I like to think about this

I like to look backwards. I like older books. I like history. I like to spend hours on Ancestry. I like nostalgia. I tend to live in the past. I find it both scary and comforting that so much has come before me. Cather’s scenes about long gone Native American cliff dwellers in both The Professor’s House and The Song of the Lark make me think deeply about lives lived so long ago. And this passage from Let Go My Hand by Edward Docx gave me a similar shiver of revelation.

One of the things that Dad blames ‘it’ on is the sudden acceleration of human ‘progress’. Think about it, he used to say, invitingly, calmly: in ancient Mesopotamia 7,000 years ago – rough figures, rough figures – the fastest human communication could move was the speed of a horse, pigeon or sail; in the England of the 1820s, the situation was much the same…That’s 6,800 years (or three hundred-odd generations) of the same pace for everything. No change. (Not to mention Homo sapiens‘ one hundred and ninety-five thousand pre-civilization years.) And then (here he used to become more animated), in the withering flash of two hundred years, or a mere eight generations, we get…we get this. All of it. Modern Life.

A not so good month?

March came in like and lion and then got bored, took a nap, did some jigsaw puzzles…

So March wasn’t the best month for reading both in terms of quantity and enjoyability. I was averaging 11 a month (including in short February) but then things just slowed down a bit in March. I only got through nine books. There were a few that were great but a lot that I just found so-so.

Here they are in descending order.

The Hunters by James Salter
I’m not sure what prompted me to buy this book. I had never read anything by James Salter and, in fact, didn’t even really know who he was. It turned out to be my favorite book of the month. Published in 1956, the novel is about an ace fighter pilot who has less than an ace time when he is deployed to Korea. I loved everything about this book. I loved the period detail. I loved the plot and character development as the well regarded pilot has trouble maintaining his reputation and starts to see the whole situation differently. I also liked imagining what Nevil Shute would have thought of this book. So many similar themes with his fiction, but so much better written. (And this from a die-hard Shute fan.) This is a book I will read again even though I know how it ends.

Free Air by Sinclair Lewis
I liked this almost as much as I liked The Hunters. I’ve read and loved most of Sinclair Lewis’s novels but had no idea this one even existed until I ran across it at Powell’s a few years ago. Published in 1919, it is a fairly humorous story of New Yorker Claire Boltwood driving her father from Minnesota to see relatives in Seattle. For health reasons she wants to get her father away from his stressful job. For herself, she seems to be searching for something but doesn’t know what and at the same time she seems to be running from her older boyfriend who would be the perfect society match if she only loved him. Along the way they run into a local who becomes so immediately smitten with Claire that he packs up his car and follows them across the country. By the time they all get to Seattle, despite the appearance of Claire’s quasi-fiancee, Claire and Milt appear to be in love. It’s that “will they, won’t they” kind of love like Pam and Jim on “The Office”. In Seattle things come to head when Milt’s working class background really begins to clash with Claire’s friends and family. It’s more light-hearted than Lewis’s magnum opus Main Street which was published a year later. It’s progressive in outlook and full of fascinating period detail. After all, who could imagine doing a road trip of that length at a times when cares were cold, slow, and uncomfortable, road were sometimes mud tracks, and decent meals and lodging were hard to find along the way.

I wish I had this copy.


Mystery in the Channel
 by Freeman Wills Crofts

Just like Crofts’ The 12:30 from Croydon, a very enjoyable vintage mystery from the British Library Crime Classics. This plot-driven, detail-oriented mystery at its best–well at least to me who likes lots of detail gibble gabble.

Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehman
So this was my third favorite book in March yet I remember almost nothing about it. Published in 1932 its the tale of young Olivia on her birthday and on the cusp of going to her first dance. I really did enjoy it despite not remembering much about it.

The Chateau by William Maxwell
A youngish American couple visits France in 1948 as the country tries to recover from WWII. Published in 1961, there is much I really liked about this book. Partially because I don’t know that I have ever read a novel that depicts France in the immediate aftermath of the war but also because there were so many wonderful observations about life and human nature along the way.

