The books on my shelves

I still remember the first time, in my early forties, when I realized I would never have enough time to read all the books I wanted to. I would not even come close. This is how readers conceive of and measure out their mortality. I imagine hockey players think about how many games they have left to play, obstetricians how many babies to deliver, philanthropists how many dollars to give away.

Space, like time, is limited, and so it isn’t that far to go from thinking about how many books are left to me to thinking about related matters that are easier to make sense of: What books live on the limited space of my bookshelves and how much time have I spent or do I intend to spend with each of them in the time that remains allotted to me in a normal lifespan?

Aside from the usual categories – literary fiction, mysteries and thrillers, poetry, biographies, essays, histories, and so on – the books on my bookshelves can be more meaningfully divided according to my experience with each of them: whether or not I have read them and all the possibilities in between. I have read a number of the books on my shelves. A small handful, I’ve read more than once. Some I have valiantly attempted to read but have given up on. And some of these, more than once. Some books I want to read, or feel I should, but know I probably won’t. Some I don’t want to read but will keep on my bookshelves forever, or as far as forever goes where I’m concerned.

Some of the books I’ve read once and might never read again include a long list. Here are just a few:

Georgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis where nothing much happens but where everything – life and love and friendship and death, and of course tennis – happens within the high walls of the Finzi-Contini estate and their illusion of protection in the years leading up to WW2.

Brideshead Revisited and its unique blend of lyricism, irony, pathos and hilarity. I read it when I was working on my most recent novel and was not sure exactly how to finish it. My editor recommended Evelyn Waugh’s interwar masterpiece and I discovered it had been an influence on my novel without me ever having read it, it having so deeply permeated our culture with its wry depiction of our fascination with families who are richer and appear more exciting than our own.

The Leopard by Di Lampedusa which so captures the Canute-like obsession that most of us, whether or not we are nineteenth-century Italian aristocrats, fall easy prey to, which is the desire to turn back the tides of time.

War and Peace which I finally worked up the courage to tackle in my late forties while I was visiting London. The first hundred pages were a slog as I couldn’t tell the Russian aristocrats apart from each other in their various drawing rooms, nor did I really care to. But I persisted and then something magical happened soon after which lasted for every one of the remaining 1,100 pages, and it became one of my favourite books.

This is in large part because of the way Tolstoy helps us see and feel the struggles of his cast of characters, many of them highly powerful in political, social, and economic circles, as they contend with historical and geopolitical forces far beyond even their control, like war and sickness and ill fortune, and because of how he serves up acute observation after acute observation on every other page about what it’s like to really be an old man or a young girl or a soldier or a businessperson. Or yes, a horse.

The books I loved and think about rereading like John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold or Sherlock Holmes but for some reason haven’t yet, and probably won’t. But that doesn’t stop me from buying second-hand editions of Sherlock Holmes or picking them up in the various Little Libraries that dot my neighbourhood and that serve as miniature milestones on my daily walks

 I even have a large volume of stories written by famous authors in the style of Sherlock Holmes. I will likely never read it but neither will I ever part with it. Books that I tried to reread like Catcher in the Rye which I loved as a teenager and continued to love without rereading it for many years but which now I can’t bear to read, stumbling in my middle age over every mention of the word phony.

Or Nostromo by Conrad which I read in my twenties and for the twenty years that followed I thought was one of my favourite books until I tried to reread it a few years ago and found I didn’t have patience for its convoluted plot. The books I have started reading but put down like Chekhov’s collected short stories, surely a terrible black spot on my reading career that I hope to one day remedy. Or Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov which I read in high school and seem to remember enjoying but when I pick it up now, I can’t seem to advance past page 50.

Gwethalyn Graham’s Canadian classic Earth and High Heaven which I read with great interest and enjoyment as a young Jewish Montrealer. I will never reread it but will keep it on my shelves as long as I am breathing because this edition was a gift from my publisher to my wife Kara when we stopped into his office after an awards luncheon in Toronto.

Watership Down which I read in elementary school and loved is one of those books that I just can’t get my children interested in reading, like The Three Musketeers or The Chronicles of Narnia series, which will always be the original Harry Potters series for me, despite its heavy-handed religious underpinnings that I didn’t notice until much later. I will never reread Watership Down but I will also never forget its final pages showing the Black Rabbit coming so gently for Hazel as his eventful and heroic rabbit life slowly ebbs away. It will always remain one of my favourite literary death scenes of all time.

My inherited copy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice published in 1960 by William Heinemann with its cobalt-blue clothbound cover, except for the spine which after being exposed to sunlight for sixty years has turned a weathered gun-metal grey, that I read and loved over thirty years ago.

