A Quick Meme

I was intending to post the transcript of an interview I did with my husband, who read a popular science book I’d been sent for review and enjoyed it a great deal. But when I finished typing up the recording, I could see there was some serious editing to be done. Honestly, if you are married, and have been for quite some time, record a conversation. It’s quite something. Anyhow, seeing as it will be a while before that’s ready for general consumption, I thought I’d do a quick book meme:

The book that’s been on your shelves the longest

This took quite a while to work out and I’m still not entirely sure. One contender is definitely Susan Howatch’s Penmarric. Susan Howatch is a tremendously prolific writer, whom you don’t hear much about these days. As a teenager, I loved both her short romantic adventure fiction and her big blockbusters, you know the kind that people don’t write so much any more; sweeping sagas involving extended families with guilty secrets who make a fortune and lose a fortune, etc, etc. I used to like all of that. Anyway, I must have bought Penmarric about twenty-four years ago and it has gathered dust ever since, having rather missed the boat on that particular era of my reading life. I’ve also got an old copy of du Maurier’s The Scapegoat that dates from the same time. And there’s my hardback edition of the collected works of Jane Austen that was a Christmas present from my parents. But I think probably the oldest book is The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes, which I bought with book tokens when I was thirteen or fourteen. It’s in pretty good shape, considering.

A book that reminds you of something specific in your life (a person, a place, a time).

There isn’t a single book that doesn’t remind me of something or other – living and reading are so intertwined. But I suppose there’s one story I return to (and this is another return as I told it in the early days of this blog). One of the strangest reading experiences I ever had involved Adalbert Stifter’s immense 19th century German novel Der Nachtsommer (which translates as Indian Summer). It is an obscure book that, for some reason, I was determined to conquer in my final university year; a coming of age novel in which very little happens, but its emotional climate is one of achingly suppressed passion. It’s extraordinary. I began that book in the chilly January of 1991 just as the first Gulf War broke out, and I finished it, all 600-pages of dense, heart-breaking prose, squeezed around reading for other papers and woven into the usual mad rush of student life, a couple of months later in the early hours of a March morning. At dawn the ceasefire was called. It felt uncanny. When I saw my supervisor to discuss my essay on the book I told him what had happened. He looked at me a little strangely and said ‘How can you live with yourself?’ and then he grinned to show me he was joking. But, still.

A book you acquired in some interesting way.

The majority of my books were acquired the old-fashioned way – by me in bookshops. But I’m most proud of my first edition copy of Julian Barnes’s Nothing To Be Frightened Of, which is signed and dedicated to me by the man himself, a feat accomplished by my academic publisher attending the first conference on Julian Barnes’s work ever to take place. Now if that isn’t book pedigree, I don’t know what is.

The book that’s been with you to the most places.

Another one I had to really think about. In the end I felt the prize had to go to two companion books, Sartre’s La Nausée and Simone de Beauvoir’s L’Invitée, which I bought in Cambridge, took with me on my year abroad in the Lot valley, then returned to Cambridge until I sat my finals. They then squatted with my parents for a while, before moving to Magdalene College (although they might have lived with us in our first cottage for a while) and then through two different sets of rooms at St John’s. I like to think the Existentialists, peripatetic hotel dwellers that they were, would have approved. The fact that ‘most places’ means in my case that they’ve been on five different bookcases in Cambridge says everything there is to say about my spontaneous, reckless desire for travel.

The most recent addition to your shelves.

J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, in its two original incarnations, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and Peter and Wendy (published together by Penguin) and then the ‘sequel’ that came out not so long ago, Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean. Oh, and about the same time Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest arrived.

Your current read, your last read and the book you’ll read next.

