Fellow travellers

Ideogram of lift or, if you prefer, elevator. Looks like a man has, again, assumed it’s his job to control things …

My relationship with books is a bit like that one has with passengers in a slow-moving lift, a relationship which is perfectly illustrated by a visit to my bedside table. Here, alongside reading glasses and case, watch, alarm clock, notebook and pen sit a couple of piles of books. (We won’t talk, just now, of the ones that sit out of sight in the top drawer.) I’m a rather faithless reader, picking up books that take my fancy, sometimes sticking with one for the duration but mostly flitting from one to another. I like to pretend that I do this because different titles advantageously inform each other; but it may simply be that I have a goldfish brain, unable to sustain a thought for long.

For example, at the moment I’m ploughing through Elinor Brent-Dyer’s 1935 classic The New House at the Chalet School, a boarding school story set in the Austrian Tyrol. This is not normally my preferred reading but as it was selected by the Classics Spin challenge I naturally had little choice; I’m not at the moment regretting it, however! But at the same time I’m also working my way through philosopher A C Grayling’s collection of essays entitled The Mystery of Things (2004), full of bite-size items on a variety of topics covering the arts, history and science. As an antidote to the goings-on in the alpine school it’s perfect.

A brief survey or catalogue raisonné of what sits in those piles will, I believe, clarify my magpie habits a little. I’ll list these remaining thirteen books now in no particular order except as to what comes to hand; the order was probably decided by the best way to build up the towers so that they didn’t topple over or go bump in the night.

Leonardo Olschiki’s The Grail Castle and its Mysteries is a 1966 translation of an essay proposing that Chrétien de Troyes’ medieval poem of the grail was based on the Cathar heresy; I’ve got halfway through this, running to and fro from text to the copious notes. Steven Swann-Jones’ The Fairy Tale: the Magic Mirror of the Imagination (2002) is a reread; I’m partway through this for the second time. Daphne Lee, who edited Malaysian Tales Retold and Remixed (2011), kindly sent me a copy which I mostly completed during an autumn trip to the south of France, though I never got back to it on my return. But I will!

I can see a sort of link with the last three titles; does the same apply to the next few? Maybe: I have Ursula Le Guin’s The Earthsea Quartet (1993) in that same pile, having earlier read and reviewed the first of the series; this sits next to Kathryn L Ramage’s alternate history / fantasy Sonnedragon from 2013, though I seem to have stalled on this sometime in the last few months. However the next title is Meike Ziervogel’s Clara’s Daughter (2014), described as a contemporary psycho-thriller and so not really in the same fantasy category as the last two, and certainly not on the evidence of the first chapter.

Next come some more books by female authors. Janice Elliott’s The Noise from the Zoo (1991) is a collection of short stories, as is the shorter Sour Tales for Sweethearts by Patricia Highsmith, issued in 2015. I’ve not yet started either of these. I am however substantially through Irene Collins’ study Jane Austen and the Clergy (2002) and Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth (2006), though why I haven’t completed either I’m not sure — perhaps they were a bit dry or heavy for my tastes around Christmas time which is when I temporarily abandoned them.

This leaves three very dissimilar titles. Henry James’ The Aspen Papers (1888) is tempting, set in a Venetian palazzo, but I am determined to resist it for now. Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent (2017) is another title I’ve been intending to plunge into, though a recently published selection of Jean Rhys’ short stories, Till September Petronella (2018) has pipped it to the post — I’ve read the first two tales already.

What conclusions can I draw from this motley collection of fellow travellers? There are eleven female authors represented as opposed to four male, a reflection perhaps of my manly determination to better reflect issues regarding gender parity in 2018. There are six collections, of which four are of short stories. Ten titles are fiction, five non-fiction; two (the Earthsea compendium and the essays on fairy tales) are rereads.

Finally, I’ve started but not completed eleven of the fifteen books. In a way they all are exactly like those individuals from the habitual or occasional elevator trips we might take: some we don’t know, some we have a nodding acquaintance with, others are close colleagues, some travel with us all the way while others get out of the lift as we get in.

Now, you remember those books languishing in the top drawer? I’ve already got my eyes on a few of those, particularly Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun and, in total contrast, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. It’s not yet their turn to travel on the fickle elevator; but their time will doubtless come.


Do you have similar tottering piles of TBR and/or in-the-process-of-reading books by the bed or elsewhere? What are your reading habits and how do you cope with multiple titles on the go, if that’s your weakness? Or are you a one-title-at-a-time kind of reader?

