Off the Shelf: Books are for Reading, and Other Stories

Books have many a purpose. First off, they are great for reading. They’re also handy to furnish a room with, sit in cafes looking pretty with, use to intimidate enemies, impress a prospective employer or ward off flies and, on planes, to quiet overly chatty next-seat passengers that feel the need to talk until landing. In their most honest usage (reading), books can have the power to change people’s lives through reading about another’s. While it is impossible to list all the many purposes of books, here is my humble attempt to tell you what makes my favourite books favourites, and their functions in everyday life.

Books are for…

First Love: Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

This was the first real novel I ever read. When I say that, I’m discounting Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women – which is a travesty because it’s such a good book for good little girls such as my former younger self. I say it’s the first real novel I ever read because I remember all too well dealing with this monster of a book at GCSE-level at the age of fifteen when I didn’t have a clue what love was – so how the hell was I supposed to get Heathcliff and Cathy’s relationship? – and realising this was a grown-up novel. Naturally, me and Wuthering Heights didn’t get off to a very good start. I reread Wuthering Heights after my first relationship, though, and I’m so glad I did because I realised, when it comes to this book, you have to have a little background knowledge of love. Then you can comprehend, and maybe even forgive, Cathy’s tears and tantrums and Heathcliff’s madness. I’ve had a turbulent but healthy relationship with Wuthering Heights ever since.

Acting Up: The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton

The House of Mirth surprised me and I won’t tell you how lest I ruin it. I can tell you this, though: it set me up for some chick lit, then thankfully let me down in the most beautiful way. The House of Mirth is essentially about keeping up, and letting down, appearances in old New York while its difficult heroine, Lily Bart is probably the most complex New Yorker I’ve read about to date. As she flits through social scenes with faux confidence and ease, Bart reminds me a little of an early twentieth century Holly Golightly; an intrinsically fragile but outwardly assured character whose mind is always on money and how to squeeze it out of rich men. A pithy, theatrical novel about dealing with imperfect reality.

Great Parties: The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby is a given; it’s an American classic, a great (excuse the pun), a literary heavyweight. The formula is the same as Fitzgerald’s other novels and, as with The House of Mirth, about young good-looking rich people and their exploits. What really won me over was Fitzgerald’s cool in this book. His writing is essentially Gatsby in its style: that smooth, assured observatory tone that narrates as though from a distance, yet casually creeps right to the heart of the characters’ tangled lives. Fitzgerald’s athletic writing is both tough and tender and makes for a perfectly poised novel. Read this for its glamour. I guarantee you’ll wish you were at one of Gatsby’s fabulous, drama-ridden soirees.

Street Haunting: Voyage in the Dark – Jean Rhys

Reading the novels of Jean Rhys, one finds themselves in the uneasy company of the underdog exile loosed in the metropolis. Rhys’s heroine is a down and out woman whose luck has either run out, or was never there in the first place. In Voyage in the Dark, we embark on a somnambulant journey through time and place, street and room with failed actress, Anna Morgan, whose life plays out against the bland backdrop of cold, grey London. As she wanders the rambling roads of the city, Anna remembers and dreams up her former life in the West Indies; piecing together her memories and dreams in the haze of room and street that become her fragmented present reality. Rhys’s novels are almost always about the impossibility of truly being in the present as everything seems to hinge on the inescapable past and its sorrows. Aside from its wistful prose, the perpetual sense of “what if?” that lurks behind every sentence, I have other motives for adding this book to my list. This novel, along with Rhys’s others, enthralled me so much that they led me to write my dissertation, ” ‘Rooms, streets, streets, rooms’: The Voyage Home in Jean Rhys’s Paris and London”. For this reason, it will always remain a particularly special book.

Single People: A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood

It is a rarity for me not to read the book before watching the movie but, on learning that it was an adaptation of an Isherwood novel, I was prompted by the opening credits of A Single Man, the film, to read A Single Man, the book. Having then recently read and loved Goodbye to Berlin, I was surprised to find an almost entirely different kind of fiction in this other Isherwood novel. There is still the author’s wry tone and dark humour, but there is something in the narrative of George Falconer that is quite unlike anything else and that remains impossible for me as a reader to put my finger on, two rereads later. Isherwood’s story is an elegy of the self, a faltering internal monologue masked in the shy disguise of free indirect speech; a tender, moving portrait of a gay man that finds himself, in the tragic event of his lover’s death, single and struggling to come to terms with his loneliness.

