Our theme these week is ‘Christmas present books that you’re still putting off reading’, but we’ve extended this to books given as presents at any time, even as presents to yourself! The theme was suggested by Margaret.
Every Christmas, I receive a number of books because everyone knows I am an avid reader. This is wonderful, but it seems to me that there are certain pitfalls with regard to Christmas books. This is because Christmas is, after all, the ultimate self-indulgent festival. We have time, often quite a lot of extra privacy, despite the social whirl, to do what we like. Who doesn’t eat too many chocolates, drink too many martinis, or lie around playing silly games? But, in my case, that is definitely the time for rubbishy books.
I provide my family ahead of time with a little Christmas list of the latest crime fiction (say, Jack Reacher, or old classic crime fiction like Earl Stanley Gardner or Eric Ambler), and then sit back a wait happily for Christmas morning. Others may be delving into the Milk Tray, but I am devouring the pages of light fiction at Christmas.
The result, of course, is a pile of unread books – until after Christmas – when I am grateful to dear friends and family for giving me a range of marvellous ‘proper’ books, which I embark upon in January.
Nonetheless, there is always at least one book that sticks doggedly to the bedside lamp waiting to be opened. Why is this? I look at the book – I want to read it – it is by a favourite author – the giver knows I will love it. What is stopping me? Maybe it is too thick, 400 pages; maybe it is actually non-fiction; maybe I know too, that it will require an intelligent answer later as to whether I have read it yet, and what do I think! Maybe, even worse, it is a set!
This year’s unread Christmas book was The Body by Bill Bryson, which has lain unread since December, but It called to me on Sunday. I opened it. I love Bill Bryson. It is 454 pages long. It’s non-fiction and serious, but it’s written by the master of the light touch. It has fabulous vintage illustrations of bizarre medical practices and history. It is already fascinating me, because I have always been interested in physiology and anatomy – and, of course, the donor knew that! Did you know that Leonardo da Vinci drew the human body showing blood circulation circa 1490? He was one of the first to dissect the human body and even he found it disgusting. So, I am already enthralled by The Body because it will provide endless and riveting information. And here is the subtitle: ‘A Guide for the Occupant’. Perfect Bryson, laconic, informative, witty.
The fact is, that this was never a neglected book – it has been a Book in the Bank, just waiting for its moment. I like to think that many of our unread books are really deposits, ‘banked’ for us by the donors – for when the time is right.
My main weakness, with regard to buying books impulsively, is in the field of children’s literature. Over the years of children and grandchildren, one of the key pleasures has been to introduce children to wonderful stories and to discover others together. Opening a new story with a child is a fine pleasure, and it is poignant to be told later by a child, teenager or student that they were enchanted by a particular story or author because we read it together.
The catch is, that these much-loved books leave the house, they go to the recipients. Sometimes I miss them terribly, so I amble into the Children’s Section, and graze, with every intention of indulging myself. I have a lovely copy of The Wind in the Willows, another of The Water Babies, and others too numerous to mention, The Gruffalo, Where the Wild Things Are, and so on.
The great Dr Seuss needs no introduction, but one of his, called Horton Hears a Who, has a special place in my heart. Horton hears minuscule tiny noises, he discovers that minute creatures, too small to be seen, also inhabit the earth, in civilised groupings just like humans. He learns from them that they too, have feelings and values and he is left to ponder the wonder of this. Horton, or any child who loves this story, does not need to wait till school later to hear Shakespeare’s Shylock make his famous plea – Do we not bleed…….’
Timing is all.
This is a really thoughtful suggestion and it includes Christmas and birthday presents, books one has bought, and may I add, books that one has been lent!
I find books that I have been enthusiastically lent or given as a present the most difficult to deal with. About ten months ago a good friend put three books into my arms, which she thought I would love. They were Wilding by Isabella Tree, War Doctor by David Nott and This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay. Having worked as a junior doctor in acute medicine with all the stress and horrors that it involved, for leisure I tend to avoid these types of books or for that matter, TV programmes like Casualty. I dutifully read both medical books and Kay’s book in particular, which is well written and amusing, took me right back to those hospital days. War Doctor was about acute care in war situations like Syria, which was particularly graphic. I returned the two medical books with honest, tactful comments but since then I have been unable to read Wilding by Isabella Tree. This book is such a contrast! It’s about this couple handing their large farm back to nature and the project has become a leading light for conservation in the UK … but I seem to be unable to read it.