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47 thoughts on “Fellow travellers

  1. inkbiotic

    I love your eclectic and considered collection, mine is a jumble. Books given to me, books I need to read to write reviews for, books for research, books I started then got bored of, books I’m definitely going to read soon so I put next to my bed. And now I’ve got a Kindle to add to the mess. You’ve inspired m, I’m going to do some sorting…soon, I promise. 🙂

    1. No need to be ashamed of jumble, Petra, chaos is not a bad thing to have in your life — not too much, mind you! And you make me sound more organised than I really am: eclectic they may be but these titles were genuinely picked up at random and then promptly forgotten.

      But glad you’re inspired, my post wasn’t in vain then!

  2. Back when I was in university, it wasn’t uncommon for me to be reading 4-6 books at a time (English major, history minor, plus one for fun). That continued for a while after getting out too (fun & professional research). Since becoming a parent, I’m down to one at a time due to . . ., well, time. 🙂

    1. Kids are lovely and rewarding (and there’s so much brilliant stuff to read to them when they’re young) but there does come a time when you get to read for your own selfish pleasure, Brent, I promise! And it’s not just in the gap between them growing up and the possible advent of grandkids either! Mind you, the biggest obstacles to reading at any age (as l’m finding out now) is the insistent demand of social media. The simple solution for me is leaving electronic devices downstairs when I retire for the night … but I guess with kids you’re not even guaranteed that ‘me’ time then.

      These things will pass. 😊

  3. Lol.
    Yes, I do have a bunch of books by my bed, in my bedroom shelves, on my nightstand, in a small table between nightstand and one of the shelves… I am determined to finish them in due time, and once I get knee deep in one or two, I usually concentrate on it till the end. I’m about to finish Persuasion, my classics spin title.

    1. Persuasion is definitely — after a slowish start — a ‘knee-deep’ novel, as I found, Silvia! Hope you’re enjoying it. In between scheduling this post and it being published I managed to finish my Classics Spin, and hope to get a review out ere long; it started as a duty read but I ended up really involved!

  4. I love hearing about other people’s reading lists and habits!!

    I absolutely do have a big old TBR pile. In fact it has to go on the floor next to my bed as it’s too unstable on my bedside table! The content of my pile is very different though.

    50% are non-fiction like Steve Silberman’s “Neurotribes”, Juan Martinez’s “Conviction”, “Spy the Lie” a book about the CIA’s method of detecting deceit and a collection of various freshwater angling books and a big biology textbook called “Animal”

    Then most of the rest are Science Fiction including Jame’s SA Corey’s Expanse series (I’m now on book 6 “Babylon’s Ashes”) lots of Star Wars Novels and comic books – a massive personal favourite if not exactly a highbrow read and nearly always a William Gibson novel or two ( at the moment it’s “Spook Country” and “Zero History”. )

    Then there are books which just grab my attention like Athol Fugard’s “Tsotsi” and recently Kazuo Ishiguro’s book “The Remains of the Day”

    1. Though parts were distressing I got a lot out of Silberman’s book, and it clarified a lot about my response to being on the spectrum. The CIA book sounds fascinating too, very apposite to current events and I imagine very revealing.

      I’ve not got into Gibson yet — I don’t think having an unread copy of Neuromancer somehow counts 😁 — and anyway tend to space out my SF reading, so it may be some time before I tackle him. But I mean to read Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go before the end of the year.

      Yours sounds a right, old eclectic collection of reading matter too, I’m glad there are many of us grasshopper readers around!

      1. I’ve only read a couple of chapters of Silberman’s book so far. Each chapter seems quite self contained so I’m approaching this one a chapter at a time. So far I’ve found it interesting.

        I think they made a film of ‘Never Let Me Go’ which I have seen. The film was very provocative and well done, (I think Alex Garland did the screenplay) but books always seem to promise more, so I’ll have to find a copy.

        Gibson is excellent but I do remember Neuromancer being quite a tricky read because of his style and vocab. at the time. It might be better to start with Count Zero and then go back if you fancy readying any of them? Just an idea.

        1. Good advice on Gibson, Jo, thanks. As for the Ishiguro film, I think I’ll go for the book first!

          Good luck with the Silberman, I found it slow and heavy going, but I found it worthwhile. He mentions Paul Dirac who I discovered was born and lived in a road adjacent to the one where I was brought up in Bristol — not at the same time, though. 😁

  5. I so relate to everything you write here, Chris. My life is just one mighty mountain of unread (or partially read) books. My only saving grace has been my more recent reviewing commitments, which means I’ve been forced to draw up a schedule of sorts. I now have monthly lists showing which books I absolutely MUST read before a particular date.

