Friday, February 24, 2012

Pumpin' Paper

Some time back, around November I think, I finally started using goodreads as a reading diary. For any what don't know, yes, it is a social network for book nerds, but it is also an excellent and easy system for tracking one's reading and or keeping lists. I love lists. I pretty much live to make lists. No, that's wrong. Better say, lists allow me to function above my more natural state of paralytic distractibility, and general flibbertigibbetry. Now, generally speaking there is almost no context when a declaration like the one I'm about to make does not actually suggest it's exact opposite, but you will just have to trust me this time when I tell you that I do indeed read a lot. Potentially a pretty meaningless measurement, I know, and entirely subjective, but it suits my purpose here because when I tell you, according to my latest updated list on goodreads, right now I'm "currently reading" eleven books, even to me, that sounds like a lot. Don't be impressed though, even if you want to be. I'm not trying to make any claim for myself beyond maybe having just enough upper-body strength to lift all the books in that little list without straining a wrist. That's about all that means. (Thus my embrace of the vagueness that is measured by "a lot.")

The eleven books on that "currently reading" list constitute a meaningful set only in so far as these are the books I have been reading, on and off, for the past three months or so without yet having finished any of them. The books I finished in this period have already come off the "currently reading" list and been moved -- by instant computer magic -- to the "read" list. That list, which is already ridiculously large for reasons I'll explain soon enough, already forced me to start another list of my own creation called "abandoned." I've added four books to date on that one, each with an explanation/brief review, with the idea of warning off like-minded readers, if any, from bothering with those titles. (I'm trying to be a responsible participant in the goodreads community, rather than just a snark. Honest.) Now the reason my "read" list has grown to such ungainly size is because I've discovered the time-wasting fun to be had "voting" on other people's posted lists, of, say, "The Best Books of 1989" and or because I've created and posted a few public lists of my own -- not that anybody's noticed yet -- of things like "The Best Books to Read Aloud to Grown Ups" and "Classic American Narrative History." Only too late did I learn that goodreads etiquette frowns on the practice of adding titles to my general "read" list long after the fact. This, it seems, is looked on by the community rather like Mormons making posthumous baptisms among the "Gentiles," or as just plain ol' bragging. My thinking was that I didn't want to vote for something in, for example, a list like "The Best Books of 1989" without people being able to see that I was voting only for books that I had myself read. Besides, using another feature of the site which suggests other titles I might like to read based on all my other lists, marking those as "read" that I did not intend to read again anytime soon, I didn't have to see those books pop up again as suggestions for future reading. The other option was to mark these books as "not interested" which would not be true. I was interested. I read 'em. Thus my "read" list has become, well... bloated and frankly boastful looking.

I'm not bragging, or rather if I am, it's only because I don't have the option, or the time to annotate each and every book marked as "read" with a full review and or a confession of just what I might mean by marking each as such. I haven't explained giving all the Agatha Christies I could remember basically a couple of stars in the rating system because I barely remember one from another, just that I once read Agatha Christie -- as one should -- as one eats Goobers, by the fist-full. Additionally, in my buzzy little brain, it makes more sense to mark the Oxford Illustrated Dickens in twenty volumes as "read" before adding it to my "favorites" list, even though I have yet to read The Mystery of Edwin Drood because I've been saving it to read multiple endings some day, or all of the volume of Reprinted Pieces because I think of it as a dippin' book rather than a-sit-down-read. I want to recommend the Oxford Illustrated to others, but I don't need to provide all the details of my reading therein, I felt, in order to do so.

The one rule I've made for myself so far is that I do not mark anything as "read" unless I read the whole thing, or put it on my "abandoned" list-- unless the individual edition is an anthology, like the great Library of America series, in which case, again I particularly want to recommend these excellent books to a wider readership as representing the best available editions of most American classics, again, without appending to each book yet another subset of what I have or have not read in each.

Makes sense to me, anyway. My muddle, my lists, darling.

To return to my subject proper, however indirectly, my "currently reading" list -- or "shelf" in goodread speak -- allows me to chart my progress in each book I'm reading by number of pages read, which conveniently then works out for me the percentage of the whole I've read of each book, and even makes a useful little barchart of this under each title. Cool. What it also has unexpectedly done for me is to remind me that I have a lot -- there it is again -- that I have started reading, still intend to finish, and might otherwise forget in my enthusiasm to start new books almost every goddamned day. I work in a bookstore, you know. Can't be helped. That though is what I'm considering just here, that habit.

A couple of days back, I posted something here about the stack in my bathroom. None of those books, please note, have I listed on goodreads as "currently reading" Why? Because in the first place, so far as I can remember, there isn't anything currently in that stack that I haven't read already and or that I intend to read again straight through. As I already tried to explain, those books now serve a slightly different function as part of my library, and at least in part that stack will always be something into which I may dip when caught, not to be too vulgar about it, with my pants down. My "currently reading" shelf is reserved then for books I have every intention of finishing someday, if not soon, then, well... someday. I've made my "abandoned" shelf into a bin, so I don't want to put anything there that I will ever pick up again. I haven't moved anything off my "currently reading" shelf until I could honestly mark it as "read." And so the list of the books I'm "currently reading" now numbers no less than eleven titles. Bespeaks a problem, that, or rather it might if I saw it as being any such thing to try to read eleven different books at roughly the same time. I don't.

I don't because I have come in recent years to believe sincerely that this is not only something like the way I have almost always read as an adult, but also the best way for an adult with the means to do so to read. There are good people, people much brighter and frankly possessing much better brains than mine, reading I should think far more difficult or in some other way worthy books I may or may not ever read, for whom such a system, if so it may be called, would suggest nothing but chaos and confusion. I can see that. I've know some brilliant people, devoted and serious readers the lot of them, who read one book, end to end, and down to the notes and the note of the typeface on the last page before picking up another. Some of the people whose opinions on books I most respect read this way. I never have nor could I if I wanted to. I do not read, or think, in such a straightforward and productive ways. I have the utmost respect for well-organized minds. I will, when pressed, admit to a burning envy of such brains as that. (Just think of the discipline of that!) Because I think my reading is done without answering to anyone but myself, I do not see the reason why I should not read, of an evening whatever I wish, and owning so many books, and having access through my job to so many more, I can not now imagine ever again reading just one book until it's done, though I do do that still, very, very rarely. It reflects on the quality or interest of what I'm reading not at all to say I read a book straight through. Yes, I might read a play or a graphic novel in a sitting. Seems likely considering the brevity of the actual text in such books as that, but even there there's nothing to say I need do it just that way or that I will. But by and large, I read just as I want; Trollope tonight and Pope's letters tomorrow. I might be distracted, as I am just now, by a novel by John Buchan about a Puritan preacher in a pagan wood, or by a biography from 1959 of the DuBarry by the charming American narrative historian, Stanley Loomis.

All goodreads has done by tracking all this for me has been to remind me that while the way I read may not be just as others do, it does not seem to have been an unproductive way of reading. In fact, goodreads actually has the perfect system for suggesting not only the connections between the books I'm reading and the books I've read and the books -- oh, so many -- that I have yet to read, but also the connections I may never have noticed from one book to the next in just the books I'm reading now.

I reread Walter Scott's Old Mortality recently. That's what made me take note of the Buchan book, Witch Wood when it came in used recently. I've never read Buchan, even his most famous novel, The 39 Steps. Since the Buchan that came in to me is set in much the same history as the Scott, that seemed a perfect book to try. You see? And that, having whetted my appetite for a bit more history, made me make note of the pretty little volume of Loomis when it came in and take it with me to lunch where I read the first forty pages with very real pleasure. (I find lunch hour is better suited to history, most days, than to fiction, at least any serious fiction, like the James that, yes, I am also "currently reading.") Not to belabor a subject I have no doubt already pummeled all the juice out of, but just by way of one last example from the shelf, reading the Buchan made me pick up Hawthorne's House of Seven Gables again after having read the first two thirds of it on last summer's vacation, just because Puritanism had, all unwittingly, become something of a theme for me in recent days.

I said that none of this was meant to be bragging. If I could say honestly that reading or rereading any of the books mentioned was being done to any purpose other than to entertain myself, then I might, I think, be justly suspected of putting on the dog a bit. Come to that, just mentioning that I'm reading Henry James for pleasure might sound like chest-thumping of an even worse kind. I get that. If however I can in anyway convey how little I will make of any of this reading beyond whatever nearly incoherent gassing I might do about it here, I think that should answer at least something of the accusation of either over-seriousness or snobbery on my part. I recognize that not everybody would willingly read any two of the nearly dozen books I have metaphorically open before me tonight, but that isn't to say, I would hasten to add, that there aren't a legion of readers, and many among my own small circle of acquaintance who wouldn't, without breaking much of a sweat, be able to speak, or write, or even just think about these books, or appreciate them more or understand them better than I do.

Whenever I read better books, and I find myself compelled as I get older to read better books to exclusion of even those books I might once have read with real pleasure, I don't think it is snobbery that motivates me now so much as impatience. I haven't time for much else. I spend embarrassing amounts of my time consuming other kinds of culture, and much of it of embarrassingly inferior stamp, and with no less pleasure for that, but reading now seems to me something I prefer to do with only the best books -- mostly.

And as for that accusation of snobbery, a word I've had hung 'round my neck since boyhood, I feel obliged to say just here that I do not think it fair. When I read books well above my education and sophistication as a child, I did so from the sincere conviction that I was compensating for my origins in a home without books, schools that did not aspire to much, and a society, I mistakenly thought, where getting on meant being better read than than I knew myself to be. By the time I'd kenned just how wrong I was about all of this -- save maybe my largely worthless schooling -- it was too late for me, which is to say too late not to understand at least a little of what made one book better than another. That, it seems to me, is probably how one comes to the habit of reading better books anyway, no? By reading good and bad and learning to recognize why one is better than the other. As for this habit now so established that most of what I read might be described as classic or whatnot, I think it more accurate to say I read mostly the books I trust to be worth the time I can spare them when not giggling with my husband at silly people bouncing into mud-puddles off big red balls on idiotic reality-TV nonsense like Wipe Out. (Come on! Big red balls!! It's funny!)

The list-making, shelving or whatever one might properly call it that I now waste endless stray hours doing on goodreads would doubtlessly be better spent writing or working here, or even doing something really productive like, say yard-work, or trying my hand at knitting or writing poetry again (shudder) but I can't really find it in me to begrudge myself. It does feel like I might yet learn something about myself from all this compiling and classifying and noodling away at goodreads.

You should see the size now of my groaning "to read" shelf!

And look at the steadiness of that wrist!

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