or 4 books on the go at once which probably reflects some adult ADD. I like to be surprised by books in new areas. I read the eclectic short book reviews in Outside Magazine and thus came to Hugh Thomson's marvelous "The White Rock" about Inca ruins and Peru and currently 'Born to Run'by Christopher McDougall about the Tarahumara indians of Mexico's Copper Canyon
A while ago in the nonfiction realm I found via the 'Buried treasures' column in the saturday Globe 'Embers' by Sandor Marai which I liked so well I also ordered 'The Radetzky March' By Joseph Roth which sits waiting to be read
In my town the bookstore calls my office when an order comes in and with a little of the same anticipation of a kid at christmas morning i zip over as soon as possible to hold it,and open it,check it out while they ring through the credit card.Its kind of sensuous.

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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.