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?