In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar
On some other more objective list, this novel would rank much higher than it does here. It is an excellent book about a little boy and his family living through the political purges of Qaddafi’s early regime. A fascinating story that is hard to fathom for someone who hasn’t really experienced strife in his life.

Happy House by Jane D. Abbott
Read like YA from the 1920s. Two college girls named…nuts Anne Something…I’ve forgotten their names and already donated the book to the FOTL. And no one online seems to have written about it in enough detail to give out that information. Anyhoo the two Annes switch places for the summer unbeknownst to one Anne’s estranged aunt who doesn’t know her from Adam. It was a fun story and like other books this month, I really liked the period detail–especially the perspective of college women in 1920–but it was pretty hokey. Too hokey to want to read again, which is really kind of a pity. 

First Love by Gwendoline Riley
One of those short books that takes too damn long to read.

Catalina by W. Somerset Maugham
Normally I am a huge fan of Maugham. but this was such a snooze fest. It’s a story of power and religion during the Spanish Inquisition. I suppose it was well written, but I just found it so tedious I couldn’t wait for it to end.

In retrospect, maybe not as bad as I thought. I think Catalina really put a damper on things.

Quarterly reporting

Unlike the first time I did A Century of Books, this time I am loving it. In three months I’ve read 31 books and all but two of them count toward my A Century of Books challenge. So I only have 71 years to go. And all of them have been from my TBR. That must be some sort of record. And not just for me, for every person alive or dead.

Based on my brief analysis below, I would say that so far I’ve enjoyed the 1950s the most.

19teens

Since 1919 is the only year I need to read from the 19teens, there isn’t too much to say here. I did take a whack at The Haunted Bookshop by really didn’t like it and didn’t finish it. I moved on to Free Air by Sinclair Lewis and ended up really liking it.

1919 –  Free Air by Sinclair Lewis

1920s

Just three months into ACOB and I have only three years of this decade to go. As I look at the list I’ve read so far I think my success here has been more an initial desire to start at the beginning of the century as none of these books necessarily jumped off the shelf. It has been interesting to read so many from the same decade so close together. It’s really given me a sense of the era in a much more relatable way than The Great Gatsby.

1920 – Happy House by Jane D. Abbott
1921 – Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim
1922 – A Son at the Front by Edith Wharton
1924 – The Unlit Lamp by Radclyffe Hall
1925 – Rex by E.F. Benson
1926 – Marazan by Nevil Shute
1929 – The Bride’s House by Dawn Powell

1930s

Kind of interesting that three of the five books I have read from this decade have been mysteries/thrillers, and fabulous ones at that. Also interesting that R.C. Sherriff’s novelization of his novel Journey’s End has now been made into a movie. Was amazed to see the trailer in the theater recently.

1930 – Journey’s End by R.C. Sherriff and Vernon Bartlett
1931 – Mystery in the Channel by Freeman Wills Crofts
1932 – Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann
1934 – The 12:30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts
1939 – The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene

1940s

Very surprised that I’ve only read one novel so far from the 40s. Given that it was set during the Spanish Inquisition it wasn’t too evocative of the era in which it was written. Also, I love Maugham, but really found this one boring as toast. Scratch that, I love toast. It was boring.

1948 – Catalina by W. Somerset Maugham

1950s

So far the 1950s have been fantastic for reading. I supposed this is due partially to the fact that both Shute and Ambler are two of my favorite authors. But even at that, these are great examples of their work. I’d never read James Salter before and really liked this novel about an American  fighter pilot during the Korean War.

1954 – Slide Rule by Nevil Shute
1956 – The Hunters by James Salter
1959 – Passage of Arms by Eric Ambler

1960s

These three books do not exactly depict the swinging 60s. I guess given my tastes this should not be too surprising. Maybe the second half of the decade will be a little hipper.

1961 – The Chateau by William Maxwell
1962 – Morte D’urban by J.F. Powers
1965 – My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley

1970s

The MacInnes was a fabulous throwback to another era. Not old fashioned but it could have been pretty much set anytime after WWII. The Spark on the other hand, while not something I even remotely enjoyed, was definitely evocative of its time.

