The Trouble Is, I Fancy Too Much

April 18, 2009 @ 8:39 pm | Filed under: ,

(This post is a follow-up to this one.)

Ah, now we’re coming to it. I’ve reached the essay in which Nick Hornby includes a novel called Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson in his list of books he purchased that month. This is bound to be the Housekeeping that takes on The Dirt in the title of his essay collection. But I don’t know anything more about it yet because he didn’t actually read the book that month. We’ll have to live in suspense a while longer.

The “Books I Bought This Month” lists are one of the things I love about these essays. Hornby begins each column with side-by-side listings of books bought and books read, on the premise that the books you want to read, intend to read, go so far as to purchase in order to read, say as much or possibly even more about you as what books you actually do read. He explored this idea in a thoughtful passage I would like to quote, but five minutes ago Scott left for the library and The Polysyllabic Spree is, alas, mine no more. I mean, it was never mine at all, but I loved it well during its tenancy under this roof. Laid it tenderly upon a tasseled velvet pillow when home duties forced me to turn away from its enchanting pages for a while.

Okay, maybe I’m laying it on a teeny bit thick. It’s just that after inviting Nick Hornby over for pizza, I went and ran off at the mouth about not liking the plot of a movie based on one of his books, and (insult to injury) not even having read the book to see if the plot is better executed in prose. It probably is. I mean, I feel no guilt over not having read all his books—after all, I’m quite sure he’s never read any of mine. We can’t all read everything, can we? I’m thinking my stuff is a wee bit outside his preferred genres. For example, I happen to know he has read Man on the Moon at least sixty times. (Cf. Housekeeping vs. the Dirt p. 34.) I’ve never written a word about astronauts, so you see how it is. So no haven’t-read-yet guilt (the yet is key: I’m sure I will someday; I am always stubbornly, delusionally optimistic about the likelihood of my getting around, eventually, to everything on my mental TBR list), but it’s probably bad form to invite someone to dinner and in the next breath start picking apart the themes of his books which you haven’t even read. Hence the velvet pillow for the books I have read.

It was nice to see, in H. v. the D., that Hornby agrees with me about the no-guilt-over-unread-books thing. About reading the classics, he says,

“There comes a point in life, it seems to me, where you have to decide whether you’re a Person of Letters or merely someone who loves books, and I’m beginning to see that the book lovers have more fun. Persons of Letters have to read things like Candide or they’re a few letters short of the whole alphabet; book lovers, meanwhile, can read whatever they fancy.”

Nonetheless, Hornby does seem to experience a fair amount of angst over books he meant to get to but didn’t and probably never will. When moving house he suffers the pangs of the book-hoarder, pangs I know all too well: there is nothing like filling up boxes with books you haven’t read yet to stir up a whirlpool of reader’s agony, the swirling currents of longing and remorse. When we were getting ready to leave Virginia and I had movers come in to give us estimates, one guy who’d been in the business for twenty-five years told me he’d never seen anyone planning to move that many books before. And this was after I’d shed a good 25% of our collection. When you’re going to be charged by the pound, those are scary words to hear. I did some more purging before the truck actually arrived, but still. We’ve got a ridiculous number of books here, and it would be swell if I, you know, actually read them someday.

Well, Nick Hornby and his recommendations aren’t helping. Neither are all those intelligent book blogs out there. I read a post today about the most recent A. S. Byatt and it was like a knife in my heart. I don’t know how I managed it, but I forgot about Byatt. Possession is one of my favorite books of all time, top five material, no question. Angels and Insects was spoiled for me by the movie (saw it first; big mistake) and the short story collection, Sugar, left me flat. But that was almost ten years ago. She has at least half a dozen novels I haven’t read yet. How could I forget her? Seriously, I’m baffled. So now I’ve got the urge to chuck my whole TBR pile and go on a mad Byatt binge.

Except that three more reserved books came in from the library today. (Gilead—which I heard about on Semicolon, I think, and was amused to see in one of Hornby’s booklists during the very same hour in which Scott was picking up my holds at the library—and The Graveyard Book and Olive Kitteridge. I don’t remember a thing about that last one, not even who recommended it.) Plus there’s the Benedict Society sequel and another Jane recommendation called Chasing Vermeer. And then—talk about guilt—this terrifying tower of review copies I’m supposed to read and say insightful things about.

