The Year in Books

DSC_0543My makeshift stand-up desk for sustained reading

It was a year of Will and Winston. A year of drama, poetry, and history. A year of reading from my shelves, a year of reading aloud until I was hoarse, a year of reading with friends. A year of book podcasts. It was a good year for books.

Disclosure: I turned sixty (the letters aren’t as neon as the numbers). How did that happen? I’m happy to be old, really. But I push myself to get all I can from my remaining years. If I live four more years, I and my siblings will have outlived my folks. (My sister died at 67.) It would be helpful (so I imagine) to know how much time I have left. When will closure come?

How does this affect my reading? I toggle between two options.

1) Reading books to release them from my shelf. These are bookshelves groaning with books I own but haven’t yet read. Not many are books I need to keep. But I can’t let them go unread. I don’t want my books to be a burden on those who survive me.

2) Reading the most excellent books I can in the time I have left. Hence: Shakespeare, Lewis, Chesterton, Burroughs, Trollope, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Undset, Wodehouse. I find that having a big goal prevents me from being sucked into books from Kindle First or Free Kindle books or any vehicle that feeds me mediocre reading.

Back to 2017.

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The Literary Study Bible was my edition this year. Single columns, few cross-references made it a good one for reading.

I joined a group on Facebook group that read all of Shakespeare this year. I listened to Arkangel Audio productions as I read along. I treated this as if I were taking a class, planning three-five hours a week for unapologetic reading time. Daytime reading.  I discovered plays I’d never heard of (Coriolanus) and some I wish I’d never heard of (Titus Andronicus).  Marjorie Garber was a helpful guide. Overall it was a fantastic experience.


I’ve been trying to read from my shelf without being so squirrely that I make a silly vow to not buy a book this year. (ha ha!) One of my first rules for living is: Friends buy friend’s books.

I joined a Seasonal Reading Challenge. Each participant sculpts a list for intentional reading the next three months. In truth, this challenge usually adds more books to my TBR (to be read) list because I get so many enticing recommendations from friends.

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See all those Hank the Cowdog books? I’m reading Harry (Potter) and Hank (the cowdog) and passing them off to eager grandsons.

The other piece is audio books. I looked for audio productions of books I owned but hadn’t read. I discovered the Last Lion trilogy on audio and my husband and I listened together. Fascinating stuff! Then, it turns out that in 2017 three full-length movies were released about Winston. Win!

                   

As to podcasts, my affections have cooled for Modern Mrs. Darcy’s What Should I Read Next? Primarily because her recommendations don’t closely enough match my likes. There were a few episodes I loved. But, honestly, I’m tired of her pitching her own book.

I discovered Circe Institute’s podcast Close Reads where I have found my tribe. I started at the beginning and have listened to David, Tim, and Angelina discuss Flannery O’Connor, Wendell Berry, Wodehouse, Kenneth Grahame, Austen, Marilynne Robinson, and Agatha Christie. I’ll be caught up soon; we start reading Howard’s End in January.

For the two people still reading this crazy long post, here is a link to my Goodreads list which includes fabulous food writing, new fiction, mystery, memoirs, and books on architecture, cultural studies, sailing, shepherding, and art.

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Tired and Worried

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I was new at this [National Geographic journalist], this was my big chance, and I knew I was going to mess up. So, every night, tired and worried, I would climb into my sleeping bag, under my mosquito net, and I would read from my book. And, instantly, I would be in another world, a world in which, whatever happened, it wasn’t my fault.

— Candice Millard, National Book Festival Gala, September 23, 2016

The full context of her remarks

Matched Sets

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You remember that Louisa May Alcott quote, She is too fond of books and it has turned her brain? Here is a corollary: She is too too fond of matching sets.

I have a birthday coming up. One that ends in zero and exceeds half a century. Since three of my family or origin (mother, father, sister) did not live to see the birthday that is 7/10 of a century, I gave myself permission to go for the gusto in making my wishes known.

It’s extravagant. Indubitably redundant. But, oh, so resplendent. And significantly pleasant!  Irrational and beautiful.

Reading all of Shakespeare this year has been such a positive experience that I plan an ‘all of {   } project’ the rest of my life. And surely one of those authors is C.S. Lewis. When I saw this set  I was conquered, subjugated, overwhelmed. In a season of releasing books, I gladly acquired these gems and will joyfully distribute the duplicates.

Something else made me deliriously giddy.

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This is my set of commonplace journals, beginning with 2007. (I have earlier commonplace books, but, alas, they don’t match.) I had a fright when the box store which shall not be named stopped selling these. Amazon sells them, but at more than twice what I had been paying. I discovered Staples now sells them! I’m ready for four more years of quotes, wedding invitations, doodles, news clippings, and recommendations. It’s a bullet journal (sort of) that focuses more on thinking than doing. And —joy!— they match!

More glorious matchingness

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The two on the left are the only remaining of the original set given me by my dad and mom, which I lent out with abandon and lost. My sister gave me the new hardbound set. It’s picky, I know, but don’t you think they could’ve made Laura Ingalls Wilder printed at the same place on the spine?