1971 – Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark
1976 – Agent in Place by Helen MacInnes

1980s

Without taking the time to think hard about these three titles it is pretty much impossible to make any sort of generalization. Aside from the Sarton journal, the one I am most likely to read again is the Auster. A damn good book.

1980 – Recovering by May Sarton
1986 – To the Land of Cattails by Aharon Appelfeld
1987 – In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster

1990s

I hope I enjoy the rest of the 1990s more than I enjoyed these two books. I hated the Fisher and, although I loved Cusk’s Outline, I had a hard time liking Saving Agnes despite some brilliant moments.

1990 – The Boss Dog by M.F.K. Fisher
1993 – Saving Agnes by Rachel Cusk

2000s

Love O’Farrell, but this was kind of bush league. Her second novel and not as good as her first or any that came after it. Back when President Pumpkinhead banned visitors from various muslim-majority countries I bought novels from each them. This is me finally getting around to reading one of them. Mata’s books takes place in Libya.

2002 – My Lover’s Lover by Maggie O’Farrell
2006 – In the Country of Men by Hisham Mata

20teens

Nothing yet! I am kind of holding these in reserve for the moments when I find I need a break from older books. Interesting that 31 books and three months in and I haven’t felt that need yet. But I think it’s coming.

The Whole Century So Far

1919 –  Free Air by Sinclair Lewis
1920 – Happy House by Jane D. Abbott
1921 – Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim
1922 – A Son at the Front by Edith Wharton
1924 – The Unlit Lamp by Radclyffe Hall
1925 – Rex by E.F. Benson
1926 – Marazan by Nevil Shute
1929 – The Bride’s House by Dawn Powell
1930 – Journey’s End by R.C. Sherriff and Vernon Bartlett
1931 – Mystery in the Channel by Freeman Wills Crofts
1932 – Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann
1934 – The 12:30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts
1939 – The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene
1948 – Catalina by W. Somerset Maugham
1954 – Slide Rule by Nevil Shute
1956 – The Hunters by James Salter
1959 – Passage of Arms by Eric Ambler

1961 – The Chateau by William Maxwell
1962 – Morte D’urban by J.F. Powers
1965 – My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley
1971 – Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark
1976 – Agent in Place by Helen MacInnes
1980 – Recovering by May Sarton
1986 – To the Land of Cattails by Aharon Appelfeld
1987 – In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster
1990 – The Boss Dog by M.F.K. Fisher
1993 – Saving Agnes by Rachel Cusk
2002 – My Lover’s Lover by Maggie O’Farrell
2006 – In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar

Meeting Helene Hanff

Wayne Smart, an Australian living in Dubai, posted this memory of his encounters with Helene Hanff to the Fans of Helene Hanff Facebook Group. I thought it was so lovely I wanted to share it with a broader audience and I knew that regulars of Hogglestock would enjoy reading it. I’ve posted it in total with Wayne’s permission.

I became acquainted with Helene Hanff when I first saw the movie 84, Charing Cross Road in the mid 80’s. I subsequently went about reading every book of hers that I could get my hands on.

As a university student in Australia at the time, all I wanted to do was visit NYC (something I have done more than a dozen times since). Helene’s descriptions of NYC made me long to go.

After reading 84, Charing Cross Road several times, I decided to write to Helene. Problem was, I didn’t know where to get her address. (This was long before the internet). One night after a few gin and tonics, I decided to see if her phone number was listed. I decided to CALL her!
I called the “International Directory” number and asked for NYC listings – there was only one H Hanff listed in NYC – I got the number and then dialed.

A very friendly voice answered- I explained I was a fan – and that I was calling from Australia. Helene then exclaimed: “THIS MUST BE COSTING YOU A FORTUNE – HANG UP AND WRITE TO ME!!”….. I explained that I didn’t know her address. She laughed loudly and asked if I had a copy of 84. I said I did, and she said her address was printed on the top of every second page for the entire last part of the book (It was a book of letters!).

