Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Monday 13 June 2005

Do I read? Yes I do ...

I've been 'tagged' by Alan and David to take part in a round-robin (aka Book Meme), this time about books and booklists. So here is my small contribution:

Number of books I 'own'
For the unashamed 'capitalist roader' that I am, some of what I write here may perhaps surprise and/or startle some readers. I possess, probably, around 700 or so books at present. A few years ago I gave rather more than 1,000 of my then collection of 1,300 or so books to a local library and they seemed quite pleased to have them. Over the previous ten or fifteen years I had probably disposed of, mainly by similar donations, a further 500 or so books. Apart from a few books, which I expect I shall always keep (indeed I have several copies of some, in different bindings) I have never felt it sensible to 'hoard' every book I have ever purchased; I read most books once only and I'd rather others get a chance to read them, too, rather than them cluttering up shelf-space gathering dust; even though my small library has been catalogued in a PC database for the last 20 or so years (one of the first things I used a PC for when I got my first personal computer in 1982) and placed them in alphabetic-order by author on my bookshelves, I decided many years ago that having books two-deep on shelves was neither very elegant nor convenient. So I conduct regular 'pruning' to allow me to justify the acquisition of new titles every so often.

The last book I purchased
It is in fact some months ago, as I have a number of unread or only partially-read and recently-purchased books in my 'in-tray'. Apart from an analysis of the EU Constitutional Treaty (a riveting read, I think you'll agree - not), the last novel I acquired was The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst; this won the 2004 Booker Prize. Hollinghurst is a fine writer of dialogue and has a very fine touch for social nuances. The first book I read by this author, The Swimming Pool Library, some seventeen years ago, opened my eyes to modern quality gay-themed writing and his latest effort reveals that Hollinghurst has continued to develop as a fine writer; well worth the effort required. In fact the last book I purchased was not 'new' to me, but a further copy of one I already have several copies of, this time in a more luxurious binding, of the ubiquitous The Lord of the Rings - it is one of the books (this includes all the copies of it that I have - some of these have their own special meanings for me for various reasons) that I will keep always. I have read this book seven or so times so far, and expect that I will read it many more times before I am carted away. There are many less-expensive editions - see here and here, for example).

The last book I read
One of the problems I have increasingly been finding is that pressure of other activities (not work, of course, as I don't do that) has restricted the time I have available to read. Quite apart from worthwhile activities, however one might describe these, there is the time taken to research and write some of what appears in this blog, the availability of more and more entertainment outlets (a multitude of television channels, radio channels, concerts, cinema, etc) which all reduce collectively the time available to sit, read and absorb what one has read. If anything ever provokes me to discontinue this blog, it will very probably be this kind of consideration. Anyway, to get back to the point, the last two books I read include, firstly at a more serious level, In Defense of Global Capitalism by Johan Norberg, put out by the Cato Institute - he gives the lie to the arguments of the (far too many!) anti-globalist cranks who plague our lives. In a more frivolous vein, Trust Fund Boys by Rob Byrnes - a real disappointment, I'm afraid. Byrnes writes gay-themed books designed primarily for a gay audience and this story of two gay sheisters on the make infiltrating themselves into wealthy gay circles in New York is both brittle (which can be fun, but here is scarcely credible) and shallow; his earlier book The Night We Met, about a youngish man who falls in love with the gorgeous son of a mafia capo is highly readable and funny: perhaps he'll return to form with later novels.