Oh, it’s hopeless, isn’t it. Agony. And at the very same time, deliciously, satisfyingly tantalizing, like the hour before you sit down to Thanksiving dinner and the kitchen is full of good smells driving you crazy.

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11 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Theresa says:

    So many books, so little time, right? Well, right now I have the opposite problem. There is nothing in this house to read! I have read it all!!!And I have not gotten my library card yet cause I have not updated my drivers license yet, etc, etc. Ugh! Your book lists are torturing me!LOL!
    That being said, I would LOVE for you to do a post on Jane’s recommendations. Superboy is out of good reads, too and I could use some fresh ideas.

  2. Linda says:

    Hi Melissa,
    I’m new to your blog, drawn by your Charlotte, Martha books. Anything to do with Laura Ingalls Wilder immediately grabs my interest.
    I think I’m jumping in in the middle of something here, but will try to get sorted out.
    I’m going to look for your books – for me and for my granddaughters!

  3. Melissa Wiley says:

    Linda, welcome! Yes, you’ve come in on the middle of a bunch of nonsense I’ve been writing about a very good book I’m reading, a collection of Nick Hornby’s essays on books he has read. (You can read excerpts from these essay at Believer magazine.)
    I’m being silly in these posts, but am serious about how much I enjoy Hornby’s commentary on literature.

    Theresa, I’ll get a Jane-list for Superboy asap!

  4. Sherry Early says:

    Melissa, I really think you’re going to love Gilead. It’ll slow you down a bit, which is always good. Then, if you like as much as I did, you should read the sequel which came out last year, Home.

  5. Melissa Wiley says:

    Sherry, it looks beautiful and contemplative, and I’m really looking forward to it. Glad you recommended it; thanks. I skipped over most of Nick Hornby’s discussion of it (he loved it too) because I didn’t want to know too much, so I’ll have to go back later and reread his comments.

    In the Housekeeping vs the Dirt chapter I just read, Hornby talks about Robinson’s book Housekeeping, which he thought was breathtaking. So that’s one more for the TBR list.

  6. Yvonne says:

    Chasing Vermeer is in my TBR stack too! My 12 year adored it and the author a few months ago. I just finished reading the Benedict book, Shakepeare’s Secret by E. Broach, and a stack of Natalie Babbitt books–adored Goody Hall best of all, but oddly enough didn’t care for Tuck Everlasting. Now to finish Charlie Bone so I can began the Verneer book.
    I love Hornby’s essays too, but I’ve never felt the need to read his fiction. I’m a sucker for good essays.

  7. nina says:

    I really enjoyed Gilead. I’m not sure I would have checked it from the library but I found a like new copy of it at the Goodwill and it came home with me. It sat on the shelf for a long time. It did make me wish I could record more of my life for my children but I’m not sure that was the point of the book.

    BTW, Friday (April 17) was Nick Hornby’s birthday. Heard it on Writer’s Almanac and immediately thought of you.

  8. MelanieB says:

    Much as this sounds like a fascinating book, I think I’ll pass for now. Don’t need any more books on that to be read pile. 🙂

    I love Possession too. Actually wrote my senior thesis on it. Terrible thesis, it completely lacked focus. But still one of my favorite all time novels. I’m actually not a huge fan of Byatt’s other work, though. I keep reading her stuff and some of it is ok. Angels and Insects I did rather like, fortunately I read it before I saw it. But nothing else of hers grabs me like Possession did.


    I actually got my library card before I got my driver’s license updated. Funny enough, using the envelope that you sent me your fabric in to prove my residency. Massachusetts for some reason decided to stop sending stickers to stick on your license for change of address so you have to make one yourself or get a whole new card. mine expires in August anyway so I’ll get one with our new address then.

  9. Betsey says:

    Um, I love that you have a “Nick Hornby” tag on your blog. Awesome.

    Housekeeping is amazzzing, by the way.