Six months ago I began the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project. In early September I realized I had accumulated 150+ books on my “to read” shelves. A lot of them were fairly recent acquisitions, but some of them had been sitting there for years, following me from Santa Barbara to Atlanta six years ago and not getting any closer to being read. The larger problem was that I was still buying books so frequently that the situation would only ever get worse, even if I increased my reading pace. So, in the tradition of the desperate addict, I decided to go cold turkey. No more buying books until I completely cleared the shelves, and, in the process, this blog was transformed from solipsistic musings on pop culture and politics to solipsistic book reviews.
Six months later, I’ve read 48 books and made a decent amount of headway, especially if you compare the picture here with the photos at the link at the top. I wish I could report that my attitude toward book consumption has undergone a sea change, that I’ve realized I don’t need to buy books as frequently to satisfy my literary jones, but I’d be lying if I claimed my eye wasn’t so firmly on the prize because I’m so keenly aware of how much good stuff I’m missing out on. You have no idea, for instance, how much it pains me to know that this project has prevented me from reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. But I’m fully committed to seeing it through to its conclusion.
And it is fun. Of course it is. I’m reacquainting myself with a few authors I hadn’t read in a while and introducing myself to some new voices, and my extended chronological exposure to both Elmore Leonard and Ian Rankin has been one of the project’s true pleasures. So, 48 books in, what’s made an impression? Here’s the scorecard for the first six months.
Favorite Book(s): I’ve read a lot of good stuff, but nothing has made quite as much of an impact as the very first book I read back in September. J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S. is sort of ingenious, an experiment in multiple voices told in the form of marginalia recorded between two readers in a library book. David Peace’s bleak and brilliant 1980 is another high point, and both Elmore Leonard’s Unknown Man #89 and Ian Rankin’s The Hanging Garden stand as my favorite of the several books of theirs I’ve read so far.
Least Favorite Book(s): It’ll take a lot to top Andy Weir’s The Martian, which I found tedious in a variety of ways: the artificially chipper voice of its narrator, the superfluous scientific tangents, the rice-paper-thin supporting characters, the Crisis-of-the-Day contortions of its plot. Jonathan Maberry, whose Joe Ledger series I adore, struck out with Dead Man’s Song, the second book in his Pine Deep Trilogy. Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions is a failed experiment that never rewards the effort it takes to read it. But at least I remember all three of these, which is more than I can say for Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist. Goodreads tells me I read it, but I’ll be damned if I can remember a thing about it.
Biggest Surprise, Positive: I’ve never been a science-fiction guy, so Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is the most unexpectedly pleasurable thing I read. Shades of Philip K. Dick and James Ellroy in a story about an android seeking her freedom.
Biggest Surprise, Negative: David Sedaris’ Holidays on Ice is an uncharacteristically mean-spirited collection of sketches. The author’s typically affectionate tone is missing, replaced with misanthropy and cruelty. I don’t mind a little misanthropy and cruelty, but it suits Sedaris like a sweater that’s too tight through the shoulders.
A Book Everyone Loves That I Had Problems With: I took a break from writing reviews for a while, and I wish I’d written one about John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I completely understand why this book is a juggernaut in the world of spy fiction. It’s a labyrinthine tale of Cold War intrigue, full of well-drawn characters working at cross-purposes with a variety of motivations. It’s a classic. Totally. But after a while it got to be too much work – a case (for me, at least) of diminishing returns as I just waited around patiently for le Carré to tie up all the loose ends.
A Book I Loved that I Don’t Think Everyone Else Will Love but I Think Is Worth Reading Anyway: I was sort of blown away by Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods. A mystery without resolution, a curdled romance, and a rumination on the effects of war, it’s a book that invites argument. The fact that O’Brien tells it in stark, spare prose makes it all the more haunting. It isn’t for everyone – especially for readers who need a satisfying, definitive conclusion – but anyone who appreciates ambiguity as much as I do will find a lot to love. And, even though I still have a hundred pages to go, I can say with some certainty that Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin is a powerhouse of a book that dares you to love it. That review will be coming along in a day or two.
So: six months and 48 books down. I should have cleared all my shelves in a little over a year and a half from the start date. Call it June 2016. Place your bets now.
The Fall – This Nation’s Saving Grace (1985)