How to Cure a Bibliomaniac: Best Of

OMG WHAT DID SHE CHOOSE, THE SUSPENSE IS KILLING YOU

OMG WHAT DID SHE CHOOSE, THE SUSPENSE IS KILLING YOU

Gosh, it’s an interesting experience to look back through what you’ve read in a year!

And remember the pleasures of the great books and, admittedly, the tedium of the less-amazing books.

To be sure, not one of the titles I read was a bad book, but the blazing light of the best as listed here really testify as to why I embarked upon this project in the first place – to teach myself that any book you’re not enjoying is not worth forcing yourself to finish. When you read a book you’re loving, you’re really enjoying, you know it.

And you know what? These books were overall quite serious books. One I finished sobbing like a bereft child. But they didn’t drag, and they didn’t depress. They just glowed. They make you realise life’s too short to read anything second-best. So from now on, I’m only finishing stuff I love. Hell, I’m only starting stuff I love. It doesn’t mean I’m not going to read smart books or hard books. But they have to be great.

So without further ado, the best books I read this past 52 weeks:

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I’m not going to rank them, it’s too close a call. Trust me, and read them all.

(If you won’t trust me, at least trust Dr Seuss)

 
031Honorable mention:

On Beauty – Zadie Smith (radiant, absorbing)

To be honest, this was just as good as the others, but I didn’t have a copy of it any more because I decided to pass that one on so it could brighten other people’s lives. So it didn’t get in the group photo.

Stay tuned! Before this project officially closes, one more post to come… The Aftermath

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The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 22: The Meaning of Friendship (Mark Vernon, 2010)

Books left: 4. Weeks left: 7 (breathe in, breathe out. Undo metaphysical belt of brain.)

Almost as pretty as a white-fleshed nectarine, and at least with a nectarine you know what you're getting.

Almost as pretty as a white-fleshed nectarine, but at least with a nectarine you know what you’re getting.

Wow, found a book with an author’s name starting with V, and that if nothing else is testament to the necessity of this project.

I see its pretty jacket and sail in, blithely unaware of the small note I later discover in the blurb that the book is a revised version of one previously titled The Philosophy of Friendship.

Consider your warning unheeded, sirs!

 

 

Vernon’s book is an examination of the rules and functions of friendship in contemporary society, with chapters on subjects such as friendships at work, the possibility of being ‘just friends’ and not lovers, friending online, friendship as it relates to politics, and friendship as a spiritual experience. He peppers his text with examples from both real life and pop culture, and simultaneously links it to the works of philosophers including Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Foucault, Kant and Aquinas.

He paints a portrait of the ancient world that shows clearly how civilisation once valued friendship, though official structures, language patterns and customs, in ways it now does not; and calls for us to reconsider, as he has retitled his book, the meaning of friendship.

Why is it that modern society has no public means of recognising the bonds formed between friends, a fact that is in stark contrast to the family, which is celebrated as the very basis of community? Surely friendship plays a vital part in that too … it is not just that friendship is not recognised in society, whereas family is, but that the particularity of friendship can often be regarded as a threat to the unconditional love that is supposed to reign within the family too. Why else do individuals somehow feel they must renegotiate a long-term friendship when their friend gets married? Or, to put it another way: is there not a steely strand in the ethic of modern marriage which repels anything that compromises the unconditional commitment of husband and wife – ‘forsaking all others,’ as the service says? Close friendship can count as infidelity quite as much as a fling or affair.

This is a deeply unsatisfactory state of affairs. For all Kant may wish it, and ethical discourse may ignore it, friendship will not cease. Aristotle’s intuition is right: it has to do with self-love, and it is certainly partial, but it is also undoubtedly necessary for a happy life. Moreover, if friendship is rising back up the agenda of people’s personal commitments, as marriage reforms and other institutions of belonging become less reliable, then an ethical discourse that takes friendship seriously is needed, not least to provide some structure for people who want to make the most of it. Friendship will always be full of ambiguities. We’ve established that by now. But that does not mean it is not possible to think through them and welcome friendship as a key, if complicated, facet of life – which, after all, is only complicated itself.

As Vernon outlines, friendship has been a topic largely ignored by most philosophers. Many of the philosophers he references in depth here are a product of those ancient times in which friendship was valued more highly. This means his book is not only justified as an unprecedented study but that he has also been able to have a jolly good stab at assembling the gist of it all in one book of modest length. For a philosophy fan it will no doubt be a valued addition to the library as its subject matter, as well as the approach through a modern lens, is unique.

Note I say philosophy fans and not people like me, with gnat-like attention spans.

I consider myself a charming blend of literary snob and member of the unwashed masses. I like books with corpses or explosions or humour or if they are Serious Literary Fiction I like them to have stunningly beautiful prose. I am reluctant with documentaries, nonfiction or even things that smell of them, such as satire, to the point I even hesitated on the very funny New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows because I thought it might be too realistic for Sunday entertainment. But I do enjoy the nonfiction I end up consuming from time to time – recent examples being tiny house movement documentary Tiny and Annabel Crabb’s The Wife Drought. Point is, surely I can’t be alone in finding both ancient history and philosophy a hard slog, and now I’m no longer a pretentious 20-year-old who carries around a Nietzsche tome she is unable to finish, I can admit it.

