I always have a stack of books by the bed or the couch. Sometimes it’s two or three stacks and for a while there it got completely out of control, and expanded to seven shelves. That’s when I knew it was time to open a bookstore. For storage purposes. The stack contains the books I’ve set aside to read next. The intent is that, when I finish what I’m currently reading, I can choose a pre-selected, pre-screened book from the stack and dive in – usually after a suitable breather from the ending of the last book.
Of course, books are added to the stack frequently, and occasionally a purge will eliminate ones that I realize I no longer care enough about.
Sometimes I’m reading a few at the same time, but that’s usually short story or essay collections, where I can bounce among moods.
When I finish a book, another decision has to be made – does the book come to the store to be sold, or is it added to the shelves at home. The rule – frequently obeyed – is that if the book is to be added to the home library, another book has to be sacrificed and sent to the store for redistribution.
Here’s the current stack, in no particular order (except for the first one):
Nicole Krauss, Great House (2010). Fiction. This is what I’m currently reading. I’m 150 pages in, and so far it seems as good as her History of Love, which I read a few years ago. Her plots are intricate, subtle and unpredictable, and her imagery and language are superb. This book is basically about a desk – but it’s about failure, separation, happiness, etc. in the lives of the people surrounding the desk.
Dennis Lehane, The Given Day (2008). Usually filed in Mystery, but his other ones I’ve read are either Suspense or just general Fiction. This is light stuff with heavy characters (if you like crime and violence), and makes good, quick reading after a more intellectual book. His books get made into good movies like Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone, so this will be fun when I’m in the right mood.
Patricia Highsmith, Slowly in the Wind (1979). Short Stories. Her The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train feature two of the creepiest characters I’ve encountered – and you actually start rooting for Ripley despite yourself. Her bisexuality sometimes gives the main theme to her short stories, but in other pieces and novels, it’s an unstated undercurrent that adds to the ambiguity and tension.
Solomon Northrup, Twelve Years a Slave (1853). Memoir. I usually avoid books that have recently been made into movies. I’ll make an exception here because of my fascination with 19th Century American history. The book reproduces the original typestyles, woodcuts, etc., giving it a historical feel, even though it was issued this year.
Richard Donnelly, The Melancholy MBA (2011). Poetry. Donnelly walked into the bookstore a couple months ago and gave me a copy of his book. I liked the title so it went onto the stack.
Salman Rushdie, Shalimar the Clown (2005). Fiction. Some of Rushdie’s stuff is wonderful (Haroun and the Sea of Stories) and some is a little long-winded for my attention span (Satanic Verses) – but even his verbosity can be astonishingly brilliant, larded with puns and cultural references in a number of languages. I’m too ignorant to understand some of the Indian political and religious details, but
Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, A Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture (2004). Sociology. Did you see Bob Dylan flogging Oldsmobiles on TV? I get righteously pissed-off when I see something like Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans” (about the death of trains because of the growth of automobiles) being used to sell cars – but I sometimes fall for it, despite my defenses. Most often, I end up with the song stuck in my head, and forget the product – and that’s OK with me. And that’s just the counterculture music – this book looks like it goes deeper than that, into the whole ability of advertising to make us think the product is somehow different and anti-establishment and therefore just right for those of us who think we’re rebels.
Erich Marie Remarque, A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1954). Fiction. Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is probably the best war/anti-war book ever written – it was one of the first targets of Nazi book-burning and is still powerful. He wrote a dozen books, and the ones I’ve read – particularly Spark of Life – are very good, even if they can’t match All Quiet. This book is one of his later ones and that can mean either a mature outlook or a loss of spark, so we’ll see.
Marishka Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2006). Fiction. A well-regarded first novel with a cool cover – but this could be a book that lingers on the stack for a year and then gets removed unread. We’ll see.
China Mieville, The City and the City (2009). This is sci-fi or fantasy something like it, and I can’t really even type the title correctly since the second “the City” is written with the letters backwards. I don’t think I can do that in Word. People have been recommending his Perdido Street Station to me for years, but I foolishly left my copy on the store shelves, and it sold before I got to it. So I’ll start with this one since I’ve got it in hand.
Richard Powers, Gain (1998). Historical Fiction. Years ago, I read his Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance and loved it. Since then, I’ve tried to read Operation Wandering Soul and The Gold Bug Variations, and found them impenetrable. I’m giving him one more chance.
Alberto Manguel, The History of Reading (1996). Essays/History/Anthropology/Sociology. Manguel is Argentinian-Canadian and seems to know everything I ever wanted to know about books. I loved his series of essays about the form, feel and history of libraries (The Library at Night) and was amused by his reference work, A Dictionary of Imaginary Places. This book is his magnum opus (so far) and will no doubt take me a month to read, but I’m braced for it.
Vance Packard, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955, 1957). History. Packard was a popular sociologist in the ‘50s and ‘60s, with The Hidden Persuaders and The Status Seekers – exploring advertising and the US class system, respectively – opening a lot of eyes that needed opening. The jacket makes it clear that he first wrote this in the afterglow of the victory of Brown v. Board of Education, but that he added a later chapter to sadly show that the fight wasn’t over because the Supreme Court decision was being undercut by new state and city laws.