Have You Been Hounded By A Book?

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Have you ever been chased by a book? Maybe it is a book that has been sitting on your shelves for a long time that you have always been meaning to get around to read. Or perhaps it is one of those books you never heard about until a week ago, and suddenly three unrelated people told you about the book and insisted that you needed to read it.

I was reminded of this experience while reading The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley, which I recently reviewed. His bookseller, Roger Mifflin is talking to his young protege’, Titania Chapman, when he asks:

“Did you ever notice how books track you down and hunt you out? They follow you like the hound in Francis Thompson’s poem. They know their quarry! Look at that book The Education of Henry Adams! Just watch the way it’s hounding out people this winter. . . . That’s why I call this place the Haunted Bookshop. Haunted by the ghosts of the books I haven’t read. Poor uneasy spirits, they walk and walk around me. There’s only one way to lay the ghost of a book, and that is to read it.”

I did read The Education of Henry Adams but never felt hounded by it. Nor do I feel haunted by ghosts of books I haven’t read. But hounded? Chased? Yes. For example, I never got beyond the first 50 pages or so of Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship until a few years ago when I read it with a book group. Yet I quoted Bonhoeffer’s statement in the book, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” I could talk about “cheap grace.” But it bothered me that I had never read the whole book, a profound exposition of the sermon on the mount. Later in life, several different friends mentioned Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace until I finally sat down and read this profound account of the “other” and how we might encounter those very different from us.

There are some books that continue to hound me. The Chronicles of Narnia are begging for another reading. Just to my right I see the old, second hand copy of the Modern Library’s edition of Capital by Karl Marx. No, I’m not going to become a communist, but I’ve always been interested in work and workers, and often come across references to this book. Haven’t cracked the book as yet. That equally applies to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, one of the first attempts to define what is distinctive about the American experiment and The Federalist Papers, and their arguments for the Constitution.

One of the books that has hounded me was Boccaccio’s Decameron. I inherited an old edition of the book from my mother, one of the works she loved. A book group I’m in has just started reading this Italian classic from the fourteenth century in modern translation. Witty, ironic, perceptive of human foibles and more than a little bawdy at times, but not boring. I finding myself wondering what stories mom liked most. That goes for the set of Balzac novels she loved as a girl. Other than Pere Goriot, they are still hounding me.

Have you been hounded by a book? What was it like to finally sit down and make friends with the hound and read the book? Did the book become a friend, or did you find yourself wonder, “what do people see in this?” What books have hounded you?

Books Never Started

20160127_202819-1The books above are books on my shelves that I bought at some point in the distant past (each probably more than five years ago) thinking at the time they would be interesting books to read. And I never have. The question I ask myself as I get older is whether I will, and should I purge these from the shelves? So far they have escaped.

Turns out I am not alone. A study by Kobo (and this is in reference to e-books), cited by Andrew Rhomberg, found that only 60 percent of books purchased are ever opened! I do think e-books are a special case. When I first got my e-reader, I downloaded all sorts of books, especially those available for free. Then I found some sale sites that usually sold books $2.99 and under. I kind of wonder if the decline in e-book sales this past year (down 10 percent by some reports) reflects e-reader owners with e-readers full of books they haven’t read.

You wouldn’t think this a problem–a sale is a sale whether the book is read or not. What Rhomberg would say is that a sale is only a sale if the book is not read. If it is read and liked and talked about, it may lead to other sales. What is interesting is that through Advanced Reader Copy programs and digital tracking, publishers are learning about how far readers are getting into books, or whether they are reading them at all. And they are tailoring their marketing to what they learn.

One thing they found is that the more one paid for a book, the more likely they were to start it. Kind of makes sense, really. They also found that plot-driven books were completed far more than more “literary” works. Generally, if a reader made it half way through, they were pretty likely to finish.

One of the most interesting things to look at are the books that sell really well, and yet are finished by few. Often, a celebrity figure has endorsed it, perhaps without finishing the book. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century appears to be one of these (this is one I can say I actually finished and reviewed here). Bill Gates talked about this book, Piketty was featured on Charlie Rose, and many of us marched out and bought the book!

