Too Many Books In The Kitchen

I'm Michael Hingston, books columnist for the Edmonton Journal (new columns every other Friday).

My first novel, The Dilettantes, was just published by Freehand Books. Here's everything you might want to know about it.

Other topics under discussion: podcasts, strange sodas, the Wu-Tang Clan, and Moby-Dick.

Email me, if you like, at hingston [at] gmail [dot] com. I'm available for hire and I like free books.

WRITING

Favourites: 2009 / 2010 / 2011 / 2012 / 2013
What I Read: 2009 / 2010 / 2011 / 2012 / 2013 / 2014 (so far)

All Reviews /
All Interviews /
All Columns

Mark Abley (1)
Henry Adams (1)
Chris Adrian (1)
Charlie Ahearn (1)
César Aira (1) (2) (3)
André Alexis (1)
Rona Altrows (1; interview)
Jonathan Ames (1)
Kingsley Amis (1)
Martin Amis (1) (2) (3)
Karen Armstrong (1)
Margaret Atwood (1)
Jane Austen (1)
Paul Auster (1)
Tash Aw (1)
Todd Babiak (1) (2; interview) (3; interview)
Chris Bachelder (1; Q&A)
Jacqueline Baker (1; interview)
Nicholson Baker (1) (2) (3) (4) (5)
Rosecrans Baldwin (1)
Jesse Ball (1)
J.G. Ballard (1)
Julian Barnes (1)
Kevin Barry (1)
John Barth (1)
Arjun Basu (1)
Elif Batuman (1)
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Robert E. Belknap (1)
Katrina Best (1)
Otto Binder (1)
Laurent Binet (1)
Mike Birbiglia (1)
Heather Birrell (1)
Caroline Blackwood (1)
Andrej Blatnik (1)
Roy Blount Jr. (1)
Boethius (1)
Roberto Bolaño (1) (2)
Mike Boldt (1; interview)
Jacques Bonnet (1)
Jorge Luis Borges (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6)
Grégoire Bouillier (1)
Thea Bowering (1; interview)
Tim Bowling (1)
Stephen R. Bown (1; interview)
C.P. Boyko (1; interview) (2)
Inge Bremer-Trueman (1; interview)
Bertram Brooker (1)
Grant Buday (1)
Nellie Carlson (1)
Raymond Carver (1)
Adolfo Bioy Casares (1)
Michael Chabon (1)
Marty Chan (1; interview)
Dan Charnas (1; interview) (2)
Corinna Chong (1)
Chris Cleave (1)
Lynn Coady (1; interview) (2) (3; interview)
Douglas Coupland (1; interview)
Buffy Cram (1)
Lynn Crosbie (1)
Amanda Cross (1)
Nancy Jo Cullen (1)
John D'Agata (1)
Mark Z. Danielewski (1)
Diana Davidson (1; interview)
Don DeLillo (1) (2)
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David Denby (1)
Helen DeWitt (1) (2)
Patrick deWitt (1; Q&A) (2; Q&A)
Marcello Di Cintio (1; interview)
Nicolas Dickner (1) (2)
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Alison Espach (1) (2; Q&A)
Percival Everett (1) (2)
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Anne Finger (1)
Meags Fitzgerald (1; interview)
Jonathan Safran Foer (1; interview)
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Adam Gopnik (1)
Emily Gould (1)
John Gould (1)
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Sheila Heti (1) (2; Q&A) (3) (4)
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Isol (1)
Harry Karlinsky (1) (2)
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A.L. Kennedy (1) (2)
Etgar Keret (1)
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Ryan Knighton (1)
Jane F. Kotapish (1)
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Sarah Lang (1; interview)
Annette Lapointe (1)
Grant Lawrence (1; interview)
Nam Le (1)
Perrine Leblanc (1)
Fran Lebowitz (1; interview)
Shelley A. Leedahl (1)
Alex Leslie (1)
Lawrence Lessig (1)
Jonathan Lethem (1) (2) (3) (4)
Adam Levin (1)
Michael Lewis (1) (2)
Naomi K. Lewis (1; interview) (2; interview)
Tao Lin (1) (2; Q&A) (3)
Ewa Lipska (1)
David Lipsky (1) (2)
Sam Lipsyte (1)
Erlend Loe (1)
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Adam Marek (1)
Clancy Martin (1)
Lisa Martin-DeMoor (1; interview)
Zachary Mason (1; Q&A) (2)
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Tom McCarthy (1)
Franklin Davey McDowell (1)
Yukari F. Meldrum (1; interview)
Herman Melville (1)
Laurence Miall (1; interview)
David Mitchell (1) (2)
Lorrie Moore (1) (2) (3) (4)
Horacio Castellanos Moya (1)
Haruki Murakami (1) (2) (3) (4)
Michael Murphy (1)
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Jason Lee Norman (1; interview) (2; interview)
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DC Pierson (1) (2; Q&A)
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Thomas Pynchon (1) (2)
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Simon Rich (1; interview) (2) (3)
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Ringuet (1)
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José Saramago (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6)
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J. Courtney Sullivan (1) (2)
John Jeremiah Sullivan (1)
Miguel Syjuco (1)
Justin Taylor (1) (2; Q&A) (3)
Rob Taylor (1; Q&A)
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Wells Tower (1)
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Deb Olin Unferth (1)
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Kevin Wilson (1)
Michael Winter (1)
James Wood (1)
Molly Young (1) (2; Q&A)
Vlado Žabot (1)

