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2021 in Books -- a Miscellany
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In Progress...

I am a bibliophile. No surprises there. But it gets worse. I am an inconstant bibliophile with deep seated issues of attachment. The upshot of all this is that I own too many books (oh, who am I fooling, can you ever have too many?), in part because I find it dreadfully hard to resist temptation in book stores. Like a nymphomaniac at a brothel, I see, I want, I buy. But. Then there is the inconstancy. Because there are so many books and so little time. Not to mention the horrible intrusion of real life, duties and work.

I put down books because I feel guilty: if I can read, I can read something relevant to my degree, something useful. Surely. And so I end up finding another way of wasting time instead. And occasionally work. But inconstant as I am, I am also paranoid. I never put a book wholly aside, because even if it is boring and bad I need to know whether it has an ending that makes up for all that. I have only ever given up on a very few books (Battlefield Earth being a notable exception, horrible as it was -- and even then I skimmed to the end, just to be sure), and thankfully my usually sieve-like memory is strangely retentive when it comes to literature (making it easier to pick up a book, even if it has been a while since I began it).

The result is that I skip madly from book to book, finish some in one sitting, but leave others to stew for years. It also means that I have quite a list of books in progess. It follows that when someone asks me "what book are you reading at the moment?" I stare at them for a while and then go home and have a bun (perhaps while reading something from the pile).

Perhaps this is why I am so fascinated with the position in the middle of the reading process, the reader who has not yet reached the end -- and by extension the unfinished narrative, which forces all readers into that position. But. This introduction is becoming unnecessarily long.

The point of this post is ... well, procrastination, mainly (if I am honest). But also an attempt to reply to the occasional "what are you reading" question. And I am trying to make sense of why I have so many books on hold. So, here we go. You don't have to read it if you don't find it interesting.

  • Frances Yates: The Rosicrucian Enlightenment
    This is the most recent book I have started. It happened last night. I couldn't seem to work, remembered (fondly) how wonderful it was to just soak up knowledge, rather than having to process it and turn it into writing, and before I knew it I was by the bookshelf looking for non-fiction. I love the title of the book, the apparent contradictoriness of it. Of course, it is fairly well known by now that there is an occult component to both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, but I am still fascinated by how it complicates the clear cut divisions between obscurantism and scientific progress which seemed so obvious when we were 12. I have only read seven chapter so far, but I like it. It ties together, apparently quite effortlessly, some of my favourite history (James I, Defenestration of Prague, the Rosicrucian Manifestos and the Order of the Garter) and throws in Edmund Spenser to spice it up. That is aside from the fascinating hermetic teachings on this, that and other stuff.

  • Neil Gaiman: Fragile Things
    I got this short story collection for my birthday, and I started reading it as a sort of treat system. Short stories are dangerous like that. They seem so short and innocent, and it sounds sensible when you tell yourself that you'll stop at one. The first one was ``A Study in Emerald'' (a Lovecraft/Conan Doyle crossover), which I had read before. I therefore felt that I could read another one (a strange mix of having enjoyed the first one tremendously and wanting more, and rationalising it by telling myself the first one hadn't really counted). You can see how this all goes bad very quickly. I realised the danger and removed the book to the bedroom, only to be read directly before I go to sleep. Yesterday it was superseded by Yates, however.

  • J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
    This is different. I am reading it very orderedly: three chapters every two days, to coincide with a detailed discussion of it at this website I frequent. It feels like being on a diet, and it is not inconceivable that I am overindulging on other treats because of it.

  • David Mitchell: Black Swan Green
    I liked Cloud Atlas, and so I started this. I had early on decided it would be a book I would only read at bedtime (I am, after all, supposed to work in the day). But the first chapter scared me silly. It didn't help that it was two in the morning when I read it, and my fear centre was fuelled by a slight overdose of caffeine. I didn't dare pick it up again for a while, and lent it to Rebekah to have her check how scary the book was. She said it wasn't. Having got it back, I have only read one more chapter (and Rebekah is right), in part because other books got in the way. Still, I am going to read it. It is well written.

  • Alexandre Dumas: Le Vicomte de Bragelonne
    I am reading this in French. This means I never pick it up when my brain is fried, which it is pretty much permanently these days. I think I have been in the middle of this book since I started my PhD. The theory is that if I can read French, I can work. There therefore never seem to be a legitimate reason to pick it up. I imagine I will use it as a treat when I hand everything in. It will mean I am done and can legitimately relax with a good book. And it is a good book. I have of course read it before, but never the complete version: the Norwegian translation is ... incomplete seems too weak a word. The extensive descriptions of the court, the politics and the intrigues is really half the fun.

