On Book Buying Bans and Other Futile Attempts to Tackle Mount TBR

libreria-acqua-alta-venice

It’s the beginning of the year and like every year I think I need to change my book buying habits. At the end of last year, for the first time, I went over my book shop purchases and online orders of the last three years and counted every book. And while I was glad to find out that I had bought less in 2016 than in the previous years, I also had to find out that I bought at least three times as many books as I read and that of the books I read in 2016 only 50% had been bought that year.

In the past, I often decided not to buy books for at least three months, participate in TBR dares and double dares and every time I broke the ban within a week, sometimes a day. It just felt like too much of a punishment and I simply couldn’t stick to it. One year, I decided to fix an amount. I decided that I wouldn’t buy for more than X$ every month. You’d be surprised how many books one can buy with even a small amount of money. Suddenly second-hand books became super interesting. So that didn’t work either. Then I decided not to buy more than two books a month. That too, didn’t work because by February I’d already bought the books for March and April too. It’s amazing how one can bend one’s rules.

In the end, I had to admit that restrictive rules that only limited the amount of money spent and/or the amount of books I can buy don’t work for me. I need more than that. I need rules that make sense. So I went back to the piles and purchasing lists and analyzed these in more detail. That’s when I understood that the real problem was buying too much of the same thing.

  • Too many hardbacks published in the current year
  • Too many books by the same author, especially when I’d never read the author in question
  • Too many of the same genre

Of the above, the first annoys me the most. For one, hardbacks are more expensive. Then they are bigger and I have a hard time holding them, so will not be so keen to pick them up. And as soon as the year ends, they feel stale. Everybody has read and reviewed them and it takes awhile until you’re interested again.

Buying too many of the same author is annoying as well. And silly. When I know I like an author, it’s fine but when I’ve never even read him/her . . . Chances that I don’t even like the writer are huge.

The last category is to some extent linked to the first because I tend to buy huge piles of new crime/thriller and sci-fi/fantasy. But there are other genres/types of books that I don’t want to buy too many of. Last year I bought about at least twenty short story collections. Typically they take longer to read and I hardly ever read more than five or six. That makes fifteen for the piles. The same goes for essay collections. I try to read one per month but buy twenty a year. I could add other examples.

Looking at my book buying habits in detail was sobering but I needed it.

Clearly, I need new rules. I want to read more from my piles but I also wan t to stop buying another book published in 2017, as long as I’ve still got an unread book from this year. I don’t want to buy more than one genre novel at the same time and definitely not more than one book from the same author, unless I decide, like last year in the case of Richard Yates, that I’m going to dedicated a whole month to an author.

Additionally, I don’t want to buy more than one book per week. Preferably, I’ll buy more books in book shops. Normally, I read 80% of the books that I buy in book shops, while I only read 30% that I order. There’s a good reason for that. Often I urgently want to read something but it takes almost two weeks to arrive, so by the time I get it, I’m reading something else. However, when I go to a book shop, I pick exactly what I want to read. Since I live in Switzerland, the choice of books in English isn’t big and they are a way more expensive than online (6$ for paperbacks and up to 15$ for hardbacks).

One of the reasons why I buy so many books is that I quickly lose interest in my own piles. In the past, I found that themed reading helped me rekindle my interest in my piles. At the end of last year, when I felt like reading Japanese literature, I went over my piles and discovered so many books, that I got really enthusiastic. Mini-projects like this will help me stick to my piles. I’m not making an annual plan yet, but possibly, I’ll dedicate every month or at least a week per month to either the literature of a country, an author, or a genre.

To cut a long story short – I want to cut my book buying but I’m doing it through “mindful” buying, not through any drastic bans or challenges. The latter don’t work in my case. I’ll let you know how it goes. Wish me luck.

What New Year book buying resolutions do you have?

 

 

Do You Remember the First Book You Bought?

Nuvat the Brave

I still remember that day as if it had been yesterday. I was nine years old and already an avid reader. I had a little bit of money, pocket money I hadn’t spent on comics and some of the sour gums I liked to eat. It was strange to go to school on a Saturday afternoon. Usually that’s when school was off, but it was a special day, a special occasion, and I was keen on spending what little money I had saved.  I still see the entrance of the school, smell the linoleum floor, and heavy chalky air. No other school ever smelled as chalky as this. The display tables took up all the space of the entrance hall and my heart began to beat incredibly fast as soon as I was close to them. I wouldn’t be able to buy a lot. I had to choose carefully and wisely. It wouldn’t be enough money to buy more than one or two books.