OTHER PIECES

"Comic Sans" (The Incongruous Quarterly)
"'No Fear' T-Shirts Based on Board Games" (McSweeney's)

"The Men in the Mirror"
"Moby-Dick; or, My Favourite Book"
"The Pop-Culture Annotated 'Lord's Prayer'"
"Tumblr Recommends"

Shelf Defense: Shakespeare’s Memory

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In late 2011 I decided, in the hopes of keeping my library down to a manageable size, to comb through the unread sections in alphabetical order. It was a naïve, Sisyphean project, and it will take forever—so I’d better get moving. Shelf Defense is my occasional notebook about what I dig up, from Alphabet Juice to Point Omega.

* * * * *

JORGE LUIS BORGES, SHAKESPEARE’S MEMORY (1983, TRANS. ANDREW HURLEY)

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: See here.

THOUGHTS: Here we are. The end at last. I started reading Borges’s Collected Fictions back in August, with only a handful of his stories already under my belt; now I think I’ve read close to 100—or however many it was he published in his lifetime. Because now, following the slim, four-story volume Shakespeare’s Memory, I’ve read it all.

Continuing the streak he started with 1975’s Book of Sand, here Borges again seems virile and full of energy. These final stories do retrace and intermingle his old themes and preoccupations—“Blue Tigers” and the title story being my personal favourites—but then again, he’d already been doing that kind of thing for decades. The style is sharp, the images vivid. I don’t know if I would call it a fitting farewell, because I still, despite everything, struggle to see through Borges’s supposedly autobiographical fiction to the real man who wrote it all down (“Borges and I” be damned). But it’s the final brick in one of the great churches of 20th-century literature, and it’s been rewarding as hell to go back and watch it get built.

Which brings me to another note: this is the last instalment of Shelf Defense. I’ve been doing this ridiculous project for just over a year now, and I haven’t even made it through the first two letters of the alphabet. It’s allowed me to read a ton of stuff I wouldn’t have otherwise gotten to, and it was a great motivator during those times when I couldn’t otherwise decide what to read next. And it also showed me the virtue of slowing down and spending more time with a given author than is my wont. But now I’m ready to get back to those flighty ways. I just bought two Flann O’Brien novels, for instance—and I wasn’t about to wait until 2019 to read them. No sir.

Either way, thanks for sticking it out with me this long. Another similarly quixotic project is, no doubt, just around the corner.

KEEP OR SELL: Keep.