  • Charles Dickens: Barnaby Rudge
    I bought this from Rebekah's used book shop a few months ago. It is a beautiful, old book in leather binding. On the way home I stopped to have dinner at a pub, and as I was sitting all by myself I needed something to read. Dickens felt ... relevant. I feel I should read all his books, and so I tricked myself into thinking that if I read this I wouldn't have to feel guilty about it. Also, I have long been wanting to know what the plot was that Poe claimed to have deduced after the second issue. Cut to coming home, realising that the book is falling apart and deciding to fix it. This took some time, and in the mean time it fell of my reading pile. I'll finish it. Eventually. Possibly while travelling.

  • Edmund Spenser: The Faerie Queene
    I read the first book of this because my students were reading it. I enjoyed it tremendously, but in the energy-demanding way that feels like work. This is not a bad thing (I enjoy this sort of work, after all), but it means that I rarely pick it up -- after all, if I am going to work I really should be working on other stuff. That said, it now keeps popping up everywhere (the latest instance was the Yates book), and so I might just take the hint and keep reading it. Once I finish my chapter. Or over Christmas. It fits in with Christmas. Allegory belongs in front of the fire, with tea (or alternative beverage) in one hand and a book in the other while you listen to the wind outside and rejoice at the wonder of woollen blankets.

  • Geoffrey of Monmouth: The History of the Kings of Britain
    I like Monmouth. I picked him up because Roh told me I should, and it is interesting reading. I have always been fascinated by Arthuriana, and this is about as early as you get. It appeals to the historian in me as much as the student of literature. The difference between Monmouth's Arthur and the later incarnations is really quite astonishing. And that is aside from the other "history" covered by Monmouth's text. I am fascinated. But, like Spenser, it makes me feel that I am doing something wrong whenever I pick it up. After all, if you can read Monmouth, you can read Dickens. Or write about Dickens.

  • Neal Stephenson: Quicksilver
    Another book I had to put aside because of guilt. This is mainly due to the horror I have of being misinformed (part of the reason why I dislike Dan Brown so vehemently). Stephenson writes in an alternate reality, but his whole text is scattered with minute information and historical reference. And much of it is accurate. And so, while reading it, paranoia got the better of me, and I was more or less permanently attached to Wikipedia in an attempt to distinguish real history from fictitious. It was time-consuming. And felt like a parody of what I was supposed to be doing. Thankfully, Tor took it away with him and is refusing to bring it back. I will pick it up with gusto once I finish my thesis.

  • Nick Harkaway: The Gone-Away World
    This was an accident. I read in the bath, and in the bath you need something that does not require underlining, note-taking or too much clear-headedness (warm water drives blood from the brain). I was only going to look through my favourite pieces, but it all went horribly wrong, and I began at the beginning. I showed great strength of character in not picking it up again, and I am now saving it for baths. Unfortunately Pride and Prejudice, with no sense of honour, cut into the line last time. Still. I don't think there can be any doubt that I will finish this one. Again. And again.

  • Angela Carter: Angela Carter's Book of Fairy Tales
    This happened ... actually, I am not sure how this happened. I think I was looking for an Angela Carter book to start, and I liked the title of it (and the cover was gorgeous). It turned out it is a collection of fairy tales from around the world. Now, I like fairy tales. I like even more seeing traces of well-known fairy tales in strange stories from India or Armenia or China. And fairy tales fall into the same box as short stories: you can read one as a treat, and then go back to work. If you have any sort of willpower. Ah. The book is therefore now safely tucked in the book shelf. I'll pick it up again when I get the flu.

  • Marcus Tanner: The Raven King: Mattias Corvinus and the Fate of His Lost Library
    I bought this with my first pay from teaching. It has the most fantastic title. It promised so much. Of course, there was no way it could live up to it. Not in the first chapter, at any rate, which is what I read before I realised that getting paid for teaching meant teaching, and that teaching is a lot of work. It therefore got buried behind everything else I was supposed to read, and I'm sorry to say it has stayed buried. I'll probably pick it up again once I finish Yates.

  • Alan Taylor: Assassin's Cloak: An Anthology of the World's Greatest Diarists
    We bought this at the Book Festival last year. Tor said I couldn't have it because I wouldn't read it. I said I would. We made a pact, which said that we both had to read the books we had bought within one year. I must confess I have hardly read anything in it. Part of me feels that I should start in January. It is a small comfort to know that Tor hasn't read his book on Chinese Cinema, either.

