Saturday, May 09, 2009

I Sort of Want My Own Polysyllabic Spree

How I buy books always strikes me as quite bizarre. More so lately, as I seem to go in when a bit buzzed - post-hashing or post-Cinco de Mayo. Since, for whatever reason, I haven't been in the mood to blog about books I've read, instead I'm going to blog about books I've bought.

Post-hashing I went in and spontaneously bought four used Kathy Reichs books. Fair enough, I've read one of her Brennan books and very much liked it, but I decided to spend that $20 in about ten seconds. I grabbed a couple of chick lit books for when I want pure escapism and two Olivia Manning books ($2 each, very old Penguins) since I liked the first part of the Balkan Trilogy so much. I grabbed a used copy of The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (I've heard about it, though I'm not sure where) - which turns out to be the next book club pick, so that's handy. Amalee by Dar Williams I bought simply because I like her music (and yes, I too wonder if that means that she can write). Then I grabbed three books that are by authors I know and have liked: Stars of the New Curfew by Ben Okri (as a bonus, it was only $3), American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld, and The Sopranos by Alan Warner.

Post-Cinco de Mayo I ordered the rest of Kathy Reichs' books, having become quickly addicted, and picked up one book based on its cover and another on its spine. First the cover - personally, I think that judging a book by its cover is often fairly effective. After all, a fair amount of money is spent on choosing covers and sending particular messages. Though I suppose it wasn't the cover that caused me to buy it, so much as the fact that it's an old Penguin Modern Classics book. There's something about the 1950s Penguin look that I like - in fact, I've sort of pondered getting the penguin tattooed on me somewhere (I really want a tattoo, but I really want it to be the right tattoo, so it's taking me ages to decide.) Anyway, basically I now own a copy of Voss by Patrick White. I've never heard of this book, but according to the blurb on the back, it's about crossing the Australian continent for the first time - which dovetails nicely with all the explorers I'm learning about while teaching social studies. Then there was the book that I bought because of its spine. I recently read The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera and my copy is an Olive Edition with a very distinctive, striped red-and-white spine. I saw a blue version while I was browsing and I was curious. When it turned out to be a Michael Chabon novel with nothing on the back but a review from Playboy, I couldn't resist. After all, how odd is that? Hopefully The Mysteries of Pittsburgh will be worth the $14.

The one thing that both trips have resulted in is books that I read about in two other books I've read recently: How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster and The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby. Both of the books were great - Foster starts his off by stating that when lecturing his students "a moment occurs in this exchange between professor and student when each of us adopts a look. My look says, 'What, you don't get it?' Theirs says, 'We don't get it. And we think you are making it up.'" That is exactly what I though while sitting through endlessly boring English classes back in high school - though when left to my own devices, I could sometimes find symbolism or patterns. Possibly I was just being my normal resistant-to-authority self. In more recent years, I've often been struck by just how much novels resemble each other or play off of each other. Even random connections, like the fact that the same painting (The Raft of Medusa, Theodore Gericault) was mentioned in The Optimists by Andrew Miller and Fatal Voyage by Kathy Reichs, strike me as fairly fascinating. Hornby's book wasn't just a great book about reading; it was also hilarious. I think if I met him in the pub for a pint I'd very much like him. He reads a lot of stuff that I do, aside from all the football reading, granted. And I don't quite share his lack of love for literary novels. However, who else would write, "So tell your kids not to smoke, but it's only fair to warn them of the downside, too: that they will therefore never get the chance to offer the greatest living writer in America [Kurt Vonnegat] a light."

These two books have led to several more books. Nick Hornby read a biography of Richard Yates and that combined with my recent viewing of Revolutionary Road convinced me to buy The Easter Parade. Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant apparently was the book that inspired Hornby to write and I managed to find a $3 copy. Hornby described Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson as an "extraordinary, yearning mystical work about the dead and how they haunt the living" and combined with numerous recommendations, I could no longer resist. As a result of Foster's book, I've acquired a copy of Nabakov's Lolita, which I really ought to have read by now, and The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon, which I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of before.

