Thursday, October 30, 2008

On the library as autobiography

Every library is autobiographical.

The idea persists even today: our books will bear witness for or against us, our books reflect who we are and who we have been, our books hold the share of pages granted to us from the Book of Life. By the books we calls we will be judged.

What makes a library a reflection of its owner is not merely the choice of the titles themselves, but the mesh of associations implied in the choice. Our experience builds on experience, our memory on other memories. Our books build on other books that change or enrich them, that grant them a chronology apart from that of literary dictionaries . . .

From Alberto Manguel’s The Library At Night

Alberto Manguel’s fine book, The Library At Night, prompted thoughts about how the books in my home library are shelved.

The largest part of my library is devoted to fiction. Books are shelved alphabetically by the author’s last name and also, moving from left to right, from the oldest to the most recent. Poetry is mixed with novels. Perhaps this an oversight and poetry should be kept independent from novels and short story collections, but I like to keep an authors work together ( Margaret Atwood, for example). However, biographies of writers are generally not found with the authors’ own works. Instead, author biographies, bibliographies and fiction anthologies are all found at the end of fiction. And, as much as I like to keep an authors work together, I don’t keep fiction and non-fiction together.

Two genres follow – mysteries and science fiction. I suppose they could be shelved among the fiction but I like to keep them separate and I have enough of each to justify this separation. I also keep the works of Louise Erdrich separate. I have more than 150 items devoted to Erdrich. She takes four shelves.

Sports are kept as a group. Baseball first, representing the largest assortment of sports books. Books on running – marathons, track and field, etc. – follow baseball and then an assortment of other sports. I’ve tried to minimize books on football, soccer or basketball.

Two shelves are devoted to Kansas, another shelf contains memoirs and still another shelf is comprised of books on two small, but important collections – the blues and food. An assortment of graphic novels are scattered about. The works of Bill Bryson and David Halberstam have their own place of pride along with a few non-fiction works that I especially value, including Ivan Doig’s works of non-fiction.

That’s largely the way the downstairs library is configured. Upstairs, on the ground level, there is one large book case. It includes all my Dickens and Edith Wharton, a complete run of the Penguin Lives series, all the American Presidents series issued to date by Times Books and an assortment of signed books – mainly by political figures -- and a few books that are marginally fine press. There’s also a small collection of books on Viet Nam and my folios – principally graphic novels. Also on this main level are two books by Thomas Berger -- Reinhart’s Women and Reinhart In Love. They are given prominence because, well, Reinhart is my last name and I like the titles.

Upstairs are three book cases. One contains paperback books, largely early science fiction. One book case contains Presidential biographies and an assortment of American history. The final book case contains a few “religious” works, such as C.S. Lewis, books on adventure and nature, books on books and a small collection of books devoted to poker and to journalism.

My collection is autobiographical in the extreme. In part, because I collect what I read. But, also, because – to a greater extent – the non-fiction reflects my interests. My fondness for comic books is reflected in the graphic novels. My interest in food, the blues, poker, baseball and running (30 years as of September 1) are all reflected in my “mini” collections. I think too that my fondness for Dickens, Cather, Wharton, John Gardner, George Pelecanos and Louise Erdrich say something about me. What it says, I’m not certain.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Le Carre's A Most Wanted Man: The Thrill is Gone

Consider two disparate reviews of John le Carré’s new book, A Most Wanted Man:

In the October 11, New York Times author Alan Furst writes:

“And, coincidentally, a few weeks after the cold war sat up in its coffin and smiled, John le Carré publishes one of the best novels he’s ever written. Maybe the best, it’s possible.”

Later Furst writes, “The concept of ‘best book’ is difficult for the writer and reader; there are too many variables. Truer to say that this is le Carré’s strongest, most powerful novel, which has a great deal to do with its near perfect narrative pace and the pleasure of its prose, but even more to do with the emotions of its audience, what the reader brings to the book. There the television has once again done its work, has created a reality, and John le Carré has written an extraordinary novel of that reality.”

Yet, in the October 5 Washington Post, book critic Jonathan Yardley writes, “As one who has reviewed his work for more than three decades, always with admiration and at times with unfettered enthusiasm, I'd place A Most Wanted Man toward the lower end of the 21 novels he has now written. It is intelligent, of course, and immensely informative about espionage and the people who engage in it, but its prose occasionally is flabby (especially when the heroine is involved), the feelings its central characters have for each other are utterly unconvincing, and it ends on a note of clichéd, knee-jerk anti-Americanism that I find repellent. Now in his late 70s, le Carré perhaps has earned the right to phone a novel in, and phoned-in is what this one is.”

I admire both gentlemen. Furst’s books are taut, realistic thrillers. The erudite Yardley’s reviews are always insightful. So, who is right?

I am inclined to side with Yardley rather than Furst. A Most Wanted Man was a bit of a bore, lacking narrative tension and peopled with flat, two-dimensional characters. Unlike Yardley I wasn’t disturbed by the anti-Americanism prevalent in this novel. Granted, it was heavy handed, but I couldn’t get worked up about any aspect of Carré’s A Most Wanted Man. There is just no thrill in this thriller.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

From the New York Times

Visit the New York Times on-line for an obituary of Tony Hillerman and a review of George, Being George, an oral biography of George Plimpton.

Here's one quote from the Times obituary of Hillerman:

His stories, while steeped in contemporary crime, often describe people struggling to maintain ancient traditions in the modern world. The books are instructive about ancient tribal beliefs and customs, from purification rituals to incest taboos.
In her review, Janet Maslin observes that "the overriding quality that emerges from George, Being George is enthusiasm: Mr. Plimpton’s infectious joie de vivre . . . He did his best to treat life as a nonstop party."

Monday, October 27, 2008

Borders vs. Barnes & Noble

To the casual book buyer, Borders and Barnes & Noble might appear to be the same mega-bookstore with different covers. They're not.

Borders, for example, stubbornly persists in shelving memoirs among fiction. You'd expect -- I would expect -- that memoirs would be shelved along with biographies and autobiographies. Borders doesn't have such a section. Instead, biographies are randomly distributed throughout the store. A biography of Henry Ford, for example, would probably be found in the section on American history. This is an annoying practice.

On a positive note, Borders tends to leave books on its shelves longer than Barnes & Noble, and to offer a greater variety of titles. Each October I go in search of the five books shortlisted for the National Book Award. This year I had purchased two of the books -- Marilynne Robinson's Home and Peter Matthiessen's Shadow Country-- well before the shortlist was announced. I found the other three books at Borders.

If Barnes & Noble ever had these books--The End by Salvatore Scibona, The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon and Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner--they could not have been in the store long. Barnes & Noble seems to have a company policy of pulling books and returning them to the publisher after only a few weeks on the shelves.

Borders also appears to stock a greater variety of science fiction and mystery titles.

Independent bookstores are far superior to either chain in stocking a greater variety of books and in keeping those books longer. My inclination is turn to the independents first. But when I have to choose between one of the mega-stores, I know Borders is more likely to have the title longer than Barnes & Noble.