  • Mervyn Peake: Titus Groan
    I picked this up because I had a few days with nothing pressing to do (ages ago, yes). Then something happened (probably a visitor) and we had to clean the house, and I stupidly placed it back in the bookshelf (because books on all available surfaces makes a room look not neat), and there it has remained. Shocking. That said, it is a book I recommend. Preferably with tea, on a sofa. I think rain helps, too. And it should be dark out. Some books have demands. One must respect that.

  • Terry Pratchett: Eric
    I started this in Trondheim about a year and a half ago. I left the book there, intending for Tor to pack it and bring it to Edinburgh (I don't know whether I mentioned this plan to him). Then Tor moved all his stuff out, packed neatly (I am sure), came with me to Edinburgh, &c. He then moved back in, unpacked all the books, and Pratchett was nowhere to be found. It is a mystery. I hold him entirely responsible. And I'll pick it back up as soon as he finds it.

  • Simone Bertiere: Les Reines de France au Temps des Bourbons: les deux régentes
    Another book in French. I actually started this one when we were inter-railing through Western Europe... that would be when Silje was in France, which places this at... five years ago? Oh, the shame. It is a very good book, it just fell into the bottomless trap of me studying. I suppose it cannot have been helped by the arrival of the Dumas books, also in French, which are more fun to read. It even covers somewhat the same period.

  • Roald Dahl: The Complete Short Stories
    Roald Dahl is lovely. And Roald Dahl's short stories are, if possible, better than Roald Dahl's children's books. And almost as scary. But Tor stole it away. He said he was going to read it. Perhaps the stories scared him? I haven't heard anything about them from him since. When I get them back I will of course have to comb through them searching for references to spying. But for now it is perhaps best that they remain where they are: I have already noted the dangers of short stories.

  • John Milton: Paradise Lost
    I am not a fan of Milton. Yes, he is interesting; yes what he does to simultaneously create and undo the Christian mythos is astonishing; yes, we owe him our vision of Hell. But his language (latin syntax in English? Really?) does not make me want to pick up the book when I am home, curled up on the sofa with a glass of wine or a cup of tea. Very occasionally, yes. But mainly, I would rather read Dumas.

  • Paul Ricoeur: Time and Narrative
    One of those theory books I am trudging through. He was terribly relevant at some point in the changing and mutating of my thesis, and I thought I'd read it to get a proper grip on the man. Then he became less relevant, and he is now very definitely on the back burner. But I'll finish it. Really, I will.

  • T.A. Shippey: J.R.R. Tolkien
    I don't know why I haven't finished this one. It is a good book, it is interesting, I like both the subject matter and what is done with it. I have a sneaking suspicion that I started reading it, then got an overwhelming need to reread Tolkien, and then forgot to pick it up again once I had had my fun. I should probably do that before enough time passes to make me want to reread Tolkien again. Things could get ugly.

  • Martin Heidegger: Being and Time
    I wasn't ever going to read Heidegger. Heidegger was the devil. His violation of Nietzsche was all you needed to know, and that was that. Done and dusted. My supervisor somehow tricked me into starting, and it is surprisingly hypnotic once you get going. The illusion of almost mathematical truth in philosophy is powerful. But the spell only holds as long as you are reading it, and I put it down for a moment (well, that is to say, I put it aside to read another theorist, probably Derrida, Levinas or Blanchot) and then I forgot to pick it back up -- probably because other things became pressing. Aimless philosophical exploration is fun when you still have two years to go. Still interesting at the half-way-point. But there comes a time when a girl must admit to herself that Heidegger will never figure prominently in her PhD, and that it might be time to read something that will. Also, I got tired of the painstakingness of it. I intend to finish it. Possibly when I am unemployed.

  • Markus Zusak: The Book Thief
    This book looked so good on paper (yesyes, you know what I mean). Death and a book thief during World War 2. It had to be good. I had not counted on the horrid world of Young Adult fiction. Nobody warned me. The language and the overly planned variation in perspective, and the story, put me off after just a few pages. I despaired my way through a little more. And then I put it aside. I'll finish it eventually. Really. Just not now.

  • Marcus du Sautoy: Music of the Primes
    I like popular science. I pride myself on having read George Smoot's Wrinkles in Time when I was interrailing at 16, and I like primes. It therefore seemed like a match made in heaven. I bought it, I started reading it. I got on well for a while. As long as the history of the problem was still quite old. And then it all went bad. I think my brain imploded. Tor borrowed it and read it through in a few days, making me feel even more wretched. I am currently saving the book for post-thesis reading days. I am sure my brain will be more receptive once it isn't occupied with other stuff. It may be that my error lay in actually trying to understand it all. I have a sneaking suspicion that primes are not meant to be understood.

