Posts Tagged ‘books’

There’s something artificial about any numbered list of “bests.” Criteria are fluid and subjective. You can cheat by allowing for “ties” and end up with more than the stated number. Or heck just make it the “50 best” say, rather than the 10 best or whatever. My own list of 10 all time favorite novels is constantly changing. I add new ones as I read them. I remember ones from the past that need to be included. But, for what it’s worth, here’s the list as it stands right now, in NO particular order.



Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keys

night flight


Night Flight, Antoine de St. Exupéry

tree brooklin


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith





color purple


The Color Purple, Alice Walker


age of innocence


The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton


The Circle


The Circle, Dave Eggers



The Wall 2


The Wall, John Hersey


grapes of wrath


The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck


Pere Goriot


Père Goriot, Honoré de Balzac



cry beloved


Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton




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love machineThere is a famous incident about Jacqueline Susann. She was on an episode of The David Frost Show, which aired on July 16, 1969, promoting her novel The Love Machine. After a discussion of Susann’s appeal and business tactics, a critic, John Simon, spoke up. He demanded to know whether Susann was trying to write art or trash. Jackie did the best she could to counteract his apparently hostile challenge and the exchange became heated and snarling. What I wished then, and now, is that someone had brought up the obvious point. Those are not the only two choices and I refuse to be trapped into thinking they are. I refuse to accept what is a false dichotomy. John Simon, it seemed to me, was just trying to create a stir. Whether he intended to hurt Ms. Susann, I have no idea. But I would have wanted to ask him, “Okay, in which category do you place Kipling? Douglas Adams? Maeve Binchy? But mostly, why is there a need for categories at all?” compareVery few of us writers will end up in the same class as either, say, Toni Morrison on the one hand or [fill in the name of some trashy writer here] on the other. There’s a ton of great writing out there in between the extremes that will never win the Pulitzer or the Nobel but is still worthy and entertaining. My last post counseled all of us writers not to compare our output with others. Likewise we need to avoid denigrating the quality of our own work by wishfully comparing ourselves to Jane Austen or Philip Roth. I had a writer acquaintance a few years ago who had a very successful career writing romance novels. Yet she fell short of her own ambitions. “The novel I wish I could write is ord pepe 3Ordinary People [by Judith Guest].” Meanwhile, most of her friends would have killed to have had her level of success. Sure, we all want to be the best writers we can be. But writing quality, like quantity, is all on a continuum and we each have our place on it.

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One can never have too many bookmarks

One can never have too many bookmarks

So many acronyms regarding books: TR (to read); TBR (to be read) WTR (want to read); CR (currently reading). So far I’m the only person I know who uses WTF (want to finish). I have shelves of half finished, partially finished, or barely-cracked-the-covers-of books.  To be clear (TBC?) these are all books I want to finish.  I’m not the kind of reader who feels like I must finish every book I start.  Heck, no.  If a book is plain bad, out it goes.  I don’t care about the time I’ve already invested.  I don’t think, optimistically, well, maybe it will get better.  Fie on that.  Life is short and there are thousands of fabulous reading experiences to be had.  On to the next.  But I still end up with shelves notable mostly for the sparkling collection of bookmarks that adorn them.  There’s always a reason for putting down a book in mid-read, often that some other (usually newer) book has caught my eye.  I may have a book review deadline looming, and that book then takes precedence.  Library books trump books I own, since I’d rather not pay overdue fines.  I also read multiple books at once, necessitating bookmarks in each volume of the current stack.  Those are some of the practical reasons.  There are other, less tangible ones.  Many books start out slow, with background, before they really get going.  I have trouble disciplining myself to plow through it, but I’m afraid to skip over it in case I need the information later.  So, I stall.  Other books turn out to be not quite what I expected.  Yet, they have appeal and I still believe I want to know what’s in them.  Like many readers, I have shelves and shelves of books that I haven’t even begun yet, in addition to the ones I’ve already started.  The WTF books, however, are a class all their own.  A while back, I decided to dedicate one month to working my way through my WTF collection.  I got nowhere.  Since I no longer have to read assigned material for work or school, there’s just too much pleasure in jumping from one subject to another, one genre to another, as my fancy suits me, or as whatever time slot I have allows.  Meanwhile, I do actually finish tons of books, at least two a week.  But the stellar offerings just keep coming, more than anyone can read in a lifetime.  To which I say, YEAH!

