I am looking at two piles of books.
And now so are you.
The pile on the right are books I have checked out from my public library. The pile on the left are books I own. I am in various stages of engagement with these books.
I have started, but not finished, reading nine of the eleven. I have just finished reading one of them, and have not yet started on another.
Four of the books are fiction, one is poetry, the rest are nonfiction.
So how did I come to assemble these particular books at this particular time?
Certainly not by intention. It just happened. I’ll try to reconstruct the process chronologically.
It began months ago when I bought a load of books at a used bookstore here in Victoria. It’s called Russell Books and is quite well known — for good reason. A person could spend hours in there browsing and emerge with enough books to cause back (and brain) strain. Among my choices that day were two by Pauline Gedge — House of Dreams, set in ancient Egypt and The Eagle and the Raven, set in Roman Britain. Another was Orfeo by Hans-Jurgen Greif. (Other books I bought that day are in a different pile elsewhere).
I started reading House of Dreams, which I had read before and enjoyed, but for some reason my interest lapsed two-thirds of the way through, and I began on The Eagle and the Raven instead. It’s a much longer book, and I see by the position of my bookmark that I got only one-eighth of the way into it before I abandoned it (temporarily) for something else. What that something was, I have no idea. I started and finished reading many other books since then.
Why did I choose these books? I knew Pauline Gedge’s work and thought well of it. I found House of Dreams uniquely interesting the first time I read it (library copy), so decided to buy it. The other title by this author tagged along, probably because of its size; I have a weakness for big, fat paperbacks. Orfeo is about music and musicians, a relatively rare topic in popular fiction, so it caught my attention. But it’s actually literary fiction and a translation to boot, so I found it more work to read than I expected. I still find the basic premise (a perfect voice embodied in an androgynous individual and its impact on others) fascinating, so fully intend to finish reading it.
Christopher Lloyd’s In My Garden was part of the Russell Books purchase, and I began reading it concurrently with a re-reading of Henry Mitchell on Gardening. For some reason I was in the mood for a double serving of garden writing a couple of months ago, and have been dipping into these two books on and off for weeks. I finished the Lloyd book a few days ago, and since I’ve read the Mitchell book before, it doesn’t really matter that I haven’t finished it this time. (Last week’s post was about these two garden writers, BTW).
Sometime this summer I read a book about the post-mortem adventures of the pharaoh Tutankhamen’s mummy (The Shadow King, by Jo Marchant). That got me thinking about the whole business of Egyptology, specifically the study of mummies. It struck me as never before how offensive this practice is, never mind what we have learned from it about ancient Egyptians and their culture. When these individuals were buried, with great expenditure of resources and elaborate ceremonies, the intention was that they should remain buried forever. Three thousand years is pretty close to “forever,” but that makes the opening of tombs, removal and especially unwrapping of mummies seem all the more sacrilegious (and yes, I do know about the ancient grave-robbers). Thinking about all this, I decided to find out more about the Valley of the Kings, which led me to John Romer’s book of that title.
Soon after this, a couple of similar books came to my attention through my work (in the same public library these books came from), so I put in requests for them. They arrived at the same time (a common occurrence), which accounts for the presence of The Millionaire and the Mummies by John M. Adams and The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox. The first of these is about the 19th century millionaire “archaeologist” Theodore Davis and his exploits in the Valley of Kings. The second is about the deciphering of the Linear B script of ancient Crete, a topic I had bumped into years ago and which suddenly seemed interesting again.
Added to the pile around the same time as the above was Zoopolis : a political theory of animal rights by Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka. I heard an interview with the authors on CBC Radio, and instantly decided to have a look at the book, because it addressed a topic close to my heart. The book is academic in tone and densely packed with argument and counter-argument, so I have made relatively little progress on it thus far.
That’s the trouble with nonfiction, however interesting or well-written — it takes more time and attention than most fiction, and when a whole raft of such books arrives on the To Be Read pile all at once, everything stalls.
I decided it wouldn’t hurt to take a break by reading a novel for a change, and selected The Hungry Ghosts by Anne Berry because the content summary looked interesting: the ghost of a murdered girl in World War II Hong Kong selects another girl, living in Hong Kong in the 1960s, as a “host.” Hints of dark secrets and desperate lies. The trouble was, none of the characters was appealing and some were downright appalling, so the all-important mental engagement with the book never happened. Right now I’m not sure I’ll go back to it.
Then last week I was commenting on someone else’s blog post and mentioned a poem by Robinson Jeffers that made an impression on me years ago. I mis-cited it as The Inhumanist, when the title is actually The Double Axe. I got the book out to confirm this and decided it would definitely be worth rereading.
And finally — a book that got left out of the picture because it was on a different table. The Secrets of Lost Cats by Dr. Nancy Davidson describes the clinical psychologist’s fascination with lost cat posters and her efforts to track down the people who put them up. This one intrigued me because I like cats and the idea seemed quirky and obvious at the same time. It’s actually a fairly easy read and I’m about a third of the way through it.
So what does all this tell me?
First: I’m not managing my reading very well. I should know better than to start more than one heavy, serious book at any given time. It’s better to make note of interesting titles and space out the reading of them over months or years.
Second: an undisciplined reader is probably better off owning, rather than borrowing (except for the space and weight factor).
Third: selecting books to read is a matter of impulse. Yes, I need the information, fictional experience, reassurance or companionship offered by these particular books, as suggested by their jacket blurbs or (in the case of rereads) by memories of former experiences. It’s sort of like selecting items from a generously furnished all-you-can-eat buffet — the pile of food on the plate soon exceeds one’s appetite and stomach capacity.
Fourth: as each book is selected, expectations form around it, which may not be fulfilled. Maybe I expect to absorb the facts and arguments presented in a book more easily than proves to be the case. Maybe I expect congenial characters or opinions the same as mine. If those expectations are not fulfilled and are not replaced with something I perceive to be equally worthwhile, chances are I will part company with that book (and the pile will grow smaller!)