23 September 2012

A rant, two bits, and one bob

If life weren't so short, I would go back through all of my blog posts and count the number of times I said "life's too short". I am generally not one of those people who has a hard time giving up on a book. If I am not enjoying something I chuck it and move on to something else. The only time this becomes a real problem is when I let my OCD get in the way.

Now, before I go any further, let me say a word or two about my OCD which I talk about here with a frequency that must bore some of you. My case is pretty darn mild. I don't incessesantly count things, or have to have all of the fibers of a rug facing the same direction. I don't have to turn a light switch on and off a set number of times before I can leave it on or off. No, mine is your garden variety OCD. Like I needed to have all 100 of the Penguin Great Ideas series because they have numbers on their spines and once I had 2 of them I needed to have the remaining 98. Or I need to make lists of things and then cross them off so I can make more lists. And then there are times when two obssessions (or would they be compulsions) fight for dominance. For instance, I keep all the fiction in my library in author alpha order. But I refuse to shelve the 40 or so dove grey Persephones that I own in with the rest of my fiction. The uniformity of their spines is far too compelling when assembled en masse. My NYRB Classics are at least different colors so I could see them mixed in with the rest of my fiction in alpa order, but to be honest, right now they are instead all grouped together on my shelves, as are my Viragos, and Penguin classics and Melville House novellas.

You can see my need for visual uniformity sometimes trumps my need for organization uniformity.

Anyhoo, to get back to the subject at hand. Sometimes I get on a kick where I am compelled to follow through with a reading plan not because I find it enjoyable, but because I feel like I need to. And why do I need to? Sometimes just so that I can say that I have read something, or so that I can cross something off a list, or so that I can complete some arbitrary challenge that one of you maniacs have cooked up.

One challenge that is really starting to stick in my craw is one that I made up for myself about 13 years ago: that bitch of a list better known as the Modern Library's list of the top 100 books of the 20th Century. It was a given that I wasn't going to read anymore Joyce or Faulkner, both of whom appear multiple times on the list. And for some reason I don't have a problem with the mental asymmetry that that concession creates. But there are other books on that list that are really, really, I mean really, not my cup of tea.

Like anything by Joseph Bloody Conrad. His books exist merely to give English professors job security. Or what about DH Lawrence? What a whopping great bore he is. And a new entrant to my anti-wish list is Ford Madox Ford and his freaking, frustrating, pile of steaming poo known as Parade's End. Let me tell you sweetie that parade didn't end fast enough for me.

A pretty picture of a literary pile of poo.

Like I started off by saying at the top of this ramble, I don't have a problem setting things aside, but my need to finish that ML100 list is starting to impact the quality of my life. Something I am no longer willing to tolerate. In recent weeks I have been reminded in a personal and very profound way that life is too damn short to put up with books I hate just so I can cross them off a list. I mean enough already. If the weather was colder I would throw this pile of books in the fireplace and set them alight. They have been haunting my shelves for too long. The 118 pages of Lord Jim that I have read so far is 117 more than I should have read. The time spent slogging my way through the first third of Women in Love is like a third of my adulthood thrown out the window. And then Ford Madox I couldn't write a linear narrative to save my life, aren't I clever Ford. If he thinks I am going to move from Some Do Not to the other three books in his tetrology,  he can turn over a few times in his grave and think again.

I still think I may give the Malcolm Lowry another go. True I have been a little slow about it, but there is something about it that I like. And then all the Henry James on the list? I do kind of enjoy his meandering, rambling style.  And I am still going to give the ML100 books a go. But I am not going to try as hard. If I don't like them by page 50, they are gone.

Bit #1
Now that I am giving up on some of the ML100 books I need some suggestions for the following years for my Century of Books list.  Extra points for books that aren't known for their literary groundbreakingness.


Bit #2
I have actually been reading some enjoyable books lately, just haven't gotten around to writing anything here. Hope to rectify that soon.

My work project has been in a writing-intensive stage recently which has not only made me very lazy on My Porch, but has made me incredibly lax in keeping up with your blogs. I hope to look a the 188 unread blog posts waiting in my Google reader very soon.


  1. Oh my, life is far, far too short to be reading these sorts of books that seem to elicit the sort of visceral loathing you seem to have for some of those top 100 books. A check on a list is not worth making reading miserable work. I've gotten good at giving up things that I've just started and realize that I'm not going to like early on. The problem dogging me now is that of the book that starts out well and then slouches into mundanity by the midpoint to where I don't feel like finishing it *or* giving up on it and sacrificing all the time I already put into it without being able to say I finished a book.