I wrote to her in the late 80’s, and always received a lovely handwritten reply on a personalised post card.

In 1991 I visited NYC for the first time. I called Helene, and we met at Rumpelmayers on Central Park South – (long gone now) for coffee. It was the most delightful hour. She was gracious, and regaled me with many stories. We shared a love for not only books, but also classical music.

I continued to write to Helene throughout the 90’s, and in January 1997 whilst visiting NYC, I went up to 72nd Street to leave flowers with the doorman. He told me Helene was very sick and that I should go up and deliver the flowers myself, as she would like company. He said I would find the door open – and he called her to announce me.

When I arrived up at her apartment, Helene was sitting on a couch near the window looking out towards 2nd Ave. She was obviously very sick – she appeared not very mobile. She asked me to fetch her some drinking water. I arranged the flowers. We chatted. She invited me to go into the alcove at the side of the apartment where there was a huge bookshelf. She said “go ahead – take down some books – touch them – they have brought me so much joy”. The original Marks and Co sign from the shop in London was on the top bookshelf.

A few months later, in April 1997, a friend faxed me Helene’s obituary from the NY Times. The headline was: “Helene Hanff, Wry Epistler Of ’84 Charing,’ Dies at 80”.

Memories I will always cherish – and sustained by my occasional re-readings of her wonderful books.

Hanff and Anne Bancroft during the filming of 84, Charing Cross Road–for most of us, the introduction to Hanff and her wonderful world.

My own private ephemera

Today I opened up a cabinet in my library and rediscovered all sorts of things I forgot I had. When I first set-up my new shelves a few years ago, I didn’t know what to do with various things that didn’t fit in with my general organizational scheme so they got chucked (carefully) into a cabinet. The only problem is, out of sight, out of mind. On the other hand that made for a rather fun Saturday morning having a good fossick through the contents.

So let’s have a look…

The main theme of this cabinet is really simply overflow. Even though there are some odds and ends in here, many of these books are things I would read, but I simply ran out of room on my shelves. They ended up in here mainly because they were too fine the be reading copies and so did not need to be easily accessible.
When I mentioned once that I wanted to find the Mapp and Lucia books in similar editions John ran with that and surprised me at Christmas with this Folio Society boxed set. They are lovely, but they take up a lot of darn room.
Mapp (L) and Lucia (R) floating away on flood waters on an upturned kitchen table.
And speaking of boxed sets, this Bill Amberg set from Penguin was a special edition from their 75th anniversary, I think. Another gift from John.
I’ve had these for about 10 years and only took the shrink wrap off of one of them.
Amberg is a leather goods maker and these books are packed in tissue like a fine pair of shoes or handbag.
The leather is buttery smooth and the attached luggage tag can also serve as a bookmark.
Out of the six books, this was the only one I had never read which is why I took it out of the shrink wrap.
A limited edition Main Street illustrated and signed by Grant Wood.
I include the bookmark from the bookseller because he went above and beyond. I’ve never been to The Captain’s Bookshelf but John was in there mentioning to the owner the kinds of things I liked. The owner said that he had just the thing, left the shop, went home home, got this book, and brought it back for John to buy.
Grant Wood was the artist who painted the famous American Gothic. He captures Lewis’s characters perfectly.
Small town Minnesota ‘slum’.

This boxed set isn’t particularly valuable, but it is in pristine shape. I already own an unboxed set of Faber editions that live on my shelves, but when Nonsuch Book and I were on one of our book hunts I saw this and couldn’t pass it up.
A bunch of little things that would have have kind of disappeared amongst all the bigger books if I had included them on the shelves.
Some bona fide ephemera. If I wasn’t careful I could find myself collecting ephemera. Who doesn’t love old pieces of paper?
In this case, two pamphlets from 1964 and 1968 that were issued by the Philadelphia Free Library to aid patrons in finding books they may like. I bought these at a really lovely antiquarian bookstore Wickhegan Old Books in Northeast Harbor, Maine, right near Acadia National Park. I really wanted to buy something there but their stock was so fine and expensive, I had to limit myself to some pamphlets.
Lots of wonderful exhibition catalogs that would have gotten lost among the shuffle of the art books.
I came across this artist when I saw a work he was commissioned to do for a federal courthouse in Davenport, IA. https://www.gsa.gov/cdnstatic/101_Xiaoze_Xie.pdf
Xiaoze Xie specializes in photo-realist paintings of books and other printed matter. Certainly a subject after my own heart.
Information graphics with a twist by Matthew Vescovo. I believe the cover image is titled ‘Dark and Curly’.  http://www.mattvescovo.com/
‘Cats are not Dogs’
‘Karma’
I doubt I will ever read Canterbury Tales, but John and I do really like Rockwell Kent.