By the middle of Vernon’s book my interest has flatlined and I fight my way to the final chapters rather grimly, cursing not Vernon or his subject matter but the book’s clever marketing that has led me to buy it in the first place (PRETTY COLOURS). It’s not difficult as such, thanks to Vernon’s engaging style, but I must say I don’t plan to pass it on to anyone I know unless they have a burning interest in the subject.

Having said that, the last do raise some intensely interesting topics, exploring far-reaching and fascinating histories of gender and same-sex relationship issues, and this has cheered me up a little by the time I embark heroically upon the conclusion. Here, Vernon has somehow travelled through time and space and seen my boredom and secret wishes for a fluffy self-help book, because his final chapter, Friendship Beyond Self-Help, draws to the heart of why he has written a book of philosophy.

Perhaps the key to a fulfilled life is not to be self-centred but other-centred, to lose yourself in order to find it. That’s a common religious sentiment, and it’s one attested to by the experience of friendship too. Aristotle has a particularly powerful account of it, when he talks of the friend being another self, the person in whom you not only see yourself reflected but in who you discover yourself. There is no being human on a desert island, any more than there are such things as solitary ants. The good life is the attempt to live for others in life. As Iris Murdoch has it, love is ‘the painful realisation that something other than myself exists.’
This perhaps partly explains why there is no end to self-help books. They are condemned to struggle with this conundrum – they solution they offer – attend to yourself – is actually part of the problem.

Consider me chastised!

Keep or Kill? I’m not going to re-read it, so unless someone of a more academic bent than me wants it, it’s going on the No Pile. 

 

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 13: The Sea, the Sea (Iris Murdoch, 1978)

Books left: 13. Weeks left: 21 (not ideal)

I let loose my own demons, not least the sea serpent of jealousy.

Iris Murdoch - The Sea, the Sea

 

Celebrated theatre director Charles Arrowby abandons his glittering London life and glamorous friends to retire in obscurity in an English country coastal town with the intention to write his memoirs and live a simple life.

But the sudden appearance of an old love – not to mention an increasingly perplexing stream of visitors – threatens the peace he thought he found.

The story begins with happy meandering about his new life, which revolves around swimming, pottering about, observing the local flora and eating.

Many passages are devoted to food (resulting in some of the most amusing culinary quotes I have seen, which though too long for this forum would be spoiled by cutting) and to Charles’ new, spartan surroundings, for instance

… A large remarkably hideous green vase, with a thick neck and a scalloped rim and pink roses blistering its bulging sides.  I have become very attached to this gross object.

Compared to all of this, the story of how and why he came to be in this lonely seaside shack is at first cursory and almost entirely enveloped by his meditations, quite besides the food and the decor, on the sea in all its moods.

It is evening. The sea is golden, speckled with white points of light, lapping with a sort of mechanical self-satisfaction under a pale green sky. How huge it is, how empty, this great space for which I have been longing all my life.

Later:

The sea is a choppy dark blue-grey, an aggressive and unpleasant colour. The seagulls are holding a wake. The house feels damp.

But the sea is not as calm and benevolent as it seems, and neither is he. Each have horrors lurking beneath the surface and the turn events quickly take is all the more startling because of the book’s gentle beginning; they plunge suddenly into a madness that have me reading with eyes wide and toes curled, filled with shock over each successive twist.

Charles is revealed as an obsessed anti-hero, and his view of people as possessions becomes more and more sinister with each turn of the page.

The demon of jealousy befouled the past and left my mind no place to rest. Jealousy is perhaps the most involuntary of all emotions. It steals consciousness, it lies deeper than thought. It is always there, like a blackness in the eye, it discolours the world.

Yet I want for Charles what he does for himself, identifying with him against my will as happens similarly with Nabokov’s nastily compelling predator in Lolita. I am nervous throughout, seeing him hover on the brink of some unnamed disaster. At one point, flabbergasted by what I am now getting into when I thought I had been reading a nice pretty novel about the ocean, I actually shake the book and shout at Charles, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!”

This rather alarms the Ministry, sitting next to me at the time.

Despite my disgust, I am held in thrall and beside myself with suspense over how it could all possibly end – though it is clear at least that it’s not, at any rate, going to end well.

I had wakened some sleeping demon, set going some deadly machine; and what would be would be.

As it turns out the book ends not with a bang but with a whisper, like the sea settling after a storm, and I race through its 25-page denouement with fascination and not a shred of doubt that Murdoch richly deserved the Booker Prize the work won her.

Its magisterial use of language and the awful fatality in its relentless description of a great, impossible love reminds me of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; but equally it is its own story, not to be diminished by likening, and I daresay overall a more enjoyable read than the tale of poor doomed Gatsby.

Keep or kill? Look, it’s probably obvious that I’m keeping it, BUT, look at all the M-author sacrifices I’m making instead, in order to appease the vengeful gods! These are good ones, too, and I won’t deny that there’s a little twinge of reluctance. Sometimes I feel a bit like Smaug, sitting on his pile of gold, that he’s not going to use, but doesn’t want anyone else to touch.

Pile of books by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Andrew McGahan, Toni Morrison and Andrei Makine.

Check my gumption.

Curious about The Curing of a Bibliomaniac? Click here.