Dec 7, 2012
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Shelf Defense: Brodie’s Report, The Book of Sand

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In late 2011 I decided, in the hopes of keeping my library down to a manageable size, to comb through the unread sections in alphabetical order. It was a naïve, Sisyphean project, and it will take forever—so I’d better get moving. Shelf Defense is my occasional notebook about what I dig up, from Alphabet Juice to Point Omega.

* * * * *

JORGE LUIS BORGES, BRODIE’S REPORT (1970, TRANS. ANDREW HURLEY)

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: See here.

THOUGHTS: On the face of it, this collection sounds like a departure. In the foreword (and boy do I love Borges’s forewords), he says he has actively tried to write “plain tales” this time around. No twist endings, no “shock of a baroque style.” You may think it is the sound of a master jettisoning the style that made him famous, but on the contrary: “now that I am seventy years old I think I have found my own voice.”

Yet the degree to which this is visible on the page is not clear. After all, there are still elaborate framing devices galore, several stories where knives take on lives of their own, and others that interact explicitly with Borges’s previous work. And the twist ending in “The Gospel According to Mark” doesn’t just occur in the final sentence—it occurs in the final word.

On the other hand, “The Elderly Lady” contains some old-fashioned, character-based tension, for which I can’t recall a parallel in Borges’ other work. Is this really his own voice? And even if it is, would anyone, other than Borges himself, be able to tell?

KEEP OR SELL: Keep.

* * * * *

JORGE LUIS BORGES, THE BOOK OF SAND (1975, TRANS. ANDREW HURLEY)

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: See above.

THOUGHTS: This is the last proper collection Borges would ever write—and thank goodness, it’s the strongest one since The Aleph. “There Are More Things” features a thrilling reveal when he describes an approaching creature as “heavy and slow and plural” (!); “The Disk” and “The Bribe” are just beautifully crafted stories, through and through.

And this, from “The Other”—where an elderly Borges meets his teenaged counterpart on a park bench—just might be my favourite passage in the whole Collected Fictions:

I saw that his hands were clutching a book. I asked what he was reading.

The Possessed—or, as I think would be better, The Devils, by Fyodor Dostoievsky,” he answered without vanity.

"It’s a bit hazy to me now. Is it any good?"

Is it any good? The thing is, I know my memory is just as rotten as Borges’s is here—and imagine being able to go back and interrogate your younger self about a book you’d forgotten reading. It’s about not just tapping into a moment in your past, but mainlining into youth itself. I can’t fully explain why this resonates so hard with me, but my god, it does. Plus it expertly ties into Borges’s obsessions with doubles, literature-as-lifeline, and characters who bear his own name. Given what I just admitted about my own shitty memory, if I said I’ll never forget this passage, would you believe me?

KEEP OR SELL: Keep.

Dec 5, 2012
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Shelf Defense: The Maker, In Praise of Darkness

In late 2011 I decided, in the hopes of keeping my library down to a manageable size, to comb through the unread sections in alphabetical order. It was a naïve, Sisyphean project, and it will take forever—so I’d better get moving. Shelf Defense is my occasional notebook about what I dig up, from Alphabet Juice to Point Omega.

* * * * *

JORGE LUIS BORGES, THE MAKER (1960, TRANS. ANDREW HURLEY)

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: See here.

THOUGHTS: Haha! Remember last time, when I was overwhelmed by Borges’s subtle but neverending tiger motifs? Well, one story in this slim collection of miscellania (forty pages, each piece a few hundred words long) has officially proven me right. “Dreamtigers" reads so much like non-fiction that I’m going to treat it as such; when the narrator describes memorizing tiger pictures in encyclopaedias as a boy, or thinks, while asleep, "This is a dream, a pure diversion of my will, and since I have unlimited power, I am going to bring forth a tiger,” it’s only too easy to read it as both a confession and a celebration of Borges’s own writing process. What is fiction, after all, but a pure diversion of the will?

The narrator in the story is always disappointed by the tigers he manages to conjure. So, too, was Borges with his own work. He’s constantly disowning earlier stories, underselling his own talents, and humblebragging his way into the canon. This time you get a particularly clear sense that he’s getting older, and growing anxious about whether his powers will one day fail him, as Homer’s eyes do him in the title story. Then again, the name of the collection below gives me hope that Borges is able to at least make peace with the darkness.