I am happy that my teenage daughter is now reading this particular Austen in a new edition bound in paperback – one of those deeply colour-saturated covers beloved of publishers these days – that I bought her so she would have an edition to call her own. And I am proud that a reviewer once described one of my novels as “a contemporary version of the novel of manners by Jane Austen or George Eliot.”

As a reminder that publishing has ever been a game of consolidation, the Heinemann imprint, established in the late nineteenth century by the man of the same name, was first sold to Doubleday in the early twentieth century, then to an investment firm, and a little later was swallowed up by Octopus and after a few other publishing world swallowings ended up in the deep belly of Penguin Random House.

Then there are the books I’ve read more than once. I’ve done this for one or two reasons:  for pure pleasure, or to go back and study something to help me with a novel I am in the midst of writing. Mordecai Richler’s Joshua Then and Now when I was having some structural troubles with my second novel and looking for ideas on how to manage abrupt shifts in time. Agent Running in the Field because I love le Carré and I was happy to see he was still writing in his late eighties.

Andrew Robert’s Churchill: Walking with Destiny, the only book I ever started rereading the same minute I had finished it. It was a double joy for me not only because of its chronicle of Churchill’s unparalleled leadership but because when Churchill was not saving the world, he was marshalling the English language, in the words of President Kennedy, and writing – or perhaps dictating – so many wonderful books and speeches that his biographer quoted liberally from. Robert Harris’s breakout novel Fatherland, a counterfactual historical thriller, when I was toying with the idea of writing a thriller, thankfully abandoned.

Leonard Cohen’s Let Us Compare Mythologies, his first book of poems and first book period, written years before he became a famous singer songwriter and the one that I think is my favourite book of his. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. His Never Let Me Go, one of my absolute favourite novels by a writer whom I admire greatly for his ability to write about emotion in understated ways. He reminds me of Hemingway in that regard although otherwise they couldn’t be more different.

The Great Gatsby, which I reread when I was almost finished with my upcoming novel The Great Goldbergs, along with The Godfather, The Firm, and King Lear, all influences on my story in their own ways. Hemingway’s short stories that I had read as a teenager before the novels and his persona threw me off and when I had to spend years finding my own voice, but as I returned to his short stories, I could appreciate their distilled beauty and their power, knowing I would do my own thing, write my own way.

Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam which I read twenty years ago and reread ten years ago and loved both times, for its mad-dash speed and zaniness and the way McEwan makes everything seem so simple and effortless. But then there is his Atonement which I hated – I can’t take dramatic irony that carries on for more than a page or two – and after poor Robbie’s undeserved troubles with the law, I skipped ahead to the final pages to read the tour-de-force ending, one which every writer would naturally be a sucker for. It’s one of the few books I’ve read the beginning and the end of but not the middle. I know I will never try to read it from cover to cover but I also know I will never give it away.

Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, which might be the only book that I’ve read three times and which is one of the best books I’ve read in terms of the equal level of airtime and empathy it affords to both its male and female characters. I reread it for that reason and also to study how Wolitzer shifts effortlessly between time and place and character. It’s a book I will probably reread again.

Then there are the books I’ve tried to reread or simply tried to read, and failed. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred years of Solitude which I loved the first time around. I read it for a history class in university. It had been assigned by one of those great profs who believes fiction can teach you at least as much as non-fiction, and often in more interesting ways. At the time I was fascinated by Latin America, studying its politics and history and one of its languages. I tried to read it again a year ago when I bought myself a new edition with a lovely cover and larger print but couldn’t motivate myself to shuffle past the first pages of Aureliano Buendia facing the firing squad. The second time around, the magic was gone for me.

Then there is Moby Dick, looming over me like a giant – yes – whale of a shadow. It’s a novel I desperately feel that I should read. I’ve tried twice – once getting about halfway through – and giving up each time, a poor literary match for a Captain Ahab willing to risk anything to satisfy his obsession. I’ve read so much about Moby Dick that I feel as though I’ve almost read it and don’t need to anymore, although I will go to my grave feeling a sense of literary guilt as wide and deep as the… uh… ocean.

The same with Ulysses which I bought years ago knowing I should read it but haven’t yet worked up the courage to even though I understand it’s great and much easier to take than Finnegans Wake which I’ve also read a lot about but still can’t bring myself to try to make sense of.

Books I know I should read like The Sound and Fury and Light in August, both editions first owned by my father, because they were my father’s books and because Faulkner is Faulkner but I’ve never been able to finish The Sound and the Fury nor get past the first ten pages of Light in August. I went through a Faulkner phase in my early twenties reading a few of his other novels and trying for a bit to write like him. Thankfully, I grew out of it.