  • Laurence Sterne: The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy
    I started this in order to escape interaction with the people in my kitchen. I had discovered they were less likely to talk to me if I had a book in my hands. I had read extracts before, but I felt quite strongly that I should read it from the beginning. It was funny. Very funny. And then we moved house, and I forgot to keep reading it. Other books got in the way. And suddenly picking it up again seems like quite the effort. I am sure I will. Once I run out of Wodehouse (I suspect they belong to the same reading mood, but Wodehouse is much more non-committal).

  • Jacques Derrida: Writing and Difference
    Ah, the good old days of my MSc, when reading a book of Derrida essays cover to cover seemed like a good idea. They are long gone, but the memory remains. I have now moved on to the much more sensible plan of reading them according to relevance, and then pick up the rest once I have the spare time and energy.

  • There are others. They lurk in bookshelves or hide in attics. I am sure they hate me a little more every time I pass them over to pick up a new book. But when I do finally return to them, most of them are grateful and friendly and treat me well. Books are nice.



    Anders K.,  24.09.10 08:35

    This introduction is becoming unnecessarily long.

    No no no, I liked it. There's so much talk about what people read. Please, more about how.

    I read like a kid in a candy store.



    Jørgen,  25.09.10 00:52

    I liked this one.

    It is going to be too depressing, I think, as I will probably never finish most of the books on that list. There are simply too many good books printed for it to be possible for one person to read all of them. At least when the books have a head start of several hundred years, and the person wants to do other things besides reading.

    Also, the next Wheel of Time book is out soon. Yay!
    Camilla,  25.09.10 13:05

    I think part of your problem is the time you waste on Wheel of Time.


    Are,  25.09.10 21:04

    I got pretty far into the list of books and ran out of time. Nice article. Saving the rest for later :)


    Roh,  26.09.10 02:05

    I do not remember telling you to read Geoffrey. But he is so nice, so I am please with myself and with you.

    I could have warned you against The Book Thief. If you must read YA lit, read The String in the Harp by Nancy Bond. The prose is not excellent, but overall I find it yummy.

    Tolkien makes good bios, I've noticed.

    The Faery Queen is so dull! No further comment.

    Oh, wait, just one: Tor is a good man. Practically a hero!


    Camilla,  26.09.10 11:28

    Geoffrey is nice, yes. I think it was after I read your Arthuriana post, and then we discussed the holes in my education and you said I should read this and Malbinogion.

    I did not know The Book Thief was YA. That is part of my issue with it. Nowhere on the box did it say "this is a good book for 14-yearolds. It just said "this is a good book".

    Tolkien has also been the victim of some bad ones. I cannot remember the title. It was very disappointing. Shippey's book is more about the books than the man, though.

    I like The Faerie Queene, but not in the "oh, my, gimme more!" way. I need to be in the mood for it and have some time to get back into it.

    Yes, Tor is a good man, practically a hero.
    Rebekah,  26.09.10 21:15

    Did I tell you yet that I'm supposed to be getting the next WoT book before it is released?

    Camilla: you really need to finish some of those books. That list is far too long.

    The Book Thief is not a Good Book. I read it when we were waiting for Tim's parents at the airport. It did NOT make me happy.

    I may grow bitter.

    And yes, I'll finish them. I am almost done with Yates, actually. I'll get a review up at some point. Unless, you know, work and stuff gets in the way.
    Tor,  26.09.10 22:18

    Why am I a hero?

    And Rebekah, no, you didn't mention that, but it is most interesting. Do you think I could bribe you into giving it to me? Perhaps with a nice bottle of wine? Or I could bring you some Ifa from Norway.

    "Thankfully, Tor took it away with him and is refusing to bring it back."

    (Mary and I are very firm on this: no love for anyone, anyone at all, until they invent a time machine and/or successfully rob a bank for us.)

    Camilla, when you display self-control and discipline for yourself, and then move on to doing it for two entire people, a la Tor, you too will be a hero.

    Rebekah! I would be totally envious if I had read Book 12. But I have not.
    Tor,  27.09.10 20:04

    It actually has stuff happening. Several stuffs.
    Camilla,  27.09.10 20:06

    that is not how we spell "rocks" in this house.
    unfinished projects