Apropos of my Patrick O’Brian dilemma (skip down a few posts), the inimitable Outer Life writes:
As for O’Brian, I strongly counsel against picking up the books. I
have no innate interest in naval stories, little interest in historical novels qua historical novels, a terror of allowing an author to snare me in a 10,000 page trap and, frankly, too many other authors to read in too little time, so you can imagine how I felt ten years ago as he sucked me into his world, forcing me to devour every one of his novels, together with a history of Nelson’s navy and a nautical dictionary, and left me begging for more up to the day he died.
The first book, “Master and Commander,” has nothing to do with the movie of the same title. Looking back, it is probably the weakest book of the lot. The second book, “Post Captain,” containing O’Brian’s extended homage to Austen, is, perhaps, the strongest book. It hooked me. Then there’s the book in which nothing happens, they just drift aimlessly in the doldrums. For some reason, that was a great book too. And then….
So BEWARE! Learn from my mistake. Don’t let this happen to you.
Yes, it sounds like an awful fate. Well, as I said, the leaning tower of Aubrey is in Michigan, where I won’t be until March, and I have books to read for reviewing purposes in the immediate future. Have to say, though, the rapidly proliferating piles of unread books around here are starting to haunt me. Later in our conversation, OL reminded me of a post I wrote long ago about the seriously depressing business of calculating, based on age and reading speed and habits, how many more books one can reasonably expect to read in one’s lifetime. I can’t put my hands on the post just now, but that’s fine because it’s a sobering enough thought in hazy memory.
The interesting question we eventually wound our way to was this: what percentage of that terribly finite amount of reading do you feel should be earmarked for incontestably Great books, and what percentage of fluff–elegant, witty, and delightful fluff, needless to say–are you comfortable including? I’m thinking a full 50%. But I have another wrench to throw into the machinery: how many of your 200 or 500 or 1,000 books will be books you’ve already read? For most of us, I’m guessing, this will be a non-negligible number.
Which just makes me wonder: why don’t I clear some space for myself in here already? If I’m honest with myself, many of these books are never going to transcend their present status as baubles. I think my psychology runs this way: at any given moment I may be struck by the urge to read a particular book or a particular kind of book, and I want to have all possible options at hand when that urge strikes. While most readers are constantly at work trying to whittle down their to-be-read piles, I think I am half-consciously but nonetheless deliberately trying to build mine up. And succeeding. The problem is that, in the face of such vast possibility, it’s easy to buckle under the pressure of having to choose–to read a few pages here, a few pages there, and to be distracted by the presence of other possibilities even after settling in with something. This, I think, is known as promiscuity, and is why I could probably use a good series to temporarily remove the burden of choice.