The used book sale was a charity event. Children had brought the books they didn’t want anymore, and the school library had contributed those, which were not circulated any longer. There wasn’t a lot I loved more than books, not even at the age of nine. My mother always bought me the latest children’s books and the old classics. Whenever she heard that someone sold the books of their older children, she bought those too. That was wonderful and I loved it, still nothing could compare to that day and the used book sale in my elementary school because that day I bought my very first book.

I still have it somewhere in the attic. It’s torn, the spine is broken, the pages are loose, but the linen cover is still intensely blue and the little Inuit boy in his canoe is still standing upright on the front cover promising a tale of adventure and a world I didn’t know, a world long gone by now. The title was simple, embossed in bold, black letters: “Nuvat the Brave“ by Radko Doone —or rather “Nuvats grosse Fahrt“ in its German translation. It was one of the books the library discarded, an old book that no child had ever checked out.

The book wasn’t only the first book I bought, it opened a door to something, which I have been passionate about ever since – foreign cultures, the promise of strange and haunting tales, other life styles and mysterious rites and habits. A whole wide, wondrous world for me to discover.

Which was the first book you bought?

On Negative “Reviews”, Bookmark Ripping and Nick Hornby

In German a slating review is called a “Verriss” which comes from the word “verreissen” – pull to pieces. When I discovered yesterday what the kitty had done to one of the free bookmarks I got in the bookshop, I thought it was somehow apt to use a picture of it for this post.

I’m not the first nor the last who will mention the debate that was raging on Goodreads, Twitter, a few blogs and even in the newspapers last week. Some of the discussions, although heated, were interesting, while others were alienating or downright offensive. In any case they got me thinking about “reviews” in general and “negative reviews” in particular.

The first incident started on Goodreads where a reader posted a negative review of a YA novel (see here). For reasons I do not understand this triggered a massive response from YA novelists who slagged her off collectively. More and more people entered the debate and in the end it looked like some sort of author versus reader war. I have read her review and while it was easy to see that she didn’t like the book, I didn’t think she was offensive. A lot of these debates were going on on blogs and twitter and were picked up by mainstream media like the guardian here. The guardian article then triggered further responses, one from the YA novelist Maggie Stiefvater (here) which annoyed many bloggers but which I personally find very interesting and balanced.

The next incident happened on the page of the speculative fiction magazine Strange Horizons where a reviewer posted a very negative review (you can find it here) of a Fantasy novel that many like. This has created a response and an intensity of response I found amazing in itself. I was so captivated I could hardly stop reading. At some point a lot was censored.

Sure, the question comes up whether such heated debates only happen when it comes to genre but I do not think so. When you write literary books you even may end up being torn apart by professional critics which may prove to be more fatal. In the cases mentioned above, there were at least people supporting the author.

Much of the debate was circling around the notion of “proper review” and taking into account what a “proper review” is or should be. It was said that a review can be negative or positive but it shouldn’t manipulate the reader or be guided by intense emotions. With this interpretation of review in mind, it was stated that one shouldn’t write an emotionally charged negative review. If you do so, it’s rather an attack than a review.

I for one do not enjoy writing too negative or snarky book reviews. I have seen too many positive reviews of books I didn’t like on other blogs to find it appropriate to be snarky. Why would I want to ridicule a book? That’s like ridiculing someone’s taste in books. Very often I find that negative reviews are not balanced and are used to make the reviewer look good. They often work along the same lines and are aggressive and offensive. They also often rely on saying negative things about the author and ultimately about his readers.

Still this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t say what we like or don’t like but there is always so much that works in a book anyway or that we know will work for others that we should try to emphasize it. I have found wonderful books through someone else’s careful and thoughtful negative review.

Last week, instead of reading The Savage Detectives, I spent a lot of time with Nick Hornby’s wonderful essay collection Housekeeping vs The Dirt which he wrote for the magazine Believer. One of their mottos, as he writes is Thou Shalt Not Slag Anyone Of. As he explains further

As I understand it, the founders of the magazine wanted one place, one tiny corner of the world, in which writers could be sure that they weren’t going to get a kicking; predictably and depressingly, this ambition was mocked mercilessly, mostly by those critics whose children would go hungry if their parent’s weren’t able to abuse authors whose books they didn’t like much.