    I do like your pithy phrase, “fickle elevator”. Must remember that one when I’m next buying up the contents of a second hand book shop!

    Incidentally, when I read your heading I thought for one moment you were announcing your allegiance to the Communist Party! 🤣

      1. If books are your ‘friends’, as they are for me, it makes sense that that they collectively are travellers in time, each waiting for the reader to select them for an intimate conversation or dialogue. That was my reasoning, anyway!

        1. I meant I couldn’t make sense of your title in relation to the other commenter who thought you had joined the communist party, 🙂 But sure, they are fellow travelers.

          1. When I used this phrase ‘fellow travellers’ it did sound familiar. Looking it up I found this alternative definition: “a person who is not a member of a particular group or political party (especially the Communist Party), but who sympathizes with the group’s aims and policies.”

            I suspect the phrase was much used in the US of the 50s during the McCarthyite so-called witch hunts of communist members and sympsthisers. (Ironic then that Trump calls investigation of his activities a WITCH HUNT and, being Trump, it has to be in capital letters.)

            1. Lol, awww, I see. I was born in Madrid, and I moved to Texas 21 years ago, so that phrase did go under my radar. I liked hearing the story behind.

            2. My knowledge of 20th-century world history is very hit and miss but I do remember the phrase as having significance, just didn’t know from where. Thank goodness for search engines! 🙂

    1. I hoped the title would intrigue, Paula, and it has!

      Yes, reviewing has helped to structure my reading habits too: at least one book review a week is my goal, interspersed with chat about books, words, current affairs or some idea or other. I feel twitchy if I don’t have a critique lined up!

      ‘Fickle elevator’ is a phrase I give to you, Paula, along with ‘fickle conveyor belt’, ‘fickle travelator’ and ‘fickle escalator’! Do these conveyancing apparatuses have a mind of their own? I think they do!

    1. I wasn’t sure if as a mere male I’d enjoy a tale about a girls boarding school but I managed to surprise myself! I certainly would read another one or two in the series.

  6. No Chris, your post was not in vain, I bought three books yesterday and one today….not started any…….but read your post. I have four on the go, maybe I should read very short stories, or just your posts 🙂 Lynne

    1. Think of lots of books on shelves as wallpaper: every so often you can move them around to create a new colour palette and voilà! it’s like you’ve redecorated! Piles of unread books are also useful for balancing table lamps and coffee cups on, and for hiding the cobwebs that inevitably appear when spring sunshine illuminates those dusty corners that winter daylight drew a veil over. 🌞

  7. Can you all believe I know for sure I read a couple of those in Spanish when I was a teenage girl or before, and I can’t find the titles anymore? (I loved them and I would love to know how they feel now.)
    And yes, at times my reading falls into a very uninspired hole as well.

  8. Your collection of reading/to reads reminds me of myself of old. Now I have a couple of titles that I never seem to get the time to get anywhere with. Needed is to identify something I am giving time to (like eating) that I can sacrifice in order to get back to previous good habits.

    1. I’m so pleased that I’m not the only one. There must be a collective noun for us multiple readers unless of course … it’s that we just have short attention spans! A vacancy of readers? A concourse of flibbertigibbets? A multiplicity of tome-testers?

  9. I, too, have been diverting my attentions between different books. I normally don’t dig this kind of split, but some days I’m in the mood for essays, and sometimes for story. Ah well! Happy to hear you’ve so many worlds and histories to uncover. 🙂

    1. There’s an archetype of a kind of reader/writer/scholar, isn’t there, whose study is superficially disorganised, books in tottering piles, improvised bookmarks peeping out from tomes, possessor of a desktop with no visible surface.

      I’m not quite there, but the mental image is of someone interested in a range of things rather than a narrowly focused serial thinker. I think I’m more the absent-minded prof than the organised schemer — but without the higher intellect of either!

      I’m guessing, Jean, that, with a lively (and delightful!) family to distract you, you have to combine the best qualities of both types!

        1. Keep telling yourself you’re modelling good behaviour and habits whenever you pick up a book — they’ll see that and assume it’s normal and so be more than inclined to copy it when they’re older (or at least respect those who do read). At least this was my mantra when our kids were little, though my partner assumed it was just me disengaging from family life… 😁

  10. Pingback: Book piles and reading habits | Re-enchantment Of The World

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