My Grammy Carlton always said, “You can never have too many books!” and sometimes we owned as many as 20 all at once, including the Bible and a volume called The Library of Universal Knowledge (the Practical Self-Educator). Since I intended to know everything when I grew up, I began working my way through the Great Books on a recommended reading list I found somewhere. It was a good list, in that I read some books I would never have considered, or even known existed—Saint-Exupery’s Wind, Sand and Stars, for instance. It was good to have a plan and a focus, although I didn’t understand that my list wasn’t THE list; I didn’t realize that the list of books considered great would change over time, and that Saint-Exupery might not be the immutable cultural touchstone I assumed he was.
Before I found the List, I went to our little local library to browse and check out any book that interested me. But once I had my Plan I went to the library only to order certain books, or pick up books, or put books on hold. It’s only lately that I’ve rediscovered the joys of random reading. I have three main sources for books nowadays, and have very little, if any, control over what is available to me. I get books from the “new” shelf at our small public library, from the “take-one-leave-one” at the train station café, and from a friend of mine who sends me discarded review copies from her job.
The “new” shelf at our library features recent acquisitions from the county library system. This means that most of the books won’t actually end up in our library, although we’ll be able to order them later, if we want to go to the trouble. I usually don’t. Sometimes the selection seems like a total hodgepodge, and sometimes it’s like the autobiography of one of the librarians. Suddenly there are several books about couples therapy and divorce mediation; after a few months, those are replaced with a bunch of books about menopause and cooking for one. But occasionally there is a book that makes you wonder how it slipped through: I found The History of White People on the New shelf, and was very glad for that. Author Nell Painter is a historian who retired from Princeton, and while she obviously means this book to be an accessible introduction to some concepts from whiteness studies, I suspect the major points I took away are a little too glib. But here’s what I got out of it: The whole concept of “race” was made up by 18th-Century Germans and there’s no science to support it, IQ tests are crap, anarchist beliefs were a sign of racial inferiority, and my ancestors weren’t considered white until fairly recently. Except for the annoying way illustrations are cited in the text, The History of White People is a good read and feeds my confirmation bias pretty well.
The take-one-leave-one (the "tolo”) is a large bookshelf at one of our local coffee shops. You can take any book you see there, and keep it for as long as you like—forever, if you want—as long as you replace it with another book you don’t want. It seems as if a good number of people in our village work in publishing, so there are often some pretty interesting books at the tolo. That’s where I picked up Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, an 800-page historical fantasy about Napoleonic-era English magic (or, you know, magicke). I did read the whole thing, and concluded that author Susanna Clarke can write, but she can’t tell a story to save her life. A reader who hangs around for 800 pages wants a well-constructed plot. When I took Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell I replaced it with Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face (which I’d bought and read after my latest disfiguring face-cancer surgery). But after I finished Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, I put it back on the tolo.
My friend A., who works at a great metropolitan newspaper, has access to the book reviewers’ discards, and often sends me little packages of books. This is not quite random, since she has an idea of the types of things I like to read, but it is actually more random than the New shelf or the tolo since I have no say in the books that she picks for me. Recently she’s sent me The Poisoner’s Handbook, by Deborah Blum. It’s a history of forensic medicine in New York City in the early 20th Century, featuring New York’s chief medical examiner, Charles Norris, and toxicologist Alexander Gettler. It’s like a true crime-science thriller-history mash-up, and thoroughly enjoyable. Good science, good writing, good story—a good book!
Although I’ve come to prefer getting books for free via random reading, I do sometimes break down and buy something I’m especially interested in. This week I bought and am reading Molecular Gastronomy and The Black Swan. I’m not far enough along to review them yet, but I think I want to marry Nassim Taleb.
Thanks for reading my blogpost this time, and may God bless.