I was given Island Stories, Britain and its History in the Age of Brexit by David Reynolds for my birthday in April. It is a historical analysis of Britain and its place in the world over the centuries to the present day. The title of the opening chapter is Decline! This book could stare at me unread for a long time or I may use the method described below!
Unread books or unfinished books; ’Sometime’ means ’Never’. I now find books that I have bought less of a problem since reading Marie Kondo’s three chapters, Storing Books, Unread Books and Books to Keep in The Life Changing Magic Of Tidying. I started reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver several times. It is about a Baptist missionary and his family set in the Congo in 1959. I was irritated by the narrative style and found some of the characters unconvincing. After several attempts at reading the book, I picked it up, did not start reading it again but just asked myself whether it made me feel happy to have it. It didn’t ‘Spark Joy’ … and went to charity as did several other novels that I had been struggling with.
I rarely get given books other than cookbooks as presents – and usually they are ones I’ve given strong hints on wanting, so always welcome and much used. However, I’m rather prone to buying books as, one might say, presents to myself, and then not reading them. There’s invariably an unread pile by my bed or stacked in my sitting room. I’m always promising myself I won’t buy another book until I’ve read that pile … but then temptation intervenes and I only add to it.
I’m seduced into buying these unread books because of one of those tickets on Waterstone’s shelves where one of the staff has read and highly recommends the book; by enticing reviews on book blogs I follow or in newspapers or magazines; by the mention of some famous book in a TV programme; by friends telling me how much they loved a particular book and I must read it. It’s a bit like going to the theatre or cinema to see a play or film that all the critics have given 5* – my expectations rocket and so often become unrealistic and disappointment follows. The last – books recommended by friends – can be a bit embarrassing if you have to confess that you didn’t enjoy it that much; maybe didn’t even finish it. I try to avoid all mention of it and if it’s brought up, dissemble, for no one wants to upset friends. So I don’t think I’m going to name any of the books I have in this category!
As a Registered Homeopath, Reiki Master and with other alternative health and spiritual interests, I’ve read a lot of related books over the last 25-plus years, though not so much the more academic ones now. However, I still like to read books with some kind of spiritual or psychology background, especially when it’s fun like David Mitchie’s The Dalai Lama’s Cat; or a non-academic but engaging read like Sue Monk Kidd’s memoir, Traveling with Pomegranates. However, I can occasionally still get tempted by something more serious, like Alice Miller’s The Drama of Being a Child. When I did more homeopathy I worked a lot with children, often kids who’d suffered trauma, and I always meant to read this book. I bought it a few months ago when I was filling in time in a little bookshop in The Cut before meeting a friend at The Old Vic, but its seriousness always overwhelms me and after picking it up, I put it aside again, unread. I think this book represents those books bought with ‘good intentions’.
BB’s famous book The Little Grey Men was discussed on a TV programme and with three grandsons in my life and a daughter who lives in a very old farmhouse in deepest Worcestershire, I thought I should read it. I’ve picked it up a few times but never got far. I think this book represents books you should browse first in a bookshop, not buy over the internet. I was put off by its dismal cover as soon as I saw it. I know … how shallow … but when I worked full-time in publishing we had whole meetings devoted to book covers/jackets every week!
I’m not good at finishing books I can’t get into early on. When I read reviews about how a book takes a while to get into but is worth the effort, I always feel perhaps I shouldn’t give up too soon on books that don’t immediately appeal. In part I blame it on working for many years as a Reader for publishers who told me not to bother to read a whole book if I didn’t like it or think it was suitable for their list, and they’d still pay me the full fee (they did know me well enough to trust me on this one!), but I also remind myself of Janet Street Porter’s wonderful book of fun and advice: Life’s Too F***ing Short. I feel I’ve reached an age in life when I shouldn’t force myself to carry on reading a book I’m not enjoying!
I don’t think I’ve ever had a book present I’ve put off reading.
One exception – a biography of Hillary Clinton, which was just plain dull. The writer just made it all totally prosaic and drowned the poor reader in data. Probably one for the scholars and policy wonks. The gift was meant well, but maybe Hillary was rather boring and in 2016 the USA was in a mood to live dangerously and take a gamble.