A bit of a memoir (I think) of Rockwell Kent’s time in upstate New York. So far I have only looked at the pictures.

This makes me think that Kent and Nevil Shute should have teamed up to create some illustrated editions of Shute’s work.

No way can I get rid of this. I even have a print out of the sale prices for all of the lots.

The central thesis of my thesis for my first Master’s degree still holds up but could use an update. Who wouldn’t want a copy of this on their shelves? Turns out, me.

In 79 years I’ll be finished

My reading pace has slowed down a tiny bit this month, but given it was the shortest month of the year, 10 books read is not too bad. Not only am I making good progress toward my  A Century of Books Challenge but I don’t feel even remotely tempted to read anything that is not already on my TBR shelves. Putting them all in one spot and in chron order is really paying off.

The titles read this month are not, however, in chron order, they are in order of how much I liked them, with my favorite at the top and so on.

The 12:30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts
I bought this purely because of how great the British Library Crime Classics covers are. I’m not big on mysteries but I couldn’t resist. The nod on the cover to air travel gave this one an edge when determining which of the BLCCs to buy. The book did not disappoint on so many levels. It starts off with an elderly man dying on the 12:30 flight from Croydon to France. The action moves from the circumstances surrounding his death to following the relative who murdered him. I loved all of the detail surrounding the air travel itself, the business circumstances that led to the murder motive, the great pains the murderer took to go undetected, and then what happens as the net starts to gather around him. I have a feeling that others may not find all of that detail fascinating but I love it. Chapters and chapters about how the murderer’s business is failing. Like a cross between Trollope, Wilkie Collins, and Nevil Shute. Loved it.

Agent in Place by Helen MacInnes
I fear I am becoming more and more of a nostalgia queen. If this 1976 spy thriller had been written in 2016, I’m not sure I would have cared about it. As it turns out I loved it. A Soviet/East German spy living in Washington, D.C., opens a tale of spy vs. spy that ends up in the French Riviera. It wasn’t all secret codes and eavesdropping, MacInnes writes very smart books that immerses one and explain things without being obvious. There’s nothing flashy about her writing or content. Imagine if Ward Just wrote spy novels. (I know, you haven’t read Ward Just so you have no idea what I mean–so maybe it is time you read some Ward Just. Probably easier to find than Helen MacInnes.)

Recovering by May Sarton
One of May Sarton’s calming, beautiful journals. This one written when she was about 67 and recovering both from a mastectomy and the poor reception of her novel A Reckoning. Like her other journals this one can be quite cozy with plenty about gardening, her pets, dinners with friends,  her process, etc., but there is plenty that isn’t cozy including depression exacerbated by professional woes and loneliness. One of the saddest things ever comes in the early pages of the journal when Sarton describes what turned out to be a very unsuccessful Christmas. Her long term partner’s Christmas visit from the nursing home is cut short because her dementia has reached the point where she no longer seems to be aware of Sarton and Sarton finds it nearly impossible to take care of her. As I read about Sarton’s concerns over the viability of her being able to make enough money to live on, all I could think was “Hang in there, in about five years you are going to write one of my favorite books of all time.” (The Magnificent Spinster)

Marazan by Nevil Shute
This was Shute’s first published novel. And he wrote it while working full-time as an engineer on Britain’s airship program. True to Shute’s form, Marazan is not without its aeronautical and nautical scenarios, but this time the crisis has to do with a murder and illegal drug importation into England. A bit of racist language to be overlooked and a rather simple minded–very 1926–understanding of drug interdiction don’t diminish the storytelling. Having read all but three of Shute’s novels, what surprises me about Marazan (and his novel Most Secret), is that Shute seems to prize doing what his characters think is right over what is legal. I’m not sure I’ve picked that up in his other work. I guess I am such a rulesy kind of person that I generally prize what’s legal over what is right.