  2. OMG, I have found my long time missing clone of a brother. I couldn't get 100 of Great Ideas b/c only the first 40 were in a boxed set and the others weren't. Doesn't look good on shelf. Had real trouble putting Vintage 21 Anniversary books in general shelving w/ others. Should have put them together. Had a laugh at this post. I give a book 60 pages unless it's for my book group then it gets a 100. Go ahead, turf them, There will always be new lists to cross things off from and you may enjoy them. haha Thanks for making my day. Pam

  3. Cooler weather is just around the corner...just a temporary delay to your fire-starting. :) Your OCD posts always make me smile as I find myself right in the middle of them. Arranging bookshelves is so excruciating at times. I have holes for these years on my own list, but I did note somewhere that Winnie the Pooh was published in 1926. :)

  4. OH, and I love a good rant ;) I may be one of the maniacs who made up an arbitrary challenge, mayn't I?

    I have millions of 1920s suggestions for those years, you couldn't have picked a better three for me. I'll restrain myself to... The Love Child by Edith Olivier, Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, Crewe Train by Rose Macaulay, Blindness by Henry Green, Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann, William by E.H. Young, As It Was by Helen Thomas... ok, that'll do. They're all brilliant.

    1900 - I haven't read it yet, but I'm planning on Three Men on a Bummel.

  5. You are too funny. I feel the same way about some authors -- I'll never read any Joyce since I couldn't get through Dubliners and I'm happy to say I'm perfectly satisfied to have read As I Lay Dying, and that was enough Faulkner for me, thanks very much. I tried The Sound and the Fury and couldn't get through 10 pages. There are a few ML Top 100s I just gave up on -- Saul Bellow for one -- and I finished The Way of All Flesh but I just hated it. Life's too short.

    However, there were some real surprises for me on the list -- I loved The Old Wives' Tale, which I'd never heard of, and I quite liked Sons and Lovers. It's the only Lawrence I've read so I'll give the others a shot. I'm reading The Death of the Heart right now and it's slow but the writing is good.

  6. Thanks for the warning about Parades End, we have just been watching the dramatisation and really enjoyed it so I was thinking of giving the book a try ... but maybe will now rethink.
    I find it very liberating to give up on a book I don't like, sometimes I slog on for a while but more recently i have just been chucking them back under the bed:-)
    thanks for sharing

  7. Good for you! Down with forced-reading! I'm a bit OCD myself when it comes to book lists, so what I do (and no, I don't feel I'm cheating) is to tick them off (usually in a different color) if I gave the book an honest try and in the end decided not to finish it.

  8. Currently reading Ford's 'The Good Soldier' and really enjoying it. It's also a non linear narrative - but I generally enjoy that sort of thing - but it's blessedly short at around 180 pages. I think,having watched the adaptation and dipped into the book, that I'll enjoy Parades End too but who knows.

  9. I wonder what you will make of Tom Stoppard's adaptation of Parade's End that is being shown on BBC Two in UK at the moment. The main character, Christopher Tietjens, is played by Benedict Cumberbatch who described the production as "a thinking man's Downton Abbey", or some such drivel. I'm really not sure I know what to make of PE, but I think I'm inclined to agree with your assessment, and much of it must be due to Ford Madox Ford.

  10. I love your love of lists, I feel just the same. The amount of lists I make, I've put a few on my blog but not enough, yet. ;-) I even started a Century of Books list after reading about yours.
    My book for 1900 is Jerome K. Jerome “Three Men on the Bummel”, for 1925 F. Scott Fitzgerald “The Great Gatsby” and for 1927 Virginia Woolf “To the Lighthouse“, none of them really unknown but I went through my reading list (!) and those were the only ones on there.

  11. I am a chronic list maker and organizer (but I work in a library so that's okay, right?). I had been looking forward to reading Parade's End, but now I'm hesitant. I trust your bookish wisdom. Do you think you'll blog about the specific poopiness of Parade's End?

  12. This was really a pleasure to read. I say, throw away the list. Who cares what someone else thinks is great. But then, I have twenty years on you, and life really is shorter for me. :<)
    My daughter, a big reader all through her childhood, didn't want to take any English Lit classes in college because she wanted to read what she wanted to read, not what someone told her to read. Wise girl, don't you think?!
    I have had the oddest reading year ever. I've been telling some people in comments, and will write about it sometime, but I've read half+ of many books, and really liked them, when suddenly, in a moment, I stopped caring and quit. I don't know why.
    Your 188 unread posts is just why I don't have a 'reader.' I'd really rather just scroll down my blog lists and see what people are writing about, and click on the ones that interest me, or the people I must visit that day.
    Be easy on yourself. Whatever you do, you are doing a good job. Relax. Life really is too short for any pleasure to become a pain. Really.
    Okay. Old person wisdom done for the day. :<)

  13. My dear Thomas,

    Hello. I'm very pleased to know that I collect books from Persephone Bookshop in London. This bookshop was new to me as I only discovered this a couple of years ago.

