Reading Down the Stacks

I read many books, but unfortunately, almost more than I love reading books, I love buying books.  The opportunity to purchase books abounds. I visit an annual charity book sale in June and frequently walk away with a paper sack full. The money goes to charity, it comes off the taxes, it’s a good thing, right?

One of my favorite de-stressing activities is walking over to Jackson Street books during lunchtime and wandering through the stacks, primarily the stacks of 19th century fiction and philosophy. The books are all used, so they are anywhere from $5 to $7, which is what I would spend on a meal, and I am becoming more well read, so forsaking lunch for literature is a good thing, right?

Then there is my monthly book group, which meets in an independent book store called the Bookworm in Omaha. I need to buy the book for the meeting, The Bookworm is a small business, and we need to support small businesses, so purchasing these books is a good thing, right?

My bibliophilic tendancies meant that my little home library began to burst at the seams. This past year, in September, I looked at my fiction bookshelves and said “ENOUGH! I have bought enough books, I need to pare them down.”


As you can see from the photo, my shelves were overflowing. I calculated the number of books sitting on my fiction shelves, and discovered I had 61 unread works of fiction – an absolutely daunting number.

The timing was perfect, as autumn in my favorite time to read. I read an average of two books a month, or 24 books a year, but I frequently devour more books during the colder months. Based on the average, I determined to read 20 books, or 1/3 of the unread books, between October 2012 and October 2013. Books that I simply liked would be given away. If I loved a book, it could go on my signed authors/favorite books shelf at the top of the stack. Like the year I read “Wuthering Heights,” I chose for my first book one that kept daunting me – “The Historian” by Elizabeth Kostova. My friend Heather kept raving about this 720 page tome, and yet it sat on my shelf, filed under “K”, teasing me like a bloodthirsty schoolgirl.

Heather chose to re-read the book at the same time, and together, we devoted the month of witches and vampires to a novel about the original vampire. First on the list, however, was a book that I finished right before the official start of the project.

During the fourth quarter of 2012, I logged exactly 25 percent of the project. Yea, me! While I read and read, I noticed that my ratings (1-5, 5 being high), stayed mediocre.

*October 1: Rules of Civility, 3 Stars
*October 24: The Historian, 3 stars
*Nov 25: Middlesex, 3 stars
*Dec 15: The Secret Scripture, 2 stars
*Dec 22: The Lovely Bones, 2 stars
*Dec 28: Hell or High Water, 2 stars

As much as achieving the goal meant to me, I also wanted quality. Thus, I began 2013 by reading a book by Michael Ondaatje, whose “English Patient” left me breathless and weeping for joy.

*Jan 13: Anil’s Ghost
Alas, I rated it 3 stars.

OK, so let’s try the book version of a favorite movie. You know, that five-star one with this:


*Jan. 31: Interview with the Vampire, 3 stars. (SIGH)

*Feb 11: Haunting Bombay, 3 stars.

So, how about a nonfiction book about a favorite TV show?

*Feb 15: License to Pawn: Deals, Steals, and My Life at the Gold & Silver, 3 stars.
Frankly, this one was a little better. I gave it three stars because it was not great literature, and I did not expect it to be, but I was entertained. Back to the stacks. Frustrated with books I knew a little about, I decided to try a book by an author I did not know.

*Feb 23: Everything Beautiful Began After, 4 stars.
Yes! The language took my breath away, the story flowed through my veins even when other obligations pried the book from my hands. I only wanted a stronger ending. Finally a book that I could file with the favorites.

*March 11: Blessings, 3 stars.
A good book, but I liked “One True Thing” better.

*April 7: Jephte’s Daughter, 1 star
This book was important to the project for a couple of reasons. The most important one being that it invoked such feelings of loathing that I actually wanted to throw it in the fireplace and watch it smolder, so no one else could be angered by this book. Misogyny in the name of religion is intolerable. It is the first book that made me realize it’s OK to simply give a book away without finishing it.

*May 14: The Marriage Plot, 2 stars
*May 26: The Piano Teacher, 4 stars
*June 11: The Blood Doctor, 1 star.
I put it down after a few chapters. The inner workings of modern British government just kept confusing me.

*July 29: The House of Mirth, 2 stars.
I eventually put it down. Good literature, but the plot is just too dull, even for this Austen-ite.

*August 2: The Maytrees, 4 stars.
At one point about halfway through the book, I discussed the plot with a friend and told her I wasn’t thrilled with it. Because the book was by an author I respect, and I had about 75 pages left, I kept going, and I’m very glad I did. Another for the favorites shelf.

*Sept 18: The Sister, 1 star
Wretched book. Horribly constructed plot.

*Oct 31: The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, 3 stars
Interesting book. Difficult to read at times because it was about Trinidad and Tobago, an area of the world with which I am unfamiliar.

There’s the 20. I may not have completely read all of them, but I discovered that if I do not intend on reading it, and I do not like it AT ALL, why keep it?

The other plus from the project was that any books I purchased were for a reason. In November I purchased “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” because my husband wanted to read it. (This only happens about once a year). We both rated it five stars and it went to the top shelf. In December, I purchased and read “The Sense of An Ending” by Julian Barnes for my book group. That one I rated 4 stars. In March I purchased and read “The Fate of Mercy Alban” because I … well, I gave in to temptation. I rated it 2 stars. I read Rainbow Rowell’s “Eleanor and Park” in March, which was a top-shelf book because it was signed, and in June I bought and read “Julie and Julia” because I watched, and loved, the movie. Three stars for that one, which was entertaining and different from the movie, but not one I loved. During my trip to Iowa City for the Writer’s Workshop in July, I treated myself to “My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop,” because I wanted a book from my favorite book store on Earth, Prairie Lights, mentioned several times in the book. The number of mentions of Iowa City alone caused it to hit the top shelf.

But one of my favorite consequences of this project, and the lead to next year’s project, is a return to the library. In December I read “All New People” by favorite author Anne Lamott as a reprise from mediocrity. In August, restless and unable to settle on a book from the shelves, I read “That Old Cape Magic,” and I returned to the library earlier this month for “Olive Kitteridge.”

I plan on returning to the library more often through the next year. January 2014 will bring the start of lots of activity in my life, leaving little time for reading. I do not, however, want to fill up the clean shelves with garbage. So, the November 2013 to November 2014 reading goal is … 12 books from the library.


Incidentally, note the break on the second shelf. Another result of the project was more signed and favorite copies on the top shelf, which spilled over onto the second shelf. The unread books start to the right of the bookend.


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