When I visit a new blog I read a few posts here and there and I’m very glad if I see the writer has written about books he/she likes and about some he/she doesn’t like and I will pay extra attention when reading negative reviews. Not too long ago I was on a blog who reviewed a book that another blogger had recommended as being particularly great. Said blogger not only hated the book but found it to be insulting his/her intelligence. The blogger went on and on how weird it was that another person did recommend this. He/she took it apart in minute detail, making herself/himself look good and witty in the process and of course that person got a lot of applause. People loved the snark, couldn’t get enough of it. I wonder if anyone else felt as bad as I did. What about the person who did recommend the book (mercifully the name wasn’t given)? Funnily it is a book that I have read and think in its genre it is a very good book. If said blogger only reads romance or even only literary fiction he/she wouldn’t get it and shouldn’t even bother reading it. Reading it and then emphasizing that this isn’t what we would normally read because it is beyond us, is a bit shameful. Maybe the person did sound intelligent, she certainly didn’t sound kind.

There is an instance in which I find a negative review acceptable and that is when the book is morally unacceptable. When it glorifies oppression, racism, sexism, or is a vehicle of harmful propaganda. In that case the negative review could serve as a warning for the reader and is even necessary.

Another instance in which I find it acceptable is when a literary writer who is extremely smug in his utterances about others and dismissive of other’s craft writes something that is bad. In that case you can say, he or she had it coming.

How about you? Do you like to read snarky reviews? Do you write them?

To end on a positive note, here is a picture of  the bookmark ripper and, no, that’s not my bed, excuse me, that’s one of his own. Fluffy and comfy, original Icelandic eider-down.

On the History of Stefan Zweig’s Balzac



About a year ago I inherited my mother and my grandmother’s books. They fill up more than one cellar. We are talking about thousands of hardbacks as both never bought paperbacks. They didn’t think they were looking good on the wood shelves. And they removed all the dust jackets which is not helpful as there are so many that may or may not be good but I have no clue what they are about.

To cut a long story short there are also innumerable classics and collected works of many an author. You can find the whole works of Goethe, Schiller, Romain Rolland, Upton Sinclair, John Galsworthy…

I remembered that I had seen a 50s edition of Stefan Zweig’s Balzac somewhere and – oh wondrous moment – found it within a minute. Dusty and with a somewhat musty smell but nicely intact. What surprised me more than the speedy recovery of the book was the afterword and I realized I had had no idea how the book came to be, let alone that Stefan Zweig meant this to be his magnum opus, his most important work. Considering that literary biographies were something he excelled at we can easily deduce how important his Balzac must have been for him.

The afterword in my Balzac edition has been written by Richard Friedenthal, Stefan Zweig’s friend who got to be the literary executor of the manuscripts that had remained in Europe after Zweig fled to Petrópolis where, in 1942,  he ended his life together with his wife.

It took Stefan Zweig over ten years of working, compiling, taking notes and rewriting but when he died, Balzac was still not finalized, or so he said. He managed to finish Die Schachnovelle or Chess in Petrópolis and his autobiography. However he had wished to finish the Balzac as well and had asked Friedenthal to send the manuscript to Petrópolis, which he did, but the papers never reached Zweig. By the time it arrived in Brazil, Zweig had already ended his life. The mansucript was sent back to Friedenthal who then sorted and edited what was, according to him, almost finished anyway.

Zweig had written the last draft of the Balzac in Bath, where he had stayed before emigrating to the US and from there to Brazil.

Zweig’s book Drei Meister or Masterbuilders of the Spirit already contains an essay on Balzac, together with essays on Dickens and Dostojewski. But that was just like warming up. Clearly the topic of Balzac was far too important to him to be left in the form of an essay only.

As Friedenthal points out, Balzac was of supreme importance for Austrian literature. It was the reception of authors like Hugo von Hofmannsthal who contributed to a large extent to Balzac’s fame during his lifetime.

Hofmannsthal said about him that he was “the biggest substantial imagination since Shakespeare”. The Austrian authors thought of him as the incarnation of literary potential. Zweig thought pretty much the same and despaired many times during the composition of the book, it seemed almost too enormous an undertaking.

When Friedenthal, who lived in London during the Second World War, looked at the manuscript, after Zweig’s death, he saw that it didn’t need a lot of changes and undertook to edit what he got. Reading what he writes about it makes you think that it is a miracle this book was ever published. Friedenthal describes how it was literally ripped out of his hands twice when, during the Blitz,  the house he lived in was bombed. Apparently one can still see bits of plaster and little splinters of glass in the original manuscript. On the papers are numerous notes and remarks of Stefan Zweig’s wife who helped him correct and edit his works. Zweig had already written “For the editor” on the front page which led to Friedenthal’s assumption that Zweig himself considered it to be fairly finished.

I am not sure when I will start to read Zweig’s Balzac, but I  know I will. These two authors seem such opposites. I know I’m simplifying things but it seems as if one of the two was so avid for life that it killed him and the other one so tired of it that he ended it.