KEEP OR SELL: Keep.

* * * * *

JORGE LUIS BORGES, IN PRAISE OF DARKNESS (1969, TRANS. ANDREW HURLEY)

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: See above.

THOUGHTS: Or maybe not. This collection is even shorter—a scant 14 pages—and Borges bills it up front, for some reason, not as fiction at all, but poetry. Not much of anything to dig into here, except maybe for the tip sheet from the foreword (sample: avoid synonyms, as “they suggest imaginary differences”). “A Prayer” is about dying intact; “The Ethnographer” at least features a vintage supercondensed final line. The table of contents of my Collected Fictions tells me Borges, who was 70 at the time, has more (and longer) books in his future, but you wouldn’t have guessed it from this.

KEEP OR SELL: Keep.

Nov 1, 2012
Comments

Shelf Defense: Artifices, The Aleph

In late 2011 I decided, in the hopes of keeping my library down to a manageable size, to comb through the unread sections in alphabetical order. It was a naïve, Sisyphean project, and it will take forever—so I’d better get moving. Shelf Defense is my occasional notebook about what I dig up, from Alphabet Juice to Point Omega.

* * * * *

JORGE LUIS BORGES, ARTIFICES (1944, TRANS. ANDREW HURLEY)

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: See here.

THOUGHTS: Here’s where Borges’s stories start to turn further in on themselves—no longer just interacting with the history of literature, they now interact with other Borges stories. A footnote in “Three Versions of Judas” refers readers to a book written by Jaromir Hladik, also known as the protagonist of “The Secret Miracle.” When “The South” references the (real) epic Argentine poem Martin Fierro, what first comes to mind is not the poem itself, but how Borges’s own “The End” just performed a fictional riff-coda on it.

Let’s linger on “The South” for a minute. In the preface Borges says this story of a library clerk who cuts his head, receives medical treatment in a sanatorium, and then gets in a fight in a café “may be my best story”—not in the collection, mind you, but ever (as of 1956, anyway). Borges also says “it is possible to read it both as a forthright narration of novelistic events and in quite another way, as well.” It inspired the title story in Bolaño’s Insufferable Gaucho, too. But I can’t figure it out. So either I’m too jaded by years of predicting twist endings, or else Borges is still pitching way, way above my head. I’m willing to bet it’s the latter.

KEEP OR SELL: Keep.

* * * * *

JORGE LUIS BORGES, THE ALEPH (1949, TRANS. ANDREW HURLEY)

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: See above.

THOUGHTS: Okay, now fatigue is starting to set in. These eight-page universes take so much energy to unpack, and then they’re just gone. I doubt I could describe half of the ones in this collection in any detail. Recurring motifs include labyrinths, the number 14, Martin Fierro (again), and, above all, tigers—“The Zahir” makes mention of “an infinite tiger … it was crisscrossed with tigers, striped with tigers, and contained seas and Himalayas and armies that resembled other tigers.” That’s roughly where I’m at right now with Borges. I see stripes everywhere I turn.

On the other hand, two of the labyrinth stories stood out: “The House of Asterion,” whose subject I advise you not to google until after you’ve read the twist ending, and “The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths,” which, naturally, is really a self-contained chunk of another of the collection’s stories. The latter also argues that there’s no better maze than the world itself. You don’t say? At this rate I’ll be full-on agoraphobic by year’s end.

KEEP OR SELL: Keep.

Oct 2, 2012
Comments

Shelf Defense: A Universal History of Iniquity, The Garden of Forking Paths

In late 2011 I decided, in the hopes of keeping my library down to a manageable size, to comb through the unread sections in alphabetical order. It was a naïve, Sisyphean project, and it will take forever—so I’d better get moving. Shelf Defense is my occasional notebook about what I dig up, from Alphabet Juice to Point Omega.

