Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Clearing and rediscovering books

As a result of our big book clearance - we're selling off or giving away hundreds of books (it's the bravest thing we've done on the book front for decades) - I've decided to read more of the books I've still got on the shelves, rather than keep on getting new ones from the library, or elsewhere.  Even with the big clear-out we're still loaded with books (and that's not including the ones that we're keeping hold of for the shop I used to work for, which has since closed down).   I remember reading about a woman - Susan Hill - who decided to read nothing but the books she had on her shelves for a year.  (Ironically, she turned her year of reading her own books into yet another book.)  She placed an embargo on buying new books or borrowing them, and spent the year rediscovering her own library.  I can't say I've placed an embargo on buying or borrowing anything else, but at least the clear-out has given me the chance to take up some of my unread, or long-since read, books. 

For instance, I've read two of the Dorothy L Sayers' murder mysteries, featuring Lord Peter Wimsey.  I've had most of the titles in this series for years, but curiously enough had never read the first two: Whose Body? and Clouds of Witness. These intricately plotted books are a joy - even if you think that Sayers cheats just a little in how she plans the thing out.  They're a joy because the characters are such fun, the wit in the writing is a delight, and the inclusion of innumerable quotations - either clearly remembered by Sayers, or half-remembered and mangled by some of her characters - adds to the enjoyment.  (Check out the Dowager Duchess getting herself thoroughly tangled, or Lord Peter in full flight, Parker, the detective, talking about biblical commentaries.)

From there I've moved to another book I've never read, even though I've had it forever.  It's Henry James' The Bostonians.  I read Portrait of a Lady a number of years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it (and was later disgusted at the mess and muddle New Zealand's Jane Campion made of the film version.) The detailed writing seemed to dig deeper and deeper into the characters' lives, and the dialogue was splendidly written, with each speech twisting and turning the story. 

The Bostonians is different, though not in the style of writing, of course.  There seems to be less dialogue  - at least so far (I'm up to about 70 pages) - but each character is brilliantly dissected, and alongside that is the wit that James allows himself at times - I'd forgotten about that.  It's subtle, but it's certainly there.  It's extraordinary how he manages to keep us interested while unravelling yard after yard of the characters' inner lives, or how one line of dialogue can lead to a page or two of dissection.  No doubt it's not everyone's taste, but I'm enjoying it.  You can't read speedily, as you can with the Sayers' books.  Miss a phrase, or even a word, and you have to go back because you find you've missed how that word connects into what comes next.  I'll report more on it when I've finished it.

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