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Ah, Wendell. His Port Williams stories are top shelf. The publisher didn’t get the spine design uniform, but we’ll let it go.

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Barbara Tuchman makes history read like a novel. If you feel unsure about why World War 1 was fought, The Guns of August is the book to read.

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Reading a set of Churchill is like going on a diet. You need time to prepare yourself mentally for the challenge. But, oh!, the words!

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My sons and I gobbled up this Ralph Moody set. My oldest and I used to hide it from each other so we wouldn’t have to share it.

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No one in my circle of friends, neighbors, and acquaintances uses the word jonesing. Although I know jonesing is usually used in the context of recreational drugs (at least I think it is, but my middle name is Naïve), I can confidently say that I am jonesing for the complete hardbound set by Overlook. (You won’t believe how many greenbacks are needed for these hardbacks! Click on Overlook!)

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The Penguins. Friends. Hear me! Amazon sells 80 classics for $77.98!?!?!?  Be still, my finger. But, seriously, that is an amazing price, and would grace any bookshelf. This is quite the discovery for a sleepy Saturday…  Back to my shelf: you notice my Trollopes are divided? Yes, even the penguins editions must stay together. We can’t have top red stripes comingling with the lower white stripes.
DSC_3854 I found this Blackie and Son set at an Eagle River, Wisconsin antique store in 1996. I groaned because it cost $45; I wanted it, but $45 for books, beautiful watercolors notwithstanding, was not even [voice fades] blah blah blah. One of my siblings heard my groan, flipped me a fifty, and told me to buy it. This is what comes of being the youngest child, a habit I highly recommend.

Back to the CS Lewis set. Are you wondering with me about the spine on The Weight of Glory? (see top photo) Hello, Harper One? What was that about?

[In that x3-speed radio voice at the end of commercials: …affiliate links…no extra cost…helps my habit…thanks a million…]

Revisiting Les Misérables

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I’m making a valiant effort to thin out my very thick personal library. Like any parting, there is grief, but I’m choosing instead to grip the joy and gratitude I’ve garnered from my books. When I picked up this 1232 page brick I faced the glacial reality that I would never read all the words again.

The next best thing was to read the bits I’d underlined in neat pencil.

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Because I’m a wee bit obsessive about my books, I knew I had to copy those adored sentences into my commonplace book.

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Two long road trips, several shorter drives, the odd minutes gleaned here and there… and I’ve added 30 pages to my journal of quotes from Les Misérables. All the joy, people. All the joy/grief/delight/disgust/admiration of this magnum opus comes flooding back.

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It was the next best thing to reading every word. And so many quotes!

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One thing remains. Giving this book a good home. A place where it can sit on a shelf, get a few loving glances with the whispered promise to read it sometime.

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If my penciled copy of Hugo’s masterpiece sounds like something you want (free), leave a comment. In a week I’ll make a decision where it goes and mail/hand it to that person. Otherwise I’ll donate it.

Frederick Law Olmsted

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Morton Arboretum, the closest photo I had to landscape architecture

I have all my life been considering distant effects and always sacrificing immediate success and applause to that of the future. In laying out Central Park we determined to think of no result to be realized in less than forty years. — Frederick Law Olmsted

So many surprises in A Clearing In the Distance. Olmsted was an autodidact. A slow starter, a dabbler in disparate enterprises, he kept afloat with his father’s loans. He himself was his father’s ‘Central Park’, the long investment whose glories would become apparent in the future. Fame first came as a journalist. He sailed to China; he bought a farm; he traveled to Europe; he started a magazine; he managed the largest gold mine in California.

It is the breadth of Olmsted’s curiosity that makes his writing compelling.

His genius was made manifest when he, along with Calvert Vaux, created New York City’s Central Park. After that, Olmsted designed other huge city parks, the suburb of Riverside, IL, university campuses, cemeteries, the U.S. Capitol grounds, the World’s Fair in Chicago, and the Biltmore Estate. I enjoyed reading about the projects he didn’t get: Golden Gate Park, the city of Tacoma, WA.

The ability to think on a large scale, to project himself into the future, and to quickly master broad issues were skills Olmsted acquired while he was directing the United States Sanitary Commission, managing the Mariposa Estate, and chairing the Yosemite Commission. All these projects depended on his ability to digest and organize large amounts of information, and to integrate diverse requirements. All involved planning in time as well as space.

The timing of my reading was delicious! In some ways this is the daylight to the darkness of Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives. Riis writes extensively about the Children’s Aid Society, started by Olmsted’s closest friend, Charles Brace. Olmsted’s work on Central Park was more civic than aesthetic, giving residents the space to soak up sunshine and fresh air.

Other reading intersections: Erik Larson’s The Devil in White City made me thirsty to know more about FLO. Michael Pollan referenced Olmsted’s ideas in Second Nature. By chance, I’ve landed in books set in the late-19th century. The wider I read, the greater my familiarity grows and the joy of recognition sparks.