* * * * *

JORGE LUIS BORGES, A UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF INIQUITY (1935, TRANS. ANDREW HURLEY)

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Because I read one Borges story, and then knew I would read all of them.

THOUGHTS: Get ready. The next half-dozen or so entries here are going to be the product of slowly working my way through Borges’s Collected Fictions, which I’ve had for years and never really cracked (aside from the individual stories I’ve come across during and since university).

Already, the Argentine’s debut collection is so strange that only he could have written it. On the surface, this series of sketches about famous historical rogues and bad guys is all true—Borges even includes a bibliography at the end. But it turns out that he made a ton of it up, and rarely ever pulls information from the places he claims to. The piece about Billy the Kid, for instance, is nearly 100% fiction. As Borges himself writes in a preface written 20 years after the fact, “They are the irresponsible sport of a shy sort of man who could not bring himself to write short stories, and so amused himself by changing and distorting (sometimes without aesthetic justification) the stories of other men.” This will become a recurring theme.

One thing I’ve always loved about Borges is his powers of compression, and right away he’d gotten that part down pat. “Hakim, the Masked Dyer of Merv” is about a prophet who wears a mask because, he claims, God makes all who look upon his face go blind. Then his mask is pulled off, and he’s revealed as a fraud. The end of the story turns on a dime:

Hakim’s voice attempted one final deception: Thy abominable sins forbid thee to look upon my radiance… he began.

No one was listening; he was riddled with spears.

Sometimes people ask me how you’re supposed to use a semi-colon. From now on, I will point to the last sentence above. That’s how you fucking use a semi-colon.

KEEP OR SELL: Keep.

* * * * *

JORGE LUIS BORGES, THE GARDEN OF FORKING PATHS (1941, TRANS. ANDREW HURLEY)

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: See above.

THOUGHTS: Well, that didn’t take long: in his second book, Borges the genius  rears his head. The Garden of Forking Paths contains no fewer than four of my all-time favourite stories: “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim,” “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” “The Lottery in Babylon,” and “The Library of Babel.” For those keeping score at home, that’s 50% of the entire collection. Who does he think he is, a Sloan album? Those numbers are obscene.

It’s also here that Borges lays out his great contribution to the history of literature: the idea of footnoting, summarizing, critiquing, and otherwise engaging with books that don’t exist. This, of course, opens doors that point towards infinite loops, footnotes upon footnotes upon footnotes, which you see in “Al-Mu’tasim” and more overtly in “The Library of Babel,” which features a library that literally stretches into infinity.

Borges is humble about this innovation—in the foreword he refers to himself as a “more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man” than critics who discuss real books—but it remains an incredibly potent topic. I still read an alarming number of novels that outright deny the existence of other books. Borges, meanwhile, is constantly punch-drunk on other people’s writing—so much so that it keeps creeping into his own fiction. And sometimes he gets so carried away, he can’t help but improve upon the originals. Can you blame him?

KEEP OR SELL: Keep.

Aug 24, 2012
Comments

Shelf Defense: 2666

In late 2011 I decided, in the hopes of keeping my library down to a manageable size, to comb through the unread sections in alphabetical order. It was a naïve, Sisyphean project, and it will take forever—so I’d better get moving. Shelf Defense is my occasional notebook about what I dig up, from Alphabet Juice to Point Omega.

* * * * *

ROBERTO BOLAÑO, 2666 (2004, TRANS. NATASHA WIMMER)

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Because Chapters was (and still is!) remaindering paperbacks for a cool $10 while I was on parental leave last year.