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The Free Table behind our local library.

The Free Table behind our local library.

It used to be the “free bench.” Against the back wall of our local library, handy to the parking lot, there were a couple of old benches. They sat under the building’s overhang, so they had some protection from what little inclement weather we get in this dry climate. People dropped off books and magazines they no longer wanted and anyone was welcome to take whatever was there. The free bench was a regular stop for a large segment of the population, both for browsers hoping to pick up something to read and for others, clearing out their shelves. Or basements, attics and garages.

Then, a few years ago, for their community service project, the local Boy Scouts built a sturdy wooden table, covered with a slanted shingle roof to house the free materials.  This spot is as much a part of the community as the parks, sidewalk cafés and post office.  You regularly run into friends, neighbors and familiar dogs.  Sometimes there’s a wealth of stuff, other times it’s slim pickings.  You never know what’s going to show up and many folks (yeah, me) stop by every day.  (In my defense, I live only a block and a half away, and walk to the library nearly every day in any case.)

Things look a little (ahem) scattered in this photo, but volunteers often take the time to sort, organize and arrange materials. Not only do private citizens make items available, but when the library weeds its collection, sometimes the discards also end up here.

This is not a particularly new or unique idea.  Many libraries have a shelf or a bin inside their facility for giveaways, especially outdated magazines.  One workplace I knew had a shelf in the break room for the same purpose.  Staff members could drop off books for others to enjoy. (See also the Little Free Library concept.)

A patron browses the offerings on the "free table."

A patron browses the offerings on the “free table.”

To the right of the table, there is a set of concrete steps that lead down to a door into a basement area.  Signs tell people to leave donations which are of better quality or in better condition for the Friends of the Library used book sale there instead of putting them on the free table. Signs also request that browsers not rummage through those boxes and bags, which are property of the Friends, and most people comply. Not everybody follows the suggestion about the best books going to benefit the Friends, however, and amazing treasures show up on the free table.  More about that in another post.

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I wrote before about donating books to libraries for their used book sales. I followed this with a column about donating books signed by their authors, and the possible awkwardness which it might cause. Now, let me tell you when it happened to me. I published Fault Lines, a book of poems in 2012. Most of my buyers wanted me to inscribe it to them, which I did, following the policy I mentioned in the earlier post. Without my knowledge, one of my books ended up in a Friends of the Library bookstore in a nearby town. One of my friends who is a librarian there spotted it and snapped it up. He had not been around when the book first came out to buy a copy. He sent me an email, mentioning several of the poems that he especially liked. Now, every writer loves to hear that his or her work has had an effect on a reader. But I was also glad that a copy ended up in the hands of yet another friend. My only concern was this: had one of my books already been discarded by the person who bought it? After only two years? Yikes. I purposely refrained from asking my friend to tell me the name in the inscription. Truth to tell, I suspect it was a fellow writer who died last November. She lived near that library and it would be natural for her heirs, in closing up her condo, to donate her books to the closest library. If so, I’m just happy my book benefited both the Friends of the Library, even if was only to the extent of a dollar, and also gained me yet another reader. Not only was it not awkward, it was uplifting.

In another, unrelated incident, I was Googling my name and found an offprint of an article I wrote for the Huntington Library Quarterly for sale by a rare book dealer somewhere in Northeast. I live in Southern California. How the heck . . . ? I can speculate, but it’s more of a amusing mystery than anything else. I’m sure I’m not the only writer who has had such things happen.

A third minor incident occurred several years ago. I had published a short story in a small journal. I only had a couple of copies, but a friend wanted to read it, and since I saw him fairly often, I thought it was safe to lend him one of my precious copies. But, for various reasons, he never returned it. I like to keep at least two copies of everything I publish, so I was a little vexed. But, a couple of years later, I came across a copy (not mine) of the journal with my story on our local library’s “free table,” which handily replaced my missing copy. Another happy ending and another reason why I haunt the “free table,” which I keep saying I’ll talk about in another post—soon, I promise—soon.