Favourite Hornby quotes:

"I'm never going to complain about receiving free early copies of books, because quite clearly there's nothing to complain about, but it does introduce a rogue element into one's otherwise carefully plotted reading schedule... Being a reader is sort of like being president, except reading involves few state dinners, usually. You have this agenda you want to get through, but you get distracted by life events, e.g., books arriving in the mail/World War III, and you are temporarily deflected from your chosen path."

Yes! This is why I stress out each time I have to make a decision about what to read next - because it's a big, presidential kind of decision.

"Shortly after the birth of a son, I panic that I will never be able to visit a bookstore again, and that therefore any opportunity I have to buy printed matter should be exploited immediately... I was in a newsagent's, and I saw a small selection of best-selling paperbacks. There wasn't an awful lot there that I wanted, to be honest; but because of the consumer fear, something had to be bought, right there and then, just in case... Never mind that, as regular readers of this column know, I have over the last several months bought several hundred books I haven't yet read. And never mind that, as it turned out, I found myself passing a bookshop the very next day, and the day after that... I didn't know for sure I'd ever go in a bookshop again; and if I never went to a bookshop again, how long were those several hundred books going to last me? Nine or ten years at the most. No, I needed that copy of Prayers for Rain, just to be on the safe side."
I buy books like I'm purchasing them for the coming apocalypse, where all hell will break loose and as such my access to books will be restricted by the total collapse of society. In airports, I buy as if I'm about to end up like Tom Hanks, stuck on an island by myself. Sufficient reading material on hand is key.

He quotes Gabriel Zaid, "the truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or their desire for more."

Someone needs to tell my ex that counting up my unread books, which occupied the bookshelves and every single window ledge in the house barr the kitchen (didn't want them smelling of garlic, though regardless they all have some slightly odd sun bleaching patterns as a result of our lack of shelf space in Scotland), would merely prove that I was very cultured, rather than somewhat obsessive and a poor at budgeting.

"But as I was finding a home for them in the Arts and Lit non-fiction section (I personally find that for domestic purposes, the Trivial Pursuit system works better than Dewey), I suddenly had a little epiphany: all the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal. My music is me, too, of course - but as I only really like rock and roll and its mutations, huge chunks of me - my rarely examined operatic streak, for example - are unrepresented in my CD collection. And I don't have the wall space or the money for all the art I would want, and my house is a shabby mess... But with each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not."

With music gone iPod, the only way to judge people will soon be by their bookshelves. I can't be the only person who displays an unhealthy interest in the books of my friends, family, and acquaintances - and yes, I do judge you for that copy of He's Just Not that Into You (though I have to admit to having read it and wanting to see how the hell they made it into a movie.)

"There are now nine people in the world who have walked on the moon, and unless something dramatic happens (and I'm talking about a governmental rethink rather than a cure for death), it won't be too long until there are none. That might not mean anything to a lot of you, because you are, I am lead to understand, young people, and the moonwalks didn't happen in your lifetime. (How can you be old enough to read the Believer and not old enough to have seen Neil Armstrong live? What's happening to the world?) But it means a lot to me, and Andrew Smith, and when the Apollo missions, the future as we understood it, become history, then something will be lost from our psyches. But what do you care? Oh, go back to your hip-hop and your computer games and your promiscuity. (Or your virginity. I forget which one your generation is into at the moment.)"

This is absolutely the best telling off I've ever received in any medium. It also makes me think of my dad, who I really think should read this book. That's a telling statement, by the way - I only want to recommend interesting, thought-provoking books to my dad. Whether or not his actual taste has any correspondence with what I think he might like remains to be seen, as we've never discussed any of the books I've sent him (and he may well never have read them either.) That doesn't seem to be the point, somehow. I suppose the books I send to my father say far more about me than they do about him.

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