THOUGHTS: For reasons of size, prestige, and overall heft, this deserves its own entry. Like The Savage Detectives before it, I am shocked and delighted to know that a book as wildly fractured as 2666 became a legitimate publishing phenomenon. It asks a lot—not in terms of readability, or sentence-by-sentence insight, but its cumulative weight. And it delivers. The centre of the book is Santa Teresa, where hundreds of women have been murdered throughout the ’90s and beyond. Orbiting the town, literally and thematically, are literary critics, boxers, computer salesmen, crooked police officers, and one reclusive author. My friend Cam correctly described Part 4 as 300 pages of The Wire, and that is not light or tossed-off praise. I was baffled time and again by how much Bolaño can wring out, how many fully formed lives and relationships, from such simple sentences. Then, whenever the whim strikes him, he turns on the juice. I’ll admit that right up to the last 80 or so pages, I had zero faith the different threads were going to come together. This was “admire,” not “love” territory. Boy was I wrong. The ending of 2666 is gorgeous, profound, and all kinds of satisfying. It also makes the best use of ice cream since How I Became a Nun (granted, not that long ago—but both are brilliant).

Now I’m probably not going to be able to stop thinking about it for the rest of the summer. So if anyone has any particularly strong investigative/analytic essays, please share. In the meantime, I’m off to order Antwerp.

KEEP OR SELL: Keep.

Jul 13, 2012
Comments

Shelf Defense: Alphabet Juice, The Consolation of Philosophy

In late 2011 I decided, in the hopes of keeping my library down to a manageable size, to comb through the unread sections in alphabetical order. It was a naïve, Sisyphean project, and it will take forever—so I’d better get moving. Shelf Defense is my occasional notebook about what I dig up, from Alphabet Juice to Point Omega.

* * * * *

ROY BLOUNT JR., ALPHABET JUICE (2008)

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Because Munro’s in Victoria had it remaindered in 2009, and because I enjoy little factoids about words and why they sound strange.

THOUGHTS: This is a tough thing to write about, because Blount’s project is to celebrate the elastic, plummy, sonicky (his word) qualities of language—so my sentences are feeling extra self-conscious today. Alphabet Juice is a direct retort to linguists who claim that the relationship between words and their meanings is arbitrary. As proof, Blount wades knee-deep into several dictionaries at once, taking us through the alphabet letter by letter and pointing out the ways in which certain ideas need certain kinds of words to describe them. This goes well beyond onomatopoeia. (Take the sphinx, a mythic, riddle-spouting creature that strangled its victims; saying the word sphinx physically makes your throat contract). It’s a joyous yet calming book, one that forced me to re-assess a bunch of my own lazy writing habits. It’s partly self-help, too. When introducing the word ipsilateral, Blount writes, “This is not a word that you’ll ever need, but I thought it might cheer you up.”

KEEP OR SELL: Keep.

* * * * *

BOETHIUS, THE CONSOLATION OF PHILOSOPHY (524, TRANS. VICTOR WATTS)

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Because I thought it might help me in my Chaucer class in 2007. Who knows? Maybe it would have.

THOUGHTS: If I were about to be brutally executed for a bogus crime, I doubt I would sit down and write an elegant treatise on everything I’ve ever learned about philosophy. But thank goodness Boethius did—for a long time this was key connective tissue in the West’s understanding of some essential ancient myths and texts. The Canterbury Tales draws heavily on his modified wheel of fortune concept. (Later, so would Pat Sajak.) The bigger surprise, though, is that it’s mostly a treat to read, even now. Boethius imagines the personification of philosophy visiting him in jail, and methodically dismantling all of his fears and dilemmas about this mortal coil he was about to depart. Then, near the end, it goes into some pretty bland hair-splitting about God and free will and blah blah blah. Let’s do some quotes!

Yes, rise up on my wheel if you like, but don’t count it an injury when by the same token you begin to fall.

And:

What a splendid thing power is, when we find it insufficient even for its own preservation!

And my personal favourite:

Perhaps you think that beauty means being resplendent in clothing of every variety: but if the clothing catches my eye, my admiration will be directed at either the quality of the material or the skill of the tailor … If Nature gives them their beauty, how does it involve you?

KEEP OR SELL: Keep.

May 22, 2012
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Shelf Defense: The Avengers Battle the Earth-Wrecker, Great Granny Webster

In late 2011 I decided, in the hopes of keeping my library down to a manageable size, to comb through the unread sections in alphabetical order. It was a naïve, Sisyphean project, and it will take forever—so I’d better get moving. Shelf Defense is my occasional notebook about what I dig up, from Alphabet Juice to Point Omega.