    Actually, it was my former boyfriend who said there was a new beautiful gift shop (Ben Pentreath) on Ruby Street and that he wanted to take me there. I then walked into Persephone Bookshop next and I adore their beautifully desgined and curated layout of their shop.

    On D. H. Lawrence - Like you, I find it a struggle to read Lawrence's novels. But recently, I started to read his short stories and I discovered how much I enjoy his writing. Each short story is perfect. As a young man, I adore his grand sentences where his vocabulary expands like a lucid sky. He had the fautless ear for human speech. He was more philosophical in his ending than Chekhov's tradition where nothing much seems to happen - only a nuance of change in relationships or attitude of characters.

    Now that I enjoy reading his short stories, I might attempt to give it another go at Lawrence's novels. My aunty once told me that in her generation, women learnt about sex from reading Lady Chatterley's Lover! So, I suppose he can't be that bad!!

    All the very best with your work project. Hope all is going well for you.

    Best wishes, ASD

  14. Oh, also - try The Fox before you give up on Lawrence, I'd suggest.

  15. Hello Thomas, I see "A Dance to the Music of Time" on your matchy-matchy shelf, have you read it? I have it, and have not. And am considering never reading it, for some of the reasons you cite (life is too short indeed for long and potentially joyless reading projects, for the sake of some list or other, when there is so much joy-full reading one could do instead). Besides, Powell (and Proust, while we're at it) take up an awful lot of bookshelf space in this house. What to do.

    For 1925, try "Thunder on the Left" by Christopher Morley. A very odd, melancholy, beautifully written novel.

    Hope all is well.

  16. A late comment Thomas, but I think you may like 'Claudine at School' by Collette for 1900. Beautifully written, a domestic novel set in France rather than Britain or the USA. For other years, two light novel suggestions if nothing else occurs - the first Jeeves book by PG Wodehouse, 'Carry on Jeeves', was published in '25, and Agatha Christie's classic 'The Murder of Roger Ackroyd' was published in '26

  17. Megan: The half finished books do feel a bit like a thumb in your eye don't they. Sometimes even then though, the choice can be easy. I got half way through The Line of Beauty and just thought "I don't care how good this book is supposed to be, I find it totally boring and I don't like any of the characters." And I haven't thought about returning to it, not even once.

    Pam: How crazy, why would they box the first 40 and not the rest of them? I am not sure how I would handle that situation. I think I would be prone to buy all of them, and just put the boxes somewhere else leaving their contents with the rest of them.

    Susan: Winnie the Pooh is a good one. I've never read it and have been meaning to. Not to mention how much easier it must be compared to Ford Madox Ford.

    Simon: Depending on my mood I might indeed count you as one of the maniacs. Three Men on a Bummel. I am going to have to go look up what a Bummel is.

    Karen: I have read Saul Bellow's that I have liked, but Augie March, I have tried to read many times. I finally got rid of it after moving my copy around for years. And I have found many on the ML100 list that I have loved and been surprised at. OWT is on my stack waiting to be read. Have you read Deliverance yet? So much better than the movie.

    Martine: I think with a change in mindset I could think of chucking a book as liberating.

    Alex: Ooh, I like that idea. Tick it off the list once attempted and discarded. I think I may do that. It will really shorten that ML100 list.

    Hayley: I read TGS years ago and have a vague memory of not thinking much of it. Now that I have read Some Do Not I think I understand why I may not have loved TGS.

    Columnist: I am hoping that the filmed version is easier to understand. I am guessing that it is. As for Downton Abbey, it is too bad they couldn't make Downton Abbey a thinking man's Downton Abbey.

    Marianne: You are the second person to mention Three Men on a Bummel. I should look into it. Although the author's name Jerome K. Jermone is strikingly symmetrical like the dreaded Ford Madox Ford. How odd.

    Amanda: I wrote a little blurb about Parade's End a few weeks ago. And to waste more ink on it would be torture.

    Nan: I am beginning to come around to your way of thinking. Although using a blog reader really does cut down on time for me. I am afraid to miss anything my favorite bloggers write. This way I always know what I haven't read yet.

    ASD: That is funny about your aunty and Lady Chatterley.

    Simon(again): No way. I've read two full Lawrence novels and half of Women in Love. Lawrence is now dead to me.

    Sarah: I haven't read the Powell yet. I am cautiously optimistic that I will like it, but I don't know why. It is pretty enough that I might keep those four volumes even if I don't like them.

    Michelle Ann: I've read Collette's The Ripening Seed and loved it, so that is a good recommendation.

  18. Cheers to you for letting go of the books that you are not enjoying and throwing that list away! Life really is too short!


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