Friday, February 04, 2005

The Shelf of Abandoned Books

So I have a miserable cold at the moment. No, let me correct that. The cold is amazing, fantastic, an incredible cold– it is a cold that other colds will talk about in years to come. I’m the one who is miserable. And because of this I have kept to the house, sleeping, eating, and wandering from room to room honking like Felix Unger. And I’ve been staring at the Shelf of Abandoned Books.

Several years back, the Lovely Bride, tired of tripping over the stacks of books next to my bedside, got me a small bookcase. This quickly filled up with books that I started, and then set aside, intending to get back to. Of course, I never did, and hence, the Shelf.

And the weird thing is, I remember great chunks of these books, remember enjoying them, and yet never got the drive to finish them. They sort of hang at the edges of the dance, not horrible enough to be rejected, but not kindling enough fire to get themselves noticed. I look at the their spines and say, “Yeah, I want to read that. Eventually.”

So here is my Shelf of Abandoned Books:

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt is a great example of an Abandoned Book – there is nothing really wrong with this book, but after getting into it about fifty pages (just setup for the murder, nothing more), I set it aside and never returned. I think its odd size keeps me from shelving it away, and holds out hope that I will embrace it again.

I begun The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver on the recommendation of the Lovely Bride, stopped at the first section break, and never picked it up again. It was interesting and well-written, and dealt with a missionary family in Africa, but I never re-engaged with it, so it got its place on the shelf.

There are a lot of Africa books on the shelf - The Scramble for Africa by Thomas Parkenham, The Great War in Africa by Byron Farwell, and The Rwanda Crisis by Gerard Pruneir. All research for a future book, but have not been cracked for at least two years.

Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson is a problem book, since I really, really, like his work, starting with his Darwinia, which I picked up on a whim. I like his stuff, since he plays fair with the reader. This is his largest book so far, but I found it hard to maintain interest. The protagonists are on a military base, watching aliens on another planet. The base has sealed, the alien they have been watching has left his city, but I cannot seem to get the energy to pick it up again.

There are a bunch of Unbegun Books on the shelf – trapped in a permanent on-deck circle, Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler, The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman, The Telling by Ursula K LeGuin, The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, All good books, all recommended by others, and I will get to them.

I got about fifty pages into Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz, enough to get past his immigrant grandfather’s Civil War book and the recreators who can accurately reproduce battlefield corpses. I enjoyed his Blue Latitudes on tape, and I may end up going the same route with this one.

The Money and the Power by Sally Benton and Roger Morris is another unbegun book, and another one recommended by the Lovely Bride. I don’t know how she found out about it, since it’s about Vegas, one of the last places on earth she ever wants to visit. This book also convinced her that it was the mob that killed JFK, so maybe that’s a good reason to avoid it as well.

The Monkey’s Bridge by David Rains Wallace hold a record of sorts for abandonment, in that I left it at my dentist’s office, forgot that I even had it, had it returned to me six months later, and still haven’t finished it. Yet it’s a good book on evolution and natural history in Central America. Also good is The Eternal Frontier by Tim Flannery, which looks at the North American continent, though I started flagging when the Europeans arrived in the story.

Collected Fictions– by Jorge Luis Borges is not quite an abandoned book, because its stories just break down so elegantly into bite-sized morsels that they can be read easily and digested slowly. I’ve been reading this off and on, in three- and four-essay bursts, for a couple years. The Chomsky Reader is also in that category, since Chomsky comes in from such an oblique angle from what we consider to be traditional political discourse, and shatters a lot of preconceptions.

Dorothy L. Sayers is a favorite author, and I recommend heartily both Gaudy Night and Murder Must Advertise. Sayers captures sense of place and class distinction like no other mystery author. And yet, I have yet to finish Busman’s Honeymoon, even though I really want to know who moved the cactus in the living room.

Comic Wars by Dan Raviv is business porn. It is supposed to be about Marvel Comics and its trials and tribulations over the past few decades, but really its about who is leveraging who and where. Toy Wars, which does the same for Hasbro, is another example of the genre, and when I want to read business porn, I’ll probably come back to this.

Five Complete Novels by P.G. Wodehouse. How can I walk away from Bertie and Jeeves? Well, the first book in the compendium has no Bertie in it, and is set in post-war Britain (Wodehouse talking about the atom bomb is a weird juxtaposition, and not one that I am prepared for). So it gets a half-hearted attempt every year or so, and then left to gather dust.

The Cousin’s War by Kevin Phillips has an interesting idea – that the English Civil War, the American Revolution, and the American Civil War are all parts of a larger conflict between class and religious structures. I don’t know about his conclusions, but Phillips did make the inadvertent point that the early colonies came from very different religious backgrounds, and that the American freedom of religion in many ways was intended to be a freedom from religion.

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad, is my most-traveled abandoned book. Small, compact, and intriguing, I think I have read it on a dozen plane trips. And yet I have to really engage with it, always letting myself drift off to shinier lights.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson should be another completed book, in that I met the author a few years ago (he did the excellent Isaac’s Storm). Yet again, this combination of Chicago’s Columbian Exhibition and the Holmes Murder House never gelled for me.

Story by Robert McKee is interesting in that I have read the bulk of it, and I enjoyed it primarily because it inadvertently underscores what is so successful and so crappy about mainstream movies. As I’ve told a number of people – you follow all the rules for scriptwriting detailed within these covers and you end up with Up Periscope with Kelsey Grammer. I’ve bogged down as McKee makes his way to the details, but this is the “bible” for storytelling in Hollywood.

There are more – The People’s History of the United States, In the Beginning (The history of the King James Bible), The Great Influenza (NOT the book to read if you’re under the weather), Terry Brook’s Sometimes the Magic Works, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. If I finish any of these, I will tell you, but for the moment I feel like curling up with some hot tea and China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station.

And for my fellow journalistas, the question is now: What abandoned books are on your shelf?