What about those books in the picture? I’ve always been interested in military history, especially British and American military history. I always thought Wellington would be an interesting figure to read about. Still do. Just might pull this one out. Sometime.

The book, Jesus and the Kingdom of God is still available in print on demand. As I recall, reading and teaching the Gospel of Mark intrigued me with this whole idea of the kingdom of God, kind of a foreign concept in our democracy where we don’t talk about kings and kingdoms. I think I found this at Eerdmans bookshop in Grand Rapids in their seconds shelves for a bargain. Since then, I’ve read other books on the topic and suspect I probably won’t read this one.

The True and Only Heaven was referenced in a talk that caught my attention. I picked it up for a bargain at Half Price Books back in 1992 for $2 according to the price sticker that is still on the book. The book is about the idea of progress and the opposition of anti-materialists to this idea. Sounded interesting at the time, probably not so much now, despite the very erudite tone of the book. Another for the purge pile.

I picked up the Time Reading Program version of Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler’s fictional account of Stalinist Russia in the 1930’s. I have collected the Time Reading Program editions when I come across them and have come across many references to Koestler’s work. May try to read this sometime if I can do so without destroying the stiff binding that characterizes these books.

So that I don’t feel alone, name one book that you bought that you thought you’d really like to read that you’ve never opened.

TBR

One of my TBR piles

One of my TBR piles

That stands for “To Be Read.”  One of the things that defines a bibliophile are the stacks of physical and/or e-books waiting “To Be Read.” You know how it goes. You are browsing in the bookstore or a library sale or online and you find a great bargain on a book you’ve wanted to read or you thought sounded interesting in a review you read. You can’t read it immediately so it goes on the stack–or one of the stacks.

If you are a bibliophile, you have probably struggled with this. On the one hand, there is the anticipation of reading the books, which sometimes can be as good as the actual reading! Just to look at the spines, the blurbs on the back of the book or the table of content can whet your appetite (and remind you why you bought that book in the first place).

On the other hand, this can verge on, or cross over the boundary to hoarding, particularly if it seems the piles are taking over your house! The challenge becomes even greater if you start getting sent books to review. I realized recently that I probably don’t have enough life left to read all the unread books I have, either in stacks in my house or on my Kindle. That for me seems to define the line where collecting is at least straying into the territory of hoarding–hard as it is to admit!

There is one TBR pile I probably won’t get rid of. It is by the bed and is what I’d call my “staging area.” When I finish a book, this is where I go for the next book to read. I usually filter books from other piles here as the pile shrinks. Right now the pile has some Jeff Shaara novels, a three volume Teddy Roosevelt biography, and some more “theological” books by Os Guinness, Jurgen Moltmann and an autobiography of Therese of Liseaux.  (Previews of future reviews!)

It’s the other piles that need to go. Truthfully, they all make the house look more cluttered. Either I do something or my family will stage an intervention! My first goal would be to clear the one in my spare bedroom by the end of the year (either by moving books into the stack by the bed or getting rid of them).

That confronts a reality I need to deal with. If the books have been on a TBR pile more than a couple years, I need to ask whether I’m really going to read them. This summer, I was able to give away two good size boxes of such books. Yes, I grieved, but I also remember what C.S. Lewis said about our libraries in heaven being comprised of the books we gave away on earth.

There is also the question of where books go after I’ve read them. Once again, it is increasingly apparent that unless it is a book I may re-read or reference, it probably needs to go. I’ve made a rule that I need to weed out a couple books for anything I shelve.

Finally, I can’t shrink these piles if I add to them! Perhaps a goal at this point is to not acquire a new book without reading five others and getting rid of at least that many. That means at most that I can acquire 24 books a year or 2 a month.

Here’s a big goal: have only the TBR pile by the bed by the end of next year. Looking for a good deal on books or even some free ones? Look for a big book purge next summer. It’s time to bring those TBR stacks in line with reality!