Finally, I believe growing up in Lombard, IL, walking through our own Lilacia Park, designed by Jens Jensen, and nearby Morton Arboretum, a 1700-acre tree museum, predisposed me to love this book.

For myself and those interested in cultural history: 5 stars
For those who like biographies, history, and books with an index and maps: 4 stars

Deep Reading (All the Books)

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There is a moment when you’re charmed / challenged / bedazzled by the writing and you resolve to read every book this author has written.

(Sometimes, though, in the middle of the fourth book by that beloved author, one recants! Alas, true story.)

My reading life began with Laura Ingalls Wilder. Twice a year — on my birthday and on Christmas — my dad and mom gave me a brand new hardback, the next Little House in the series. Oh how rich I felt, how lovingly I smoothed the dustjackets, how often I re-read those early books.

Wilder was the first author who inspired me to ‘read the canon’ (not to be confused with reading the cannon!) even though I didn’t know the word canon. As long as we’re talking about obscure words, I like oeuvre. (←three vowels in a row!!!)

In my early twenties I embarked on reading James Michener — always skipping the first boring chapter — immersing myself in family sagas set in Hawaii, Israel, South Africa and the Chesapeake Bay. At some point I forgot what I loved about them and moved on. I have his book, Poland, unread on my shelf, curious what I will think of it after all these years.

Somewhere in my thirties I read Jane. Dear, dear Jane. There is only one Jane whose whispered name thrills the soul. Jane Austen. Seven books that I’ve enjoyed multiple times. My beloved Latin teacher would say, “I was reading Mansfield Park, and came across the ethical dative.” There is more than one reason to read Jane.

Fast forward to 2012. I fell victim to a Kindle Daily Deal and bought all of L.M. Montgomery’s books for $2.99. More astonishingly, I read them all! I had known and loved Anne-with-an-e, but I never knew Emily! A few got a ‘meh’ response, but I enjoyed almost all.

I began to compile a list of authors. David McCullough. Anthony Trollope. (Same beloved Latin teacher remarked, If you like Jane Austen, you should read Trollope.) Jan Karon. Wendell Berry. Miss Read. Marilynne Robinson. Colin Thubron.

[Wait for it! Here come the initials!] A.A. Milne. C.S. Lewis. J.R.R. Tolkien (I can’t. I’m flawed. Because The Silmarillion.) P.G. Wodehouse. G.K. Chesterton. N.D. Wilson.  P.D. James. D.E. Stevenson.

A few authors I vowed to read all and then recanted: Mark Helprin. Alexander McCall Smith. Bill Bryson.

This year I succumbed to Shakespeare. I joined a Facebook group that is reading All of Shakespeare in 2017.  While I don’t love all of the bard, each play or poem rewards the discipline of reading it. It feels like being back in school, with a schedule pressing. I copied a friend’s idea to document the quest.

A friend calls this deep reading. I like that.

Next year I’m thinking of reading all of C.S. Lewis. It will require diligence and discipline. But why wait to read some of the best writing on the planet? Harper One has reissued Lewis’ books in gorgeous paperbacks with deckle edges. (Go ahead and click on the link just to see the covers.) Here is an even better glimpse. Even though I own almost all of CSL in various and sundry editions, I’m jonesing (← am I allowed to use the word jonesing with Lewis?) for this collection. I’ve already mentioned it to my husband. Birthday with a zero this year, dear. This is what I want. I dearly love matched collections.

Last month two young friends invited us to join them for lunch. As I passed through a bedroom (the only route to the only bathroom) I noticed her shelves full of Louis L’Amour paperbacks. What fun! She has her own quest, yes?!

How Can I Keep from Reading? Pt. 3

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Why I Read, Part 3

My third answer is: I read because I’m tired.

I went through a long spell (5+ years) of insomnia. It was impossible to turn my mind off and go to sleep; even more difficult to return to sleep after waking at 2:00 – 4:00 a.m.  All recommended remedies were futile. My jaw clenched in frustration. At least if I read, I didn’t feel like the time was a total waste. A favorite coping mechanism was to go into the living room and read. My object was to become chilled through. Then I slinked into the warm bed and back into that sweet unconscious state.

Sal knew that she would not sleep so she took Emma to bed with her, hoping that the well-known story would soothe her troubled spirit and dissipate her worried thoughts…
~ from The Four Graces by D.E. Stevenson

Since I was diagnosed with sleep apnea and now use a CPAP, I’m sleeping 7-8.5 hours straight, which is wealth untold.

But I still use books to soothe myself to sleep. The hour between going to bed and the book falling on my face is my primary reading time. Each evening my husband asks me, “What are you reading?” and I give a short recap, sometimes reading a sample.

There are two kinds of bedtime books: books that put you to sleep, and books that make you lose sleep. I usually choose the book whose deadline (library, friend-loans, book club, self-imposed) is most pressing. Too many times I’ve listed an unread book for sale or swap (cold logic insisting I’ll never read it); when the email “Sold. Ship Now.” arrives, I panic and decide to read it before I mail it. Even when it’s 400 pages. #fearofmissingout

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