I have often bought books and squirrelled them away for either holidays or rainy days. Like having a well-stocked store cupboard or more likely anticipating the rainy day or winter ‘flu which might well find one longing for fresh reading matter. I may well have caught up with the backlog over lockdown! There are some books I knew to be well regarded, so did buy, but never got around to reading before. I have still to broach A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell. There’s been some thrillers and genre fiction where I’ve bought something by a writer I know is a pleasure to read and put it on the shelves for later. I reckon I must have been the sort of kid who left the marzipan and icing on the cake till last. Over this odd slice of lost time, I’ve found it quite rewarding to re-read books read ages ago and realise how much has changed in the last decades including oneself. One encounters attitudes which were part of the folk wisdom of the time but seem absolutely absurd these days. I usually like to read recently published contemporary fiction which reflects our ‘now’ but the last three months have just craved escapism. Armchair travelling seems the answer at the moment and I very much enjoyed a book I was lent (thanks Margaret) of Jan Morris’s travel essays. Be interested to hear what other people have found the right reading prescription for these odd times.
What a meditation this theme has proved to be! There is absolutely no quick way to address this.
At its simplest level my books fall into two distinct camps. There are presents (including to myself) that I am still intending to read but have not yet; and books I can never throw out because they are beloved companions with whom I share so many memories. Even now, I regularly (at least once a year) take them down from the shelves where they nestle – like an old friend it is important to check in with in case they have moved on without my knowing.
So we are addressing the former today. Luckily I am just about capable of a reasonable discourse on this topic. This is because in three diminishing sweeps I have ejected thousands of the well-intentioned-when-bought-but-still-unread, as well as the never-to-be-read again, over the course of my move to Highgate; my move to the flat downstairs during the house refurbishment; and my move back upstairs.
Never again, I have sworn, will I haul a heavy box of useless books up or down five flights of stairs. But I weep when I think of the waste of money, good intentions and, worse, of dreams of reading.
Out went full unread collections (The Greville Memoirs, Walter Scott, The collected plays of Henrik Ibsen, everything written by Bill Bryson), all the text books I purchased at university (many never opened), all the worthy books, all the cheap tat and (oh, shameful admission) all the books written in foreign languages but with beautiful covers or pictures. All the thoughtful (but ultimately thoughtless) gifts of a former lover who would connect himself to my latest project by the purchase of a book, but never really understood what or why I read. My mother’s endless collection of art books that I inherited (they were hard to throw). And dozens upon dozens of Christmas books, freebies, work books, study books and spontaneous purchases in the second-hand book shops that I haunted from my teens to my fifties. As I left that decade, luckily, I realised it was BOOKS I liked, more than READING, and the collection ceased to grow.
So what remains, still here, still unread?
There are the two gorgeous volumes of Rabelais with illustrations by Heath Robinson; the 15 volume privately published set of Richard Burton’s 1001 Nights (with pictures). They will never go. I look at them quite regularly. I never actually read them.
The rest are all in topics: books about nature; books about sailing, boating, the river and the sea; books about Ancient Greece; books about walking; and the Middle East. The yet-to-be-read lovelies are in collections, the content largely read but by no means fully. And there are still a few worthy ones nestling in there: my son (who understands my reading habits and interests better than my lover did) bought me Weizman’s Hollow Land one Christmas. I have managed just the introduction – it tears me apart. Bedouin Poetry was another gift, the following year.
But when I cast my over all the unread since their purchase there are a few I KNOW I will get to – eventually, because even lockdown didn’t find the key to reading them.
In no particular order:
Queen of the Desert, by Georginal Howell – about the extraordinary Gertrude Bell.
London Observed, by Doris Lessing – a set of sketches and stories.
Albion, by Peter Ackroyd – about the origins of the English imagination.
A strangeness in my mind, by Orhan Pamuk – a novel set in Istanbul spanning four decades of an ordinary man leading an extraordinary inner life.
What a great exercise this has been. As I cast my eye over my remaining bookshelves, full of friends, and select those books I still want to get to know, this has shown me where my attachments lie. Perhaps I should let these guide me in a bookshop from now on?
Please let us know what books you have gathering dust on your shelves and still unread, in Comments below!