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OTTO BINDER, THE AVENGERS BATTLE THE EARTH-WRECKER (1967)

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Because my friend Cam gives me birthday presents unearthed from the depths of his parents’ basement, and I am very grateful for this.

THOUGHTS: It’s great! (With a big asterisk next to the “great”!)

"So what are we waiting for?" demanded Goliath. "We go to Mount Everest, lick Karzz [the Conqueror], wreck his magnet, and stop the comet. Simple as ABC."

"Yes, except for D through Z," warned Iron Man, "which will be all the unknown superscience tricks he may still have up his sleeve. It’ll be tough, with a capital T."

Also—somehow—it features a different team of Avengers than the one shown on the cover. Buyer beware: there’s nary a Quicksilver or Scarlet Witch to be found.

KEEP OR SELL: Sell.

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CAROLINE BLACKWOOD, GREAT GRANNY WEBSTER (1977)

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Because it’s put out by the NYRB.

THOUGHTS: This probably isn’t news to anyone, but I’m once again amazed at how good NYRB is at finding and resurrecting such propulsive, weird, intensely voice-driven novels. Great Granny Webster is only 35 years old, but feels like a long-lost relic. It follows its own unpredictable rhythms, and foregoes A-to-B plot in favour of a litany of anecdotes and unsavoury personal details, all filtered through a lens of aristocratic hubris. Even the title is a great little feint, as Blackwood uses the titular granny as a launchpad for showcasing the strange lives of several Webster family members, each of whom has a theory about why the young narrator’s father spent so much time visiting his horrid grandmother during World War II. It’s very short, and doesn’t ultimately take aim at all that much, but every hit lands cleanly. One reviewer called it “a box of chocolates with amphetamine centres,” and, well, I don’t think I can say it any better than that.

(Note: It’s not included above because I bought it after taking this picture, which, yes, kind of defeats the purpose of this project. Shush, you.)

KEEP OR SELL: Keep.

May 4, 2012
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Shelf Defense: Malone Dies, The List

In late 2011 I decided, in the hopes of keeping my library down to a manageable size, to comb through the unread sections in alphabetical order. It was a naïve, Sisyphean project, and it will take forever—so I’d better get moving. Shelf Defense is my occasional notebook about what I dig up, from Alphabet Juice to Point Omega.

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SAMUEL BECKETT, MALONE DIES (1951, TRANS. SAMUEL BECKETT)

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: I think I found it at a clearance sale at my university.

THOUGHTS: It’s not easy to talk about Beckett with any kind of moral nuance—at least, nothing that doesn’t land on the most pessimistic corner of the continuum of human nature. And since I’m not interested in choosing between shades of black, like a customer in the world’s most depressing paint store, we don’t really get along. So it’s no surprise that Malone Dies repels me almost magnetically. It’s the middle section of a trilogy (part one is Molloy, part three The Unnameable), so maybe there are some key ingredients I’m missing. But its semi-lucid soliloquy, delivered by an old amnesiac who wakes up in either hospital or an asylum, is just as dour and encrusted in bitterness as I’d come to expect. I don’t find Beckett’s much-touted sense of humour that persuasive, either, though there is an admirable dedication to lines like ”Much water has passed beneath Butt Bridge, in both directions.” Later a man in Malone’s story tries to have sex with a woman by “folding [his penis] in two and stuffing it in with his fingers.” No thanks. We disagree too strongly on the basic premise here. If not goodness, it has to at least be curiosity, or hope. Life isn’t constantly worrying whether someone has poisoned your soup, and the world isn’t an irredeemable toilet. I mean, sure, if you go looking for nihilism, eventually you’ll find it. But why would anyone go looking for that?

KEEP OR SELL: Sell.

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ROBERT E. BELKNAP, THE LIST (2004)

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Because I love lists, and because they had it at the University of Alberta’s discount bookstore a few months ago.

