The curse of the unread book

books

I am an inveterate book buyer; sometimes a red mist descends when I am ‘just browsing’ in a bookshop and I leave in a daze weighed down with books. I am also incapable of passing a secondhand bookstore without going in and buying at least two books. I also have to limit myself to only logging onto booktopia once a month (around pay day).

Unfortunately these bouts of bookish bagging have resulted in a number of books finding their way onto my shelves only to be forgotten about. I hadn’t realized how bad it had got until I was happily rearranging my books the other day and kept coming across them all.

So I have decided that before I buy any more books, I must read every unread one on my shelf, and to prove I have read it I will blog a short review every time I finish one. To make sure I don’t cheat here is the list of the unread books on my shelf (along with the reason for purchase at the time) that I am now committed to working my way through:
The Pages, Murray Bail (loved Eucalyptus)
The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes (it’s Julian Barnes!)
HHhH, Laurent Binet (heard a lot about it, thought it sounded interesting)
A Whistling Woman, A.S.Byatt (am working my way thorough her entire oeuvre)
The Trout Opera, Matthew Condon (thought it sounded interesting)
Old Filth, Jane Gardam (Vintage special offer)
Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons (saving to read on Christmas Day)
The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert (have been assured it is nothing like EPL)
Mr Norris Changes Trains, Christopher Isherwood (Vintage special offer)
The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver (not sure why I haven’t got round to this)
The Leopard, Guiseppe di Lampedusa (always wanted to read it, picked it up cheap)
Every Day, David Levithan (heard good things)
The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough (saw the TV show years ago, got it cheap)
The Cement Garden, Ian McEwan (haven’t liked anything later than Atonement, except Sweet Tooth so going back to his earlier books)
Beyond Black, Hilary Mantel (picked it up cheap)
The Glass Room, Simon Mawer (Vintage special offer)
Silver, Andrew Motion (‘sequel’ to Treasure Island, seemed like a good idea at the time)
Goodbye, Columbus, Phillip Roth (Julian  is rude about in The Secret History)
The End of Your Life Book Club (good reviews)
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson (liked the title)
Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan (I like bookstores)
The Machine, James Smythe (in list of ‘must-read’ dystopian novels, had read the others)
A Far Cry from Kensington, Muriel Spark (gorgeous Virago Modern Classic hardback 30th anniversary special edition, had to have it)
The Birds Fall Down, Rebecca West (picked it up cheap)

Hmm, when I hit upon this idea I hadn’t actually counted how many unread books there were; this is a slightly larger undertaking than I first envisaged. I don’t know whether to be pleased at this bounty of reading material or embarrassed that I have this many unread books on my shelves. My main concern is how I will cope with this prescribed reading list; I hate knowing what I am going to read next, I like it to be a spur of the moment choice. Of course, this is probably why I have so many unread books and quite a few reread books (more of those another time).

So, watch this space. I won’t be reading in authorial alphabetical order although that is how I arrange my shelves and therefore how I listed them – I will dabble. First cab off the ranks is The Machine by James Smythe.

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How to: Make book recommendations to your book club or book group

I love recommending books; it is one of my favourite things – when I’m not reading books of course. So I am always very (too?) vocal in my book group, when we get round to discussing and choosing ‘the next book’. I have belonged to, or run, many book clubs over the years and have the following advice for members of book groups who struggle to choose books or want to get out of the rut of their current choices.

Selection system

Before talking about book selection choices, as a group you need to agree HOW you will select your books.  Democratically (obviously) but how? One option is for each member of the group to take their turn to select the following month’s book; another option is for all of the group members to each recommend a book, then once all books have been presented, the group votes and the book with the most votes is selected.

Some groups like to have their reading list set for the next six months, or even the year, others like to ‘wing it’ a bit more and don’t like the idea of being tied down to six to 12 book selections. It’s up to you.

Accessibility of the text is another element to take into account; you don’t want to select books that are only available in hardback, are brand new so super expensive or not stocked in the library.

What sort of books do you want to read?

Once you have decided how you will be choosing books, you might want to limit the selection to a certain genre (science fiction, contemporary literature, short story), a specific author (Dickens, Austen) or award winning books (like working your way through the Booker winners list). Ongoing or monthly themes are also a useful way to limit selection e.g.  ‘madness’ (The Yellow Wallpaper, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox).

How to select a good ‘discussion’ book

As Dorothy Parker so beautifully put it once about a hated tome, “…this is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” It is too easy to select a book that doesn’t work for a book group discussion: Too pretentious; too simplistic; too controversial; sometimes a book that is really enjoyable to read for one’s own pleasure just doesn’t have enough depth for discussion purposes.

Books that work well for discussion are novels that offer an intriguing plot such as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a polarizing storyline such as Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin or something that enables an ‘ethics’ discussion such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Herman Koch’s The Dinner. Further suggestions are listed at the end of this article.

Reading guides, book recommendations, resources

Need a bit of extra help to talk about your chosen book, or come up with discussion questions? Publisher sites are very supportive of their readers; many post discussion guides, author interviews, suggestions for further reading, etc.  Some also host online book clubs/discussions that you can join in. There are, of course, also many, many book group guides sites: Goodreads is the largest site for readers and book recommendations in the world. It has more than 14,000,000 members who have added more than 470,000,000 books to their shelves.  There are online book clubs, online discussions, etc. and it is a great site to get ideas for books to read. Reading group guides and Book Browse both offer hundreds of reading guides to a range of contemporary and classic literature and fiction (and some non-fiction too).

List of further suggestions

This could be endless, I know I will have missed lots of people’s favourites. I apologize in advance!

Books that stimulate strong discussion/dissension:

  • The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  • Gone Girl, Gilian Flynn
  • Atonement, Ian McEwan
  • Perfume, Patrick Suskind
  • People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks
  • We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver

Books made into films:

  • The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
  • Chocolat, Joanne Harris
  • Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
  • Life of Pi, Yann Martel
  • Emma, Jane Austen
  • Les Misérables, Victor Hugo

Short stories:

  • Collected short stories, Roald Dahl
  • Short stories, W.Somerset Maugham
  • Like a House on Fire, Cate Kennedy
  • The Garden Party & Other Stories, Katherine Mansfield

Historical fiction:

  • The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton
  • Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
  • The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco
  • Restoriation, Rose Tremain

Dystopian themes:

  • The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  • 1984, George Orwell
  • The Passage, Justin Cronin
  • Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
  • Wool, Hugh Howey

Fantasy/Magic Realism

  • The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
  • The Time Traveller’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
  • Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel