Wednesday, October 30, 2013


in search of good reading

Winter looms here in Maine and I am feeling stymied about what to read next.  During cold weather I usually immerse myself in a long-term reading project, something that will both stretch my intellectual capacity and lend a sense of purpose to what otherwise might look like simply giving up and going off to bed at seven or eight p.m. every evening.  In a word, hibernating.  But if I do so with tome in hand, I can instead say to myself, I'm reading volume VI of the Diary of Samuel Pepys, or I'm reading volume III of The Letters of Samuel Johnson, or One more week and I will have finished all of Montaigne's Essays!  Two birds with one stone - books become building blocks for a kind of blissful self-education which thankfully has no end, and the winter passes by imbued with a greater sense of purpose.  This has been an organic process, as usually books present themselves at regular intervals, practically begging to be read next.  I develop an interest, then a tendency, then books collect in little windrows around these topics, whatever they might be, and I am all set for another couple of months.  But this year, no such luck.  The books on my bedside table tell the tale.  They are all over the place.  An art book, another art book, a third art book, a biography of a writer, a history book, some collected essays.

A few ideas involving reading something more challenging did flit across my mind, but were only met with rejection.  For example.   

Shakespeare?  I have a parent who has been immersed in the plays and poetry for decades, and frankly (and sadly) the works of the bard make me a little nauseous at this point.

Proust?  Again with the parents - my biological father says my mother divorced him because he spent an entire winter sitting in a chair reading Proust and smoking his pipe.  Needless to say this is not my mother's version of events.  I have given Proust a try, twice, and can't get past Within a Budding Grove.  I chalk it up to childhood conditioning.

Anthony Powell?  I've owned a set of A Dance to the Music of Time for fifteen years.  Actually I had two sets, the attractive paperbacks from the University of Chicago Press, and the U.S. first editions.  I sold the first editions a few years ago in one of my attempts to downsize the contents of our book room.  Having two sets of the same books that I may never read, well.  One set is enough.  Of books that I may never read.  (I mean, for god's sake.)  Now I find myself eyeing the paperbacks as well, and thinking, Fifteen years?  Unread?  Off with their heads!

Angela Thirkell?  Now we're getting somewhere.  I have had multiple recommendations regarding this writer, of whom I know little and have read less.  And yet I find myself with eight of her books.  Eight!  And there's an Angela Thirkell Society!  Stumbling blocks: I'd need to acquire reprints of her early books, since I'd want to read them in chronological order; and, her books are mostly set in Trollope's Barsetshire, and I have read zero Trollope, so her allusions will be lost on me.  Should I read Trollope first?  People I know and respect love Trollope.  The whole problem seems overwhelming, and so my Thirkell books languish, unread. 

Thus I find myself seriously considering re-reading all of Patrick O'Brian.  For the fifth time.  Help!  Is anyone reading anything absolutely splendid?  

Life is too short to read books that you can't get into. Not sure how well our tastes jibe, but it is worth a try...

how about Angie Sage's entire Septimus Heap series? Really fun & clever. Then there's Blue Balliet's series, which are really brainy and wonderful mystery books for kids (and adults! I do not believe in age-segregation for books).

Then there's Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs mystery series (start at the beginning).

Lee Smith's Christmas Letters (fiction. She's a Southern writer, but this read beautifully & well for just about anyone interested in people and it is not purely seasonal, well worth reading anytime),

Susan Branch's A Fine Romance (non-fiction, memoir/travel writing)

Just read all of Melville Davisson Post, who is someone from the 1800s.

Then there's Michael Perry, who most recently wrote Visiting Tom. His previous book is excellent too, and both are memoirs.

I plan to look up these two to include in my winter reading. Art of the Sleeping Bear Dunes and, from New Issues Press, Poetry in Michigan.

Not sure any of this helps, but I can advise joining, which I joined to help keep track of all my reading. It really works and you can find some likeminded spirits who are reading similar things to yours in there. I hope!
Hi Kim, nice to hear from you! I have two of the Maisie Dobbs mysteries and haven't cracked the covers YET. She looks like she would appeal to this lover of Dorothy L. Sayers. I have already read the Susan Branch book (three times, loved it, scroll down my blog posts for an effusive review...). I am making notes of your other suggestions, thanks so much! I have considered both Goodreads and LibraryThing and in the end I throw up my hands and head off to the book room to putter amongst old friends.
Made any decisions yet? I can comment on Angela Thirkell. As you know, I like her. It's not necessary to read them in order, though there are a lot of families, so starting with the earliest you have is probably best. Your mileage may vary, so I wouldn't suggest waiting until you've assembled them all, in case you hate them! I don't think a steady diet of Thirkell's- one after the other after the other- is such a good idea. Too much of the same, I think.

There are a few allusions to Trollope, mostly when descendants of some of the old Barsetshire families misremember things about their ancestors. I do think that a steady diet of Trollope would be rewarding and enjoyable.

How do you feel about Dickens? I have a beautiful set that's been crying out for me to go through one by one.
Hi Dan, I do love Dickens, though it has been ages, and I am more inclined right now to read Trollope. If it weren't for the fact that I am now lost in E.M. Forster. That's how it goes, this reading thing... ;o)
Finally came back to read the comments! Sorry it has been so long. Found your Susan Branch review... great review! I had forgotten that you were the one who originally told me about Susan Branch (you mentioned finding a set of her books at a sale once). I'll have to add Thirkell and Trollope to my Kindle. :) By the way, Susan Wittig Albert's series are wonderful, particularly the Beatrix Potter ones and her most recent (self-published) book is A Wilder Rose, about Laura Ingalls Wilder's daughter.
Thanks Kim! Will have to find S.W. Albert - love all things Beatrix Potter...
Reading slowly ("as it was written") Thorofare by C.D.Morley and feel thankful for it!
Wonderful book, Antony, but you already knew that!
Another recommendation, this one by way of Susan Branch. She mentioned thinking initially that she wasn't too sure about it, but that as she read on, she got hooked. So I read the book as well and really loved it. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye by Rachel Joyce. NPR also posted a list of the best books of 2013, in case you're interested in that! I added some of those to my TBR list on goodreads.
Thanks Kim! I will look for it!

I love all the "books of the year" lists, although they do make me realize what I've missed (almost everything...)!
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