My Lover’s Lover by Maggie O’Farrell
I’ve now read all but O’Farrell’s latest novel. This one, from 2002 is O’Farrell’s second novel and one that I have never seen in the U.S. so kudos to Heywood Hill’s Year of Books subscription for finding me something I didn’t know I needed. It doesn’t live up to any of O’Farrell’s other novels but it is still a decent read. Lily has moved in with Marcus an architect she has quickly fallen in love with. He seems to be full of secrets including the fate of his previous girlfriend. He is a grade-A creep and many moments in this book had me thinking of all the nefarious male behavior being presented in recent days by the #MeToo phenomenon. It feels like a call out of how awful men can be and how much women have been socialized to put up with it–but I don’t think that was O’Farrell’s point, I think it more just a sign of the times. Or maybe it was the point and women have been purposely making that point for a hundred years, but I’ve just considered it to be part of the background. That’s depressing.

Saving Agnes by Rachel Cusk
Young woman sharing a flat with two people she knew from university. I wanted to like it and there many moments when I did like it, but overall I wasn’t a big fan. I really enjoyed Outline, I have even read it twice since it came out in 2014, so I was surprised this one didn’t work out better for me. I believe it was her first novel. It was published 21 years earlier than Outline so maybe I prefer late Cusk. In some ways it made me think it could have been an edgier Anita Brookner who was writing a novel a year at this time. I think her writing style comes close. It certainly has an old fashion feel to it. I should note that I started this one as an audio book but I was somewhat unreasonably annoyed by the narrator’s voice so I switched over to my print copy.

Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark
I am beginning to think I may not like Spark as much I thought  I did. From the 1972 New York Times review by Lawrence Graver “A group of servants in the Klopstock mansion near Geneva wait for the Baron to commit suicide after killing his wife and their mutual lover, so they can sell scabrous memoirs to the press.” I don’t mind Spark’s darker side (The Driver’s Seat), but this was all a little bit too whimsical for me.

Rex by E.F. Benson
Young Rex is an aspiring playwright who does not get along with his father and is a bit of an unfeeling user of people. At first I thought this was going to be charming but I ended up disliking Rex so much. I’m not entirely sure Benson was trying to portray him is quite that unsympathetic light, but it is hard to know. I kept hoping for failure/comeuppance and/or transformation. Neither seemed to be in the offing.

My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley
Although I found more than a few things interesting in this “bio” of Ackerley’s dog Tulip, he spent way too much time on anatomical descriptions of the process of trying to get her impregnated. I wouldn’t have minded this if he hadn’t kept bringing those things up and writing about them in a way that was far too poetic to be scientific. The effect ways creepy. There were also moments that I completely identified with, so it was amusing and emotional on some levels. The other thing about this book is that the way we live with dogs today is so much different than it was in Ackerley’s time. From sterilization to picking up poo to calling female dogs bitches. I’m glad we’ve progressed.

Morte D’urban by J.F. Powers
A successful, charismatic, Catholic priest in Chicago is sent off to a derelict retreat house in the wilds of Minnesota by his superior who seems to be jealous of, or threatened by, his presence. He is a priest in the order of St. Clement making him a Clementine. I don’t know if the small, easily peeled, citrus fruits of the same name were as popular in the 1960s as they are now, but it sure made me chuckle ever time I saw it in print.  This was kind of charming and funny but I think I would have appreciated it more if there had been less of it.