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When I talked about where to discard books when you are ready to, I hinted at a couple of tricky situations. You probably already know what they are. One is when you have a book which you no longer want, but it is signed by the author. Could be several reasons for this. The one most common for me, is that I got caught up in the excitement of a dynamic author talk/reading and bought a book, only to realize later, it’s not my kind of thing at all. I have a lot of writer friends, and I used to buy all their books just to be supportive. A good motive, sure, but I ended up with stuff I didn’t really want. One time I really did want a book from an author, but she was sharing a table with another writer whom I did not know. It felt awkward ignoring the second author, so, sure enough I bought both of their books. In all of these cases, of course, the author graciously autographed the items to me. But then, how do you get rid of them? Yeah, I can pass them on in one of the ways described in the previous post. But, (call me over-sensitive), I’m not comfortable having my name end up in books being perused by other book buyers. (And with a name like mine, it couldn’t very well be anyone else.)

In the past, I have solved this by 1) razoring out the offending page, as long as it does not make the book unusable for someone else, or 2) using liberal black marker to obliterate my personal information. (I know, some of my friends will be appalled to read about defacing a book in any way. Tough.)

I also don’t like to just dump a signed copy, because, wouldn’t you know it, somehow the author him or herself will stumble across it, and I don’t want to be a factor in the chagrin they must feel at finding their hard work reduced to a giveaway pile. Worse still, if the author is a friend, I’ll be running into her any minute now along with her hurt feelings and insulted ego.  Sure, every writer knows this is the ultimate fate of many of their books. One bestselling author (I can’t remember who), jokingly remarked that being a bestselling author meant that he could brag that he had more books in landfills than any other writer.

Now, I have a new method. I don’t let authors, whether they are my friends or not, sign their books when I buy them. After all, I buy books at signings to support the author’s work, not obtain a souvenir or treasure. (I have a few exceptions, perhaps two or three signed books that I do cherish, including Schindler’s List, signed by Thomas Keneally.)

And when I sign my own book for others, I sign on the first page of the front matter, which is blank. That way, if they, sometime in the future, want to razor that page out, the rest of the book remains undamaged. In the next post, I’ll tell about how one of my own books ended up at a used book store, but with a much more positive ending.

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In the previous post, I talked about where books come from. But once a reader has read them, where do they go? I know several people who keep their books—every one of them—even after they’ve read them, presumably forever. I’m not like that. I know I’m unlikely to re-read a book and I hate stuff piling up. If you regularly weed your books, you already have methods or places for disposing of them.  But here’s a list of options anyway.

  •  Friends of the Library, for their used book sales (occasionally, depending on Friends’ and the Library’s policies, these may end up in the Library’s collection.)
  •  Donations to thrift shops, either ones run by small local organizations, or the Big Boys of thrift shops, e.g. The Salvation Army. Our local Goodwill actually has a separate store, just for used books. For these first two options, you can usually get a tax deduction.
  •  Pass them on to friends who want to read them.
  • Drop them off at a senior center, women’s shelter or similar place, if they are appropriate.
  •  Sell them on line. There are a ton of used book buying web sites, each with their own preferences for what they buy and condition requirement, or you can go through eBay or Amazon.
  •  Sell them to used book stores or trade them in for other used books. My sister single handedly keeps Florida’s Chamblin Bookmine in business. Lots of used book stores have this model.
  •  If you have something truly unique and valuable, a rare book or special collections library might be interested. But don’t count on it.  This is a long shot.

(Reader Discretion Advised: The following suggestion may be upsetting for some readers.)

  •  Toss them out. Yes, in the trash. Drastic? Yes. Unthinkable? Not to me. I’m not one of those folks who think the physical artifact is a sacred treasure. (Unless, of course, it is a sacred treasure—a rare book, a family heirloom, a childhood favorite.) Nor do I think that every single book deserves to be recycled to some other needy reader. As I wrote in the previous post, books are everywhere in abundance. Nobody needs to be stuck with really bad ones. Plus, there comes a point when a book is so damaged, dirty or otherwise yucky, that it would be a sin to foist it off on someone else. If you are a fan of the TV shows Hoarders and Hoarding: Buried Alive as I am, you know what I mean.
  •  Finally, leave them on the “free table.” I mentioned this in the previous post and I promised to tall more about it in the future.

There are a couple of tricky situations that can gum up the works.  I’ll talk about them in the next post.  A final word:  if you keep all your books forever, none of this will apply to you. Just your heirs.

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