I finished Paola Kaufmann’s The Sister (the fictionalized account of Emily Dickenson’s life) a couple of days ago and it’s very good. I’ll review it soon. Since then I’ve been reading Adam Thorpe’s Between Each Breath. Thorpe is a British writer who is often placed in the same sort of bracket as William Boyd – he’s considered to be very good but has never quite achieved the same level of renown. This book is a love story about a composer who goes to Estonia for inspiration and has a love affair there. I’m enjoying it very much so far. One thing that surprised me: the narrator keeps talking about a contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, and I thought, hang on a moment, don’t I have something by him? And indeed, I do have some Pärt on a CD with Gorecki and Tavener. I have a peculiar relationship with classical music because too much of it is schizophrenic for my tastes. Your average concerto will have deep, thunderous parts and then tweedly, tinkly parts and my moods can’t keep up. I can only cope with classical when it holds the same emotional tone, more or less, throughout the piece. And most of all I like human voices but if I’m working I don’t want to be tempted to sing along. All of which takes me to the early music composers like Hildegard von Bingen and Palestrina (whose choruses defy audience participation), and their contemporary equivalents. Anyway, I felt briefly and surprisingly hip for my music choices, which believe you me, hardly ever happens.

Next in the queue there’s Barbara Vine’s A Dark Adapted Eye, Jonathan Frantzen’s The Corrections and Katie Hickman’s The Aviary Gate (sixteenth-century Istanbul harems and contemporary Oxford academics; we may safely term it a romp). But there are about ten other novels vying for contention here, so it may not fall out quite that way.

Feel free to play too, if you wish.


18 thoughts on “A Quick Meme

  1. Great book memories! I love Arvo Part. There is something about his music, especially “Tabula Rasa” that relaxes me and I have often fallen asleep listening to it. I can’t get to some of my bookshelves which are still blocked with boxes moved due to re-wiring. But I still have The Norton Anthology of Poetry and a book of Anglo-Saxon poetry with English translation from university. Jane Austen has been kicking around for a long time too. My grade 6 teacher wanted me to read Austen and I tried, but I was too young to get the best part of it, which is the social commentary. I also have a book of short stories by I.L. Peretz. The edition I have now is probably only about 15 years in my possession, but I read one of the stories in it, “Bontsha the Silent” when I was around 11 or 12 and it haunted me until I grew up and could understand the ending.

  2. “Peter Pan in Scarlet,” although it may be touted as ‘official’ has MANY mistakes in it from Barrie’s original stories. Fact-checking mistakes, too. That’s pretty damn sad, don’t you think?

    Fortunately there is a new Pan novel that’s based on Barrie’s idea for more adventure.

    Check it out:

    And here’s an article on it:

    (sorry if this message came twice… my ‘net hiccuped and I wasn’t sure!)

  3. Oh come on, post the conversation as it stands. The bits in-between can be just as interesting as the bits you leave in. Though if you want to protect your privacy, I’d understand!

    I think I’ll tag myself for this one.

  4. I’m looking forward to the interview! I’m tempted to record a conversation Hobgoblin and I have some time, just to see what it’s like — should I be prepared to laugh or to be horrified or embarrassed? All of the above?? That’s a fun meme; I’m tempted to do it myself, but I’ll have to spend some time looking over my shelves to find the right answers first. It’s fun to hear a little bit about how your life and your reading life fit together.

  5. A Dark Adapted Eye is one of my very favorite Barbara Vine books. All the books in your reading queue sound interesting. You don’t keep a running list of the books you read–you always are reading the most interesting books! And I bet the transcript of your interview with your husband would be pretty amusing actually. Have you ever thought of doing a podcast? I loved the one you did with your son!

  6. Honestly, your entry (and not just this one) makes me want to grab my favorite light-but-puffy quilt, a stack of books and hole up on the couch ’til Sprintime comes out to play. I am sooo behind in reading. And there are so many wonderful things to imbibe (can one imbibe a book? inhale it? suck it down? eat it up?) Anyway, I am putting “book weekend” on the calendar for next weekend when I will have met two writing deadlines and polished off a major project at work as well.

    Keep reading and reviewing; you are the appointed “high chancellor of reading” for many many of us!