Pictures: Maus – Art Spiegelman

Maus is the first picture book I read and it made me cry. This doesn’t happen a lot to me. In Maus, a deeply-felt autobiographical tale, Spiegelman deftly narrates the aftershock of the Holocaust as it affects Artie, the post-immigrant, next generation Jew living in New York. Having grown up in the shadow of his father’s trauma, onset by his damaging experience at Auschwitz, Artie’s life plays out always against the indelible memory of horrors unbeknown to him. Despite the controversy attached to Maus (on the grounds of Spiegelman’s illustration of Nazi as cat and Jew as mouse), I find the book oddly charming and, in terms of moving away from the shadows of Artie’s father’s past, a huge step forward to remembering whilst moving on. Maus made me question why writing about such a horrible, dreadful thing ought to be itself horrible and dreadful. If art is designed to make interesting things of the world around us, making it a place a little easier to swallow and come to terms with, that is exactly what Maus does with the Holocaust. Its a little oddball, yes, but tender and moving, nonetheless. For its imagination, its bravery, its words and its pictures: I would recommend Maus for all of the above.

Blessing America: American Pastoral – Philip Roth (or any other Zuckerman novel)

I started reading Roth critically, for a class at university. Now I have read and digested quite a few of Roth’s novels, I will happily admit to having fallen head over heels in literary love with the man. Of all his novels, Pulitzer Prize winner, American Pastoral is unequivocally my favourite, followed closely by Exit Ghost. In American Pastoral, Roth’s writer hero, Nathan Zuckerman takes the perfect American family – Swede Levov and his one-time Miss New Jersey wife and their offspring, Merry – and proceeds to write up and revel in their self-destruction, as the Levov daughter turns bomber in vetoing the Vietnam War. What I find most compelling about Zuckerman is his innate ability, as I wrote in an essay on Roth, ‘as a biographer of sorts’, not to ‘insist…on telling condemning truths but making yet more fictions.’ Zuckerman is treated as much a valid presence as Roth, and as riveting a writer.

Originality: A Visit From the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan

This is by far the strangest book I have read for a long time – in its experimental style and its apparent lack of textual limits – but it actually changed my world for the week and a half I was reading it. A Visit From the Goon Squad has a power that much other literature just doesn’t have. I became dangerously engrossed in the novel and just fascinated by its sheer scope and the way it succeeds everything it sets out to accomplish. If anyone else wrote it, it would be called ambitious. But with Egan’s confident, assured writing; an imaginative yet convincing and compelling plot; the author’s mindful handling of time; and her incredibly human characters, it’s not suitable to call it ambitious. A kind of all-round, multi-talented novel, it is only appropriate to call A Visit From the Goon Squad a masterpiece. It is everything it sets out to be and much, much more.

Family Affairs: Freedom – Jonathan Franzen

Freedom reminded me of the opening sentence of Anna Karenina: ‘All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Impossible as it is to conceive, free people aren’t always happy people. And that’s what Freedom is about: unhappy people who have different freedoms, and how they deal – or don’t deal – with the privileges and pitfalls of their choices. Franzen’s novel dares to paint a tentative yet audaciously honest family portrait of the Berglund family and of America, undertaking an exploration of both family and nation, the decay of both and the eternal attempts of family members, do-gooder citizens and US government to repair the irreparable.

And finally… some books currently serving no purpose other than gathering dust and sitting pretty on my book shelf. (Though I am especially excited about reading these and rescuing them from dust over the summer.)

Gates of the Sun – Elias Khoury

The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James

The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton

To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf.

2 Responses to “Off the Shelf: Books are for Reading, and Other Stories”
  1. Paraic O'Donnell says:

    You neglect to mention, in praise of A Visit From the Goon Squad, that it also makes (if I’m not mistaken) an ideal book shot for the banner photograph on one’s blog.

    • As you astutely point out, A Visit From the Goon Squad did make the grade for the book in the blog banner. If it’s good enough for A Review of One’s Own, then it’s good enough, right? Well, that, and it won the Pulitzer.

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