Five books that I like a lot
I'll try and limit myself to just five, although I may mention a few more as 'asides' to some of these:
- The Glass Bead Game (orig title Das Glasperlenspiel) by Hermann Hesse, considered his greatest novel and one of the later he wrote, for which he won the 1946 Nobel Prize for Literature. I first read this in my early teens (i.e. in the mid-1960s) when I was beginning to dabble in Eastern philosophy, principally Zen Buddhism, but with a few other oddities thrown in. It is written as a biography of Joseph Knecht, several centuries in the future, who rises from very humble beginnings to become the leader and spiritual guide of a remote province, Castalia, which is devoted to strictly disciplined learning, meditation and intellectual pursuits, principal amongst which is 'The Glass Bead Game'. This book has had a profound influence on my thinking for most of my adult life. Since then I have read a number of his other books which, whilst somewhat 'dry' (like all his writing), were thought-provoking, too - e.g. Rosshalde, Peter Camenzind, Knulp, The Journey to the East, Steppenwolf, plus some more besides.
- The Plague (orig title La Peste) by Albert Camus. Although I first read this in English, in my late teens, it is the first book I ever read with reasonable comfort in French, some years later, when I lived in Casablanca. The story related is of a plague which affected Oran, a city in Algeria, during the 1940s; Camus was born in Algeria and spent most of the early years of his life there. However, this is only the ostensible purpose of the book - it is thought to be in reality an allegory for the German occupation of France during World War II, during which Camus worked for the French Resistance. He was awarded the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature. Other books of his I have read include The Outsider, The Myth of Sisyphus (possibly his most profound work), The Fall, plus more besides.
-Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin. This, and some of the later novels in the series, first appeared as serialisations in The San Fransisco Chronicle. In the first book a young woman called Mary Anne Singleton travels to San Franscisco for a short vacation from her Cleveland, Ohio home - and decides not to go back home. She finds lodgings in the magical world of '28 Barbary Lane', owned by the highly-eccentric Mrs Anna Madrigal. Other tenants include a young gay man, Michael Tolliver (who is living out his gay fantasies well away from his highly conservative home state and parents back in Florida); Brian Hawkins a law-school drop-out from Chicago (if I recall correctly), who is now a waiter in cheap restaurants to pay for his highly-sexed existence as a raging heterosexual in a city where there seems to be little competition as so many other men are gay although he and Michael become close friends and 'cruising buddies' (each with their separate targets, of course); and last but certainly not least, the somewhat sinister and older Norman Neal Williams whose cover story is that he is a vitamin salesman, but is in fact a seedy private investigator looking into Mrs Madrigal's background on behalf of her estranged wife. I first read this in the mid-1980s and found it unputdownable, it is laugh-out-loud in parts, as well as tragic and horrible, all in one glorious mix. I quickly obtained copies of later books in the series and others as they were published, for example More Tales of the City, Further Tales of the City, Baby Cakes, Significant Others and the final book in the series Sure of You. Armistead Maupin is a great chronicler of the vicissitudes of life, growing up in the 1960s and 1970s and although obviously US-based seemed to me to have a lot to say to at least some of those of us growing up in the UK at the time, whether gay or straight;
- Foundation by Isaac Asimov. This was not the first, by any means, of Asimov's books I read. I have always been an addict of sci-fi and had read many of his short story collections from my early teens onwards. However, Foundation represents the first instalment in what would become a highly-complex set of tales set in the distant future when Earth, and humanity's links to it, had long been forgotten and deals with the final stages of the galaxy-wide and ossifying 'Galactic Empire' and the nascent science of 'Psychohistory' and the formation of the 'Foundation' and the hidden 'Second Foundation', designed to avoid a longer period of anarchy than would otherwise have occurred after the collapse of the 'Galactic Empire'. I cannot count the number of times I have read this and the other books in the series, culminating with the final novel Forward the Foundation, published in 1993 shortly before Asimov's death. The quality of the writing diminished, in my view, in some of the later books (becoming rather too obviously formulaic), but the earlier books are unputdownable and for addicts like me even the later novels are a must;
The Warden by Anthony Trollope. This is the first of six novels in a series known as 'The Barsetshire Novels (or Chronicles)' and like the others in the series it deals with lives and internal politics within the Church of England in Victorian Britain. The characterisation of the social nuances of life within this stratum of English society in the mid-Victorian period is very fine and some aspects of life then seem to deal with a culture very different from what we are familiar with, most of us at least, today (although some of it lingers on - I vividly recall for example, a friend and colleague who, when we were both in our mid-thirties, would always stand with a ramrod-straight back at attention, quite literally, whenever he was speaking to his father on the telephone some thousands of miles away in the UK and refer to him as 'Sir', not 'Father'; life in my family was never quite so formal, I am happy to say). The other novels in the series are Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage, The Small House at Allington and The Last Chronicle of Barset;
- I could add many more here, but I will limit myself to five main titles.

To pass this on, if they wish to take it up of course, I'd like to nominate the following:
Stephen Newton, Robin (Giant Grizzly), Brian Logan, (Shadowfoot), Charlie Williams (Playing for the Wrong Team) and Guillaume Barry at Un swissroll.

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