  7. Lilian – I don’t know that Part, but now I am tempted to see what music of his is available on CD. Peaceful music is something I like very much indeed. Great early books, and I have never heard of Peretz but will now look him(?) up. It’s rather lovely to be captivated by a story that remains beyond the reach of understanding for all those years. Bluestocking – I came to have a look but couldn’t find the meme on your site (I’m sure it’s there and I was looking in the wrong places). I hate to say this but I still can’t comment. I was on my new netbook, no cookies, no nothing, and this time when the comment screen appeared, there was no ‘submit’ button either…. Your site really doesn’t want me! The Never Fairy – okay, I’ll allow the plug on this occasion. Charlotte – oh I would post it, even if embarrassing, but it’s just incomprehensible! Do we fail to make sense to the average passer by all day long, I wonder? Looking forward to seeing your meme answers. Dorothy – I would just love to hear how a conversation between you and the Hobgoblin plays out. Do consider it! And I’d love to see your answers to the meme, too. But I understand – I had to think about this one for a while! Kate – oh good, I’d love to see your version of this meme! 🙂 Danielle – I am so pleased to hear you say that about the Barbara Vine (which I am just about to start). I’ve often thought about keeping a ‘books read’ column, or a page on the blog but am so technically inept I’m not sure how to, but I do keep thinking about it, so watch this space. And I would have loved for the interview to be a podcast but our UK podcast host seems to have gone down – isn’t that a shame? They are such fun to do. I’m so pleased I’ve got that memory of my son – already his voice has changed and he’s so much more grown-up, so I love having that little clip of the past. Oh – I am delighted to be a high chancellor of reading! I can’t think of anything nicer. I’m also glad to know you are planning a reading weekend when you can consume books in any way you like. 🙂 You sound like you will really have deserved them. iliana – you are extremely welcome to the meme and I will be looking forward to your answers! 🙂

  8. I think I have every Susan Howatch book written (including, of course, a very old copy of Penmarric) I really liked her series about the Anglican Church – I’ve read all those at least twice I think 🙂

    And now I must go hunting for The Sister – anything about Emily Dickinson is high on my list of must-reads!

  9. What a cool idea for a meme. And it incorporates something I *need* to do, too — make sense of the jumbling books half-sorted on my shelves. So now, as I spend a pleasant day sorting and re-acquainting myself with old friends, I can take notes for a post, too. Thanks!

  10. Love the story of your Stifter read – isn’t it strange and wonderful when life and literature somehow wind up around each other?

  11. Your answers were fun to read. I will have to give this one a go but save it for when I need a topic to write about which probably won’t be long unless you’d like to read a post about how to write a program budget for a library 🙂 I am curious how the conversation between you and your husband went. I’m not so sure I’d want to record a conversation with my husband. I don;t want to know how little sense we make. Or perhaps it is more like we make perfect sense to each other but anyone listening wouldn’t know what to think!

  12. Arvo Part is an incredible minimalist composer. Some people find his music a little depressing (not me!) so I then point them at Philip Glass, another minimalist composer that’s quite well known. To me there really is almost nothing better than listening to music while reading.

  13. Becca – I read some of those Church of England ones too! She’s tremendously readable, isn’t she? I’ll review The Sister soon – I liked it. Ombudsben – how very nice indeed to have you visit! And I’ll be delighted to see your meme when you’ve done it – I’m most intrigued what you’ll come up with. Verbivore – oh that was the strangest thing! Even now, I remember it and feel a cold chill in my spine… Stefanie – if anyone could make me read a post on budgetting, I am sure it would be you :). My husband and I made worryingly little sense! And in particular I made my husband read the full transcript because he often complains I don’t follow his explanations, and I had lovely evidence as to why that might be…! Still, it was a laugh to do. Nathan – there’s an awful lot of music I can’t listen to while reading, but Part happily falls into the other, smaller category. I just bought his De Profundis today and am looking forward to listening to it later on.

  14. Arvo Part is an incredible minimalist composer. Some people find his music a little depressing (not me!) so I then point them at Philip Glass, another minimalist composer that’s quite well known. To me there really is almost nothing better than listening to music while reading.

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