In mid-June it looked like I wasn’t going to buy any books in the month. I wasn’t feeling ‘it’. No books were jumping out at me, making me feel that it was essential that I have them and read them. No books were making me feel anxious that they may soon be out of print or hard to find in the version I want. No book sales or deals were tempting me.
Don’t get me wrong, the lists of books I want to get are still agonizingly long. Classics like The Idiot by Dostoyevsky or Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. Modern classics like the works of Virginia Woolf that I keep avoiding. Many, many books on history, science, religion and philosophy. Even recent and new releases like Pulitzer Prize winner The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, Arundhati Roy’s first book in 20 years; The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, or Howard Jacobson’s satire of Trump; Pussy. But I just didn’t feel very motivated.
Is it possible that I am reaching my limit? As I’ve mentioned previously, I have done the math and know that I may not live long enough to read all the books I already have, which is super-depressing. I try to ignore this and rationalise it away by telling myself that many of my TBR books can be read very quickly, that I could make more time by taking fewer notes, trying to be less distracted, or that I’ll have more time to read in retirement.
There are other factors at work as well. I have come to be in the habit of buying books to share in posts like this one. Books that I hope would make good reviews when I read them. Mostly that means buying and reading fiction; non-fiction reviews don’t get nearly the same numbers for likes and views. But, frankly, non-fiction is where a lot of important and exciting writing is being done on current issues. Meanwhile, in the back of my mind, there is a growing list of books I want to get and read that I don’t necessarily want to review here. Books that might expand my mental or physical skill set, even my employability. Books on parenting and rational self-help. They cost more, might be good for me, but won’t make good posts! So it feels like a difficult choice to prioritise them over books that may do well on my blog.
But despite all this, there was one fiction book I genuinely wanted and another that I’d promised to myself. Otherwise I had to dig deep and ask myself, putting aside all other considerations, blog included, what books out there are exciting me.
The book I had promised to myself was a nice leather-bound edition of four Jules Verne novels – Five Weeks in a Balloon, A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days. These leather-bound editions have been popular the past few years and my wife and I have bought a few of them. This one might be the last we get – I can’t imagine many other books we’d want in this form. I’d wanted it for a while but promised myself I would only buy it as a reward to myself for a good result in my last exam. You may recall last month I did not feel confident coming out of my exam, but it turns out I got a very high grade.
The book I genuinely wanted was The Children of the Alley by Naguib Mahfouz. I’ve read and enjoyed Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. In the course of reading the trilogy, I learned a bit more about him. Back when the fatwa against Salman Rushdie was issued, there were some in the Muslim world who argued that if Rushdie deserved a fatwa, then so did Mahfouz. I can’t be completely certain, but it may be safe to say this was not said in defence of Rushdie, even by pointing out an inconsistency, but to repeat a condemnation against this book and Mahfouz, who is the Arabic-writing world’s only Literature Nobel Laurette.
I’m not sure what is so disagreeable about this book but, having read the Cairo Trilogy, I can guess. The Cairo Trilogy concerns three generations of an Egyptian family between the World Wars. It shows that beneath the family’s external façade of respectability, conservatism, religious observance and tradition (and by extension beneath Egypt’s as well), something very different, but humanising, lurks – flawed characters indulging in alcoholism and drug use; adultery and pre-marital sex, prostitution and homosexuality; radical religious and political views. The Children of the Alley, also a family saga, takes things even further – the story parallels the lives of Old Testament patriarchs.
Religious matters and books and writers that have been condemned and banned will always interest me so I am curious to see what this book is like. Since it does not feel like it has been long since I read the Cairo Trilogy, and I am eager to read this book, I think I will add it to my ‘cheat list’ of books I allow to jump ahead on my TBR pile.
Speaking of religious matters, I found Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World while on a trip to a store to find a book my wife was after. Battling the Gods argues that religious scepticism is far from a modern Western development from the Enlightenment, but that it has significant roots in the classical world of the ancient Greeks and Romans. On the face of it, and given my interest in religious topics, this book sounds just like something I would want. But I am reluctant these days to buy books on first hearing about them; I prefer to go away and find out more about them first. Two things convinced me to make an exception this time. First the author, Tim Whitmarsh, is a professor of Greek culture at Cambridge – not the sort of unqualified amateur you often find are the authors of books on religion or obscure history. Second, it has some favourable remarks from three writers who I respect and who know their stuff on this particular topic – Mary Beard, Tom Holland and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein.
The book that my wife was after, though I wanted it too, was The Power by Naomi Alderman. Normally I don’t include my wife’s purchases on these posts otherwise they would be twice as long. Because I follow bookish things a little more closely, I had been aware of this novel and its nomination for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for a while, but my wife only heard of it on the day the news came that it won. Instantly intrigued, the woman who claims she loves me kept prodding me with her index finger for the next couple of days to see if she too had ‘the power’ to make me drop dead. Charming.
Anyway, getting back to trying to think hard about books I really do want, I bought An Inconvenient Genocide by Geoffrey Robertson QC. I had been aware of this book for a while and it is just the sort of book I was talking about – important, but easily passed over for various reasons. Robertson’s qualifications to examine the controversial issue of the Armenian Genocide are incredibly impressive and with an increasingly dictatorial Turkey, whose strategic importance remains great, as evidenced by America and Britain reluctance to acknowledge the genocide, and the new film The Promise, the issue has hardly been more topical.
Finally, as an example of the sort of book I have had in the back of my mind, I bought Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking by Daniel C Dennett. Here is a book that I probably will read soon, probably not cover-to-cover but by dipping in-and-out of and probably won’t post a review of. But I hope to learn a lot from it.
I may take a break from the sort of shopping I have been doing in the past. Instead books like An Inconvenient Genocide and Intuition Pumps – books that are important or useful but that I have been avoiding – may be where I put my money for the time being.
One final thing before I go. It’s a little silly. I have not been on Twitter very long and do not use it much. I only got an account to promote my blog and am still working on a system I will use to do that. It’s annoying that you can’t schedule tweets. People who have been on Twitter for a long time will no doubt have enjoyed the experience of being retweeted by famous people, but for me it was a small, but new thrill. My tweet below was retweeted by Amitav Ghosh.