Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

January 20, 2011

What kind of Bookie are you?

I waver back and forth every six months or so between my two great loves: books and books.

On the one hand we have books, the kind I sell and read, the kind I review, the kind we can all engage in because of their uniformity, ubiquity, and accessibility. These books are current and relevant to most people; they are supported by communities who are in turn supported by a vast network of publishers, creators, reporters and fans. Life with these books is exciting and relevant as well as personally fulfilling. There’s industry gossip, bookselling drama, public spats over criticism and clubs and challenges to engage in. These books are professionally relevant to me: I need to know them inside and out as a bookseller, and any future profession I might be made to take up will also likely hinge on my involvement in them. Which is alright, because I love these books.

But sometimes these books wear me down. Most of them are good but not great. They pass, like fads and fashions. Nevertheless there are a lot of them, and keeping current means slogging your way through a lot. For a slow reader like myself, there’s a sense that much of it isn’t worth my time. There’s continued pressure from authors and publicists to laud a book I was indifferent to. There’s pressure from communities to read books or blocks of books in order to participate in the public conversation, regardless of if they hold any individual interest. You need to know everything this year, but if you’ve forgotten it all by next year that’s alright. These books feel transient.

The other hand holds books, the timeless guardians of knowledge. These are the books I study, read, and collect. Nobody living is in any hurry to claim these as their product. They can be found in attics and libraries, garage sales and boxes on the street corner. It’s not always immediately evident what they are, where they came from, and what secrets they might hold. Decoding them and identifying them sometimes takes a lot of knowledge and research. But they are unique and surprising, often beautifully crafted. You might be the only person you ever meet who has the pleasure of enjoying any one of them. Reading them and knowing them puts you in the company of the giants of Western civilization. They are also professionally useful, bookselling to academics as I do. I’m rarely as happy as I am browsing the hushed booths of an antiquarian bookfair. These are the books of my dreams, and I adore them.

But then, these books are often remote and inaccessible. Those that aren’t held close to the chest in libraries can be prohibitively expensive. Even where easily acquired, these books need specialized knowledge, research and hard work, sometimes, to identify and even read. Communities of like-minded readers and collectors are hard to find, competitive, and sometimes hostile. People who do not share your mania will find discussions of books like these inaccessible and most likely boring. Professions specializing in books like these are scarce, hard to break into, and quickly becoming obsolete. Engaging with these books is lonely business.

Anyone who thinks these two loves have anything at all in common is kidding themselves. People who love books and people who love books rarely overlap or have anything to say to each other. Yet, look. The Private Library featured this week a short introduction to Fanfare bindings. How could any warm body deny how beautiful these are?  Or, meanwhile, even the driest academic or bibliographer gets excited once or twice a year when the latest Parker novel by Richard Stark is released, or in a year some massively deserving body like Hilary Mantel wins the Booker.  I really wish there was much more overlap between these two worlds.  I would love to see contemporary publishing publish less and take more care with the books they produce, drawing more from history and less from fashion when picking and producing their goods.  Academic and antiquarian readers, meanwhile, have got to get with the program and make better use of social media and communities to spread and share knowledge about and enthusiasm for their object of interest.

I shouldn’t feel quite so two-headed when enthusing about one book or another.  They are all books, right?  Haven’t we got some more common ground?

January 17, 2011

Reading, 2011

Once again, I have chosen not to participate in any reading challenges for this year. But if such things tickle your fancy, check out Nathalie Foy’s round-up of a huge number of 2011 reading challenges (all of which she is participating in)!

Novels:

Truth & Bright Water by Thomas King
The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis
The Birth House by Ami McKay
The Bone Cage by Angie Abdou
Unless by Carol Shields
Dune by Frank Herbert
Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie
Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert
Children of Dune by Frank Herbert
The Two Dianas by “Alexandre Dumas” (Paul Meurice)
God Emperor of Dune by Frank Herbert
Siege of Krishnapur by J. G. Farrell
Heretics of Dune by Frank Herbert
Pigeon English by Steven Kelman
Chapterhouse Dune by Frank Herbert
A Laodicean by Thomas Hardy
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
On Monsters by Stephen Asma
Whale Music by Paul Quarrington
Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
Travelling Heroes by Robin Lane Fox (abandoned)
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me ed. Kate Berntheimer
Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin
Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin
A Feast For Crows by George R. R. Martin
A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin
River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh
Blackout by Connie Willis
All Clear by Connie Willis
The Tiger by John Vaillant

January 17, 2011

The State of My Reading 2010/2011

Ah, 2011.  A blank slate once again if you happen to be keeping track of things by calendar year.  I don’t keep track of much by calendar year, but my reading log is one of the few things.

It’s a bit late, I know, to start rhapsodizing about the new year – almost three weeks too late.  But, if you haven’t heard, I’ve been down sick with the first trimester of a brand-new pregnancy for the last two months and it’s only recently that I’ve been able to pick up a book or sit in front of a word processor without feeling immediately nauseous.  So my new year of reading begins now, a bit late, just as my old year of reading had to be aborted a little early.

2010 wasn’t a bad year for me.  I read exactly 40 books, and on top of that 32 graphic novels.  This is very nearly double what I read in 2008 and 2009 (22 & 21 books respectively) though not so amazing as the 46 I read in 2006 (including such bricks as War and Peace, Atlas Shrugged and Richard Fortey’s The Earth).  That was back before I had kids, or had taken up knitting – reading disruptors both.  For a complete list you can always look here, but I always prefer to end my year with a tallying of meaningless statistics, in order to make my reading resemble a scientific undertaking.

Books Read in 2010: 40
Non-Fiction: 12.5% (5/40)
“Children’s” or “Young Adult” Lit:  10% (4/40)
Read but Not Owned: 0.5% (2/40)
Bought in 2010: 60% (24/40)
Bought in Previous Years: 35% (14/40)
Bought in 2010 but Not Read: Don’t ask.
At This Rate, I’ll Be Crushed Under a Bookshelf By: 2025

Favourite 5 Books of 2010:

Margaret de Valois by Alexandre Dumas
In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan
The Possessed by Elif Batuman
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
KENK: A Graphic Portrait by Richard Poplak, Alex Jansen, Jason Gilmore & Nick Marinkovich

Biggest Accomplishment of 2010:  42.5% of the books I read were Canadian! 28% of the graphic novels too. Behold the science:

ReadingStats

Looking ahead to 2011, I wanted to say I don’t have any goals. But in reality I have two whoppers: I want to finish all ten of the as-of-yet untouched Canada Reads and Canada Reads Independently 2011 books by March. And I would love, despite Beta’s arrival in July, to manage to read at least 20 books this year. That means I’d better choose my remaining 10 books carefully – and those chosen for me had better be great!

Wish me luck!