ACOB PROGRESS

1921 – Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim
1922 – A Son at the Front by Edith Wharton
1924 – The Unlit Lamp by Radclyffe Hall
1925 – Rex by E.F. Benson
1926 – Marazan by Nevil Shute
1929 – The Bride’s House by Dawn Powell
1930 – Journey’s End by R.C. Sherriff and Vernon Bartlett
1934 – The 12:30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts
1939 – The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene
1954 – Slide Rule by Nevil Shute
1959 – Passage of Arms by Eric Ambler
1962 – Morte D’urban by J.F. Powers
1965 – My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley
1971 – Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark
1976 – Agent in Place by Helen MacInnes
1980 – Recovering by May Sarton
1986 – To the Land of Cattails by Aharon Appelfeld
1987 – In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster
1990 – The Boss Dog by M.F.K. Fisher
1993 – Saving Agnes by Rachel Cusk
2002 – My Lover’s Lover by Maggie O’Farrell

 

Better reading through social media

Like any other reader out there who is on social media, I have done my fair share of moaning about how social media has kept me from reading. Now that I’ve spent countless hours updating my Goodreads page to include every book I have since 1994 I can tell you that my moaning may be misplaced. Here are a few of my observations:

Prior to social media the quality of my reading was hit or miss

As I plugged in all of my book data one thing became clear, back in the days before I found my social media family of like minded readers, my book choices missed their mark more than they hit. Some years, 2005 comes to mind, just seemed to be nothing but a seemingly endless stream of 2- and 3-star books. It was kind of depressing to see how much time I wasted on boring, lackluster, totally forgettable books. The only light during this period was the publication of Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust. She was key to me finding books I actually liked. In particular she turned me on to Ward Just and Barbara Pym, just to name two.

An example of a rare hit in a sea of misses.
A book group helped

For a while after 2005 I was in a monthly book club where people just brought in books they had been reading and talked about them and then we swapped. Over time we got to know whose interests  were similar and I got recommendations that were better than just pulling books off the library shelf at random and hoping for the best. My ratings were much perkier during the book club period.

An example of finding one of my all time favorites at my book club.
2009 was a watershed year

Sometime in the summer of 2009 I discovered book blogs. It seems a little weird that I had been blogging (sometimes about books) for three years before I discovered actual book blogs. It’s possible I had found a few prior to that, but it was around then that I found Savidge Reads and Stuck in a Book. I don’t remember which one I found first, but those two Simons and their blogrolls turned me on to a whole world I didn’t know existed. It was at this point where I really started to find books I liked. Not surprisingly it was also about this time that I stopped taking recommendations from people IRL because I didn’t know their tastes as well as I knew the tastes of the bloggers I followed. This was also the year that I discovered many firsts: My first sensation novel (The Woman in White), my first Persephone (Cheerful Weather for the Wedding), my first Europa (Queen of the Tambourine), my first Bloomsbury Edition (Henrietta’s War), and my first NYRB Classic (Manservant and Maidservant).  The Wilkie Collins was the only one that was an unqualified success at the time, but the others were enticing enough that they set me on a much better path to a world of books that were “up my alley” as it were.

An example of a book blogger recommendation that opened up a whole new world.
social media does not seem to be a culprit

If you look at the chart below, the only thing that seems to be clear is that I tend to have a good year followed by a not-so-good year. I started blogging in 2006 which was  a banner year for books. I started focusing mainly on books in 2009 which was another banner year. I started on Twitter in 2013 which was my bannerist year of all time. I’m not sure when I started on Facebook so I can’t really make any judgments about that.

What does it all mean?

The biggest takeaway from all this is that social media has definitely provided me with reading recommendations from trusted sources that would have been unavailable to me in real life. No question about it. I also think the competitive nature of social media has helped me up my game in terms of quantity. It’s true that sometimes I do spend too much time staring at a screen, but overall it hasn’t really negatively impacted the amount of reading I do. A net gain for sure.

And let’s get real, people

Just think how much grayer my life would be (and I am not talking about Persephones) if I didn’t have you all to interact with. If we all lived in a little reading village where we could get together for cocoa and book talk that would be great. But we don’t, so virtual reality works out pretty damn well. At least it has for me.