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Wednesday, 27 May 2015 15:45

Ten years of soaking up great books

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bookAbout two months ago, I began culling books from my shelves. I live in an apartment with several thousand books, most on shelves, some stacked in closets, some thrust under beds or packed in a storage space in boxes. This weeding-out was, as usual, neither orderly nor effective. Even a casual observer of my rooms would note no difference in the number of books.

Still, I felt righteous taking a box and two sacks of books off to Mr. K’s Used Books, Music and More for trade credit. These orphans included several books that I’d bought for review and enjoyed, but knew I’d never read again; several other books that I knew I would never read; and eight or 10 books given me by a neighbor who likes Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck, which I also knew I would never read. (I rarely listen to talk radio, and find most conservative and liberal commentators lacking in charity, which I suppose comes with the job. Regarding Glenn Beck in particular: his political books are designed to look like a website, which I find distracting. I did enjoy his novel The Christmas Sweater, but the rest are just dead timber between my fingers. And apparently Mr. K’s feels the same way: they didn’t take any of the Beck books or the review books, which now means I must set them on the curb outside my house on a nice day, where they will be grabbed up, for whatever purposes, by passers-by).

At any rate, the staff at Mr. K’s gave me $40 worth of credit for my efforts. With this sum, I managed to buy an AP European History study guide (I’ll be teaching this subject next fall and collect these books wherever I find them), an AP U.S. History study guide (which I’m teaching this year and so put to immediate use), Ali Smith’s The Book Lover, which I realized as soon as I reached home I would never read; and Nick Hornby’s Ten Years In The Tub: A Decade Soaking In Great Books, which made the entire trip worthwhile.

Hornby, a London novelist and Hollywood screenwriter, used to write a column called “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” for The Believer, an English magazine, and Ten Years In The Tub is a collection of these columns. His comments on books he has read that month are in the style of a blog rather than a review — loose, personal, passionate. Twice I have checked Ten Years In The Tub out of Pack Library here in Asheville, and both times have wondered whether I shouldn’t just go ahead and order the book from Amazon. I hesitated, but am now the proud owner the Tub book.

In his collection, Hornby doesn’t really write what most readers would consider reviews of books. Instead, he gives us quick takes on whatever he has read the previous month — novels, poetry, history, biographies, political screeds. Because of the various enchantments he offers in his remarks — humor, the ability to connect with his readers, insights into his personal life, and his failures as a reader — we keep turning the pages. Here, for example, is a passage selected at random from column written in 2005:

“The story so far: suddenly sick of my taste in books, I vowed in these pages last month to read something I normally wouldn’t pick up. After much deliberation … I decided that my friend Harry was right, and that in the normal course of events I’d never read an SF/Fantasy novel in a million years. Now read on, if you can be bothered.”

Hornby’s then looks at Iain Banks’ science fiction novel Excession and writes that by the time he got to the first chapter “I was crying so hard I could no longer see the page in front of my face” and that “I haven’t felt so stupid since I stopped attending physics lessons aged fourteen.” Excession became one of his “unfinished” books. (Your reviewer was happy to see him abandon a book after the first chapter; this is a common occurrence in my own work, though I rarely write about it).

Anyway, my visit to Mr. K’s brought me a book I had wanted for a long time.

In addition, the visit also brought me a surprise. When I arrived home and sorted through the books the appraisers had refused, I started to flip through a Glenn Beck volume titled Miracles And Massacres: True And Untold Stories Of The Making of America (Simon and Schuster, 2013, 290 pages). 

In addition to its traditional format, what appealed to me in Miracles and Massacres were the stories selected and researched by Beck, assuming he does the research. Here are dramatic accounts of events in American history, some of which were familiar to me, some new and enlightening. His exploration of the My Lai Massacre and of Wounded Knee reflected none of his famed conservatism, but instead seemed a pursuit of truth. His story of Iva Toguri, who was accused of being Tokyo Rose and served time in prison, remind us of the imperfections of the justice system, here or anywhere else. Finally, his chapter “The Battle of Athens,” in which he related the phenomenal tale of World War II veterans engaging in a gun battle with corrupt city officials in Athens, Tennessee, was entirely unfamiliar to me, and I would suspect, to most Americans. 

So here is one Glenn Beck book that might appeal to Americans of all political colors, blue or red, green or whatever other color we sail under these days.

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