The closest I get to Faulkner’s sounds and fury are the original reference in MacBeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech which I’ve memorized and recite to myself from time to time, when I’m out walking in the morning or the evening or even before falling asleep. It’s one of the handful of poetic passages I’ve memorized and recite regularly under my breath, like Auden’s “Lullaby” and Byron’s “So We’ll Go No More a Roving,” and even, very quietly, one or two of my own poems. And I haven’t given up completely on Faulkner because I read his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, along with Ishiguro’s. Both more than once.

Books I’ve tried to read like Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (two attempts) but gave up because it was too turgid or his The Plot Against America which I half-heartedly bought in a Montreal bookstore on a day when I couldn’t find anything I really wanted to read. I bought it because I feel guilty going into a bookstore and leaving without buying anything. I gave up in the middle of the first chapter because I found it too earnest. I prefer the earlier hilarious Roth. The Ghostwriter comes to mind. For the longest time I didn’t read it because I had it confused with Robert Harris’s political thriller The Ghostwriter and thought I’d already read it

Carl Jung’s The Undiscovered Self that I picked up at one of those lovely Little Libraries where I pick up lots of books, some of which I read and some which I keep around and some which I return unread weeks or months later. Part of me wants to read the book – I have never read any Jung – and part of me thinks I should, but a greater part of me, the part that keeps on winning every time I pick up the book, just doesn’t want to, and who am I to reason with the deep unreasoning part of myself?

I have a beautiful complete set of Shakespeare, thirteen volumes, clothbound in a faded scarlet red, gilt-edged, published in 1911, that was a gift for my bar mitzvah from the writer Elizabeth Spenser and her husband John, who were friends of my parents. The Shakespeare is kept company on my blue bookshelves by many other clothbound sisters and brethren that were my father’s. The Shakespeare has a lovely print size but my early-fifty-year-old eyes find the early twentieth-century print in many of the other clothbound volumes to be too small, the pages wispy and yellowing.

I will probably never read them, at least not in those editions, but I would never part with them because they remind me of my father who was fifty-three – the age I am about to turn – when I was born. They remind me of his love of reading and the way I watched him age, his skin growing thin and discoloured like the pages in his books. Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. A Modern Library 1951 edition. My father would have bought it when he was 35. Plato’s Republic which I did finish. Kafka’s The Trial. Another unfinished, barely started blot on my reading career.

I have a little copy of Huckleberry Finn, a Chatto & Windus edition from 1889. I’m not sure where I picked it up. It must have been at an antique shop. I will never read this particular edition nor will I probably reread Twain’s classic although I have read it twice: once for fun as a teenager and once for a grade in graduate school. But I derive great pleasure from looking at it and taking it down from the shelf from time to time and holding it in my hand and flipping through the pages. It is over a century and a quarter old.

My wife and I each have an edition of Frankenstein. The exact same one. Green cover with a sympathetic drawing of the eponymous unnaturally created man. (I have trouble calling him a monster.) I will most likely never read it again but I love that book because my wife Kara and I first met while first reading it. We were both English literature grad students and we fell in love over the course of a semester listening to our professor lecture in a dry monotone about how Percy Shelley helped edit his eighteen-year-old wife Mary’s manuscript. The novel that came to life during that famous ghost story writing contest with the Shelleys and Byron when they were all staying at the Villa Diodati in the Lake Geneva region in that unusually hot summer of 1816.

There are other subcategories of books that I haven’t touched on here, like the ones I will never read completely but dip into regularly such as the 1,300-page anthology World Poetry. And there is the unfinished double-barrelled Booker-winning trilogy: the first two books in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall series with their blood-red covers befitting the blood-soaked reimagined saga of Henry VIII’s condottiere Thomas Cromwell have pride of place on my bookshelves. But the third book remains unfinished on my Kindle because I inexplicably got tired of something in it, perhaps the constant royal butchery inimitably related in Mantel’s heightened style.

Speaking of Kindle, mine is home to hundreds of cloistered books, the ones that don’t have a home on my shelves but which hide themselves away in cyberspace, only making an appearance when they are summoned like an obedient genie, with the gentle press of a button.

These are mostly mysteries and thrillers but occasionally a very long novel or history that I won’t want to hold in my hands in bed or on my lap or where the print of the physical edition – yes, I have a few of the same books both on the shelves and on Kindle – is too small to read comfortably in bed with only the lacklustre light of a bedside lamp.

These electronic books are like ghosts compared to the books on my shelves. The books on Kindle don’t decay. They don’t have bodies like the printed books on my bookshelves that are slowly aging like mine: stiffening spines, slowly wrinkling, fading skin. Clad in fashions that eventually slip out of date despite their best intentions. But which contain stories and characters captured in words that I return to again and again, whether in my mind or on the actual page. Reminders of both what decays and what remains behind.

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