THOUGHTS: One late night online, while working on my undergrad honours essay, about something I called “pre-encyclopaedism” in Moby-Dick, I came across a book-length study of the list in fiction. It was a perfect match for part of what I was interested in, but I didn’t buy it, or even write down the title. It disappeared. Now, that book wasn’t The List—I’m about 85% sure of this—but as I read it, I kept hoping to find something I could have thrown into that essay retroactively. I never found it. Belknap’s book is too cursory, too timid to really dig into the dirt of how lists operate in Emerson, Whitman, Melville, and Thoreau. I want close reading, not block quotes. I want it laid out like algebra: Item A introduces the concept, Item B builds on it, Item C twists it in this direction, etc. What about the way length and rhythm affect surrounding items? The role of titles? Subversion? Humour? There is real juice to the idea of the science of lists, but Belknap doesn’t squeeze hard enough to find it. I did enjoy learning some more about Emerson, and Melville and Ishmael are always mensches. Thoreau, I still don’t know. And Whitman… actually, I’m realizing Whitman is kind of the anti-Beckett. Where Beckett could insult a rainbow in five words or less (and probably has), Whitman thinks every last goddamn rock on the path in front of his house deserves dozens of lines of poetry that verge on press-release levels of excitement. Neither one is believable. I need writers who find a way to split the difference.

KEEP OR SELL: Sell.

Apr 30, 2012
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Shelf Defense: The Atrocity Exhibition, Flaubert’s Parrot

In late 2011 I decided, in the hopes of keeping my library down to a manageable size, to comb through the unread sections in alphabetical order. It was a naïve, Sisyphean project, and it will take forever—so I’d better get moving. Shelf Defense is my occasional notebook about what I dig up, from Alphabet Juice to Point Omega.

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J.G. BALLARD, THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION (1970)

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Because it’s another leftover from the postmodernism class that never was (along with that ill-fated Kathy Acker).

THOUGHTS: Wow. I’m not sure what I was expecting to find here, but it certainly wasn’t an egg-headed demolition derby between ideas (car crashes, science v. pornography, spinal injury) and ’60s celebrities (JFK, Elizabeth Taylor, Ralph Nader). By page five I was intrigued; by page 20 I was bored; by page 50 outraged; and by page 150 I came back around for good. I should probably admit here that this is my first Ballard book. Are they all like this? Sometimes he’s bullshitting for literary effect, and sometimes he’s plain wrong. And sometimes the project just turns him defensive, especially in the recently added explanatory notes—“if the reader has been giving even a tenth of his attention to the text…”—which, by the way, I can’t imagine not being considered an integral part of the text from here on in, Waste Land-style. They’re a welcome dash of lucidity. It’s a book I may very well never recommend to another human. But it’s got way more meat on its bones than did Acker’s Don Quixote, and it (eventually) struck a real nerve.

KEEP OR SELL: Keep (for now).

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JULIAN BARNES, FLAUBERT’S PARROT (1984)

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: No idea. I’d heard it was good.

THOUGHTS: So here’s something I’m learning about my tastes: I don’t really value breadth in fiction—what I care about is depth. I like novels that take one idea and then dig their heels in. Run that idea into the ground. Exhaust it. Who cares about panoramas? Why be a broom when you could be a drill? Most of my favourite novels are, I’m realizing, about obsession, be it in the form of whales or romances or some convoluted sense of social prestige. That’s why reading Flaubert’s Parrot was like taking a deep breath of mountain air. It’s a monomaniacal look at an author about whom I know basically zero, and Barnes’s sheer commitment to the task hooked me immediately. Yet it’s also in favour of multiplicity, and against capital-A answers. This is correct. And it doesn’t hurt that Barnes is so damn clever, or that the back-page blurb describes the book as “a massive lumber room of detail,” which for me is an automatic deal-sealer. A lumber room! It’s incredible. I’m entering Flaubert’s Parrot into my personal pantheon immediately.

(Still, the copy I read is severely beat up. If I can find a nice new one, I’ll snap it up right away. Hence the below equivocation.)

KEEP OR SELL: Keep (for now).

Mar 30, 2012
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