I recently came across an article about ‘Tsundoku’ – the art of buying books and never getting round to reading them. Never have I related to anything so much. Anyone who has had the misfortune of stepping into my room at home is confronted not only by overflowing bookshelves but by numerous book stacks which seem intent to conquer more and more of my floor space. I am obsessed with buying books. There’s a sort of joy in walking into a bookshop, picking up books and flipping them over to read blurbs, and eventually leaving with a few carefully chosen favourites. As a result I have a lot of books: a couple of hundred, and many remain unread (though I will get round to them… eventually). I order my bookshelves alphabetically by author’s surname – I like to feel organised – and even separate out fiction, non-fiction, poetry and criticism, with each genre having its own particular place on the shelves (or in a book-stack). My obsession with curating an aesthetically pleasing personal library is shown, perhaps, by the fact that four out of the five books I’ve chosen are Vintage Classics editions which means they have all got identical ruby red spines and look lovely when stacked next to each other. They’re also all novels. I do love poetry and non-fiction but when I went to my bookshelf to select my picks for this article I just found myself gravitating towards my novels. I realise I’ve rambled a bit here, so without further ado, let me introduce my shelf/piles of books on the floor.
Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle
This was the first book that I properly studied in English lessons at school. We read the book during a term of Year 9. We were meant to read it together as a class but I got so caught up in the narrative that I stole a school copy from the classroom, took it back to my boarding house, and read it all instead of doing my other homework (whoops). I loved it so much that, as soon as term ended, I went to my local Waterstones, bought a copy and read it all over again. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the plot – it was just the first book that I remember reading over and over again (I never was a huge Harry Potter or Twilight fan). For my 17th birthday, my best friend got me The Town in Bloom, another book by Dodie Smith. My I Capture the Castle obsession, which I thought I had rather kept under wraps, had clearly been noticed by her. That’s what friends are for I guess.
John Williams, Stoner
‘THE GREATEST NOVEL YOU’VE NEVER READ’! So proclaims the Sunday Times quotation on the front cover of this book in a bright red circle which rather ruins the mellow photo of three books on a desk that adorns the cover. I saw this quotation as a challenge when I picked this up in a bookshop. I’ve never read it, have I? Watch me. I read it in more or less one sitting. It was the first book that made me cry. The book follows the life of William Stoner who studies agriculture at university, becomes a teacher, is unhappily married, has a quiet life that is barely remembered by those who knew him. Like the characters in the book, we know Stoner his whole life and go through everything with him, but I certainly haven’t forgotten this account of an ordinary life. I raved about this book to my GCSE English teacher, Ms Oliver, who also loved it, and I’m so upset that more people don’t know about it.
Christopher Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin
I am obsessed with Berlin. Properly obsessed. I genuinely bought this book because it had Berlin in the title. I didn’t look at the author or the blurb or the cover, I just bought it on impulse. And what an excellent decision that was. Set in the 1930s, this book is like overhearing anecdotes in a café, whilst the threat of history and the Nazis lurks just out of shot. The second paragraph begins:
‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.’
How could you not be entranced by a book that evokes such a wonderful image so early on!
Italo Calvino, If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller
‘You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade.’
I immediately felt excited when I opened this book. A book where, initially, I am the main character! (I like to forget the fact that to every reader the ‘you’ is them and that I’m not special in my ‘OMG it’s me!’ moment). The narrative is about a reader (me!) trying to read a book called If on a winter’s night a traveller and each chapter starts with a description of you trying to read the next chapter of the book you’re reading. Surely this is no more than a post-modern gimmick? I hear you protest. It’s not. It’s gripping, clever, and more than a little bit frustrating which is not a feeling one is used to when sitting down to unwind and relax with a bit of reading. This is genuinely one of the best books I’ve ever read. I don’t know what that says about me…
Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
This is the only book that isn’t a Vintage Classic in my list of five. I am unhealthily in love with Margaret Atwood, and the only thing better than a Margaret Atwood book is a Margaret Atwood book that is over 600 pages long! So many hours enveloped in the gorgeousness of Atwood’s writing style! This book also has a special place in my heart because I wrote about it in my personal statement. Winner of the 2000 Booker Prize, I don’t think this book is appreciated enough. I even prefer it to The Handmaid’s Tale. It takes a while to get in to, but once you’re into the rhythm of reading it, it’s really hard to put down. And the ending is definitely worth the wait. A tale of intrigue, betrayal, and the unreliability of memory, the story follows Iris Chase as she remembers her sister’s mysterious death.