I hate it when within a span of a week I get eight pick up notices from NYPL for books that I reserved online. But alas, this is what happened this week, when eight books arrived all at once. Since there is no way in a million that I can read them in three weeks, I spent the last couple of days going over them one-by-one, reading a chapter or two before deciding which I will keep and which I will return unread.
Here are my first impressions of the following books:
Zadie Smith, NW. This is going to the return pile. Despite a promising beginning, Leah, the heroine, who is dwelling on how boring she is, convinced me enough so that I don’t really care to read on. The language feels like it was written for the camera, you could feel it moving between the characters at an angle and their lines. I do admit there are some gems here, even in the first few sentences that I read:
For example, when pondering on the chain of event that improbably brought her and her husband together, she reflects:
It is hard to explain – in that game of musical chairs – why they should have
stopped, finally, at each other.
Or this exchange between Leah and Michel, they end:
- What do you want me to say? The world is what it is.
- Then why’re we even trying?
Salman Rushdie, Joseph Anton. I admit, I was never a big Salman Rushdie fan. To me, he is the author of one important book, Midnight’s Children, and I never cared for anything else he wrote. But after hearing an interview with Salman Rushdie on his recent memoir, I decided to give it a try. Bottom line: another one for the return pile. The book is just too long; the 600+ pages should be cut by half. There are some really good sections but they are separated by long sections with side stories on too many characters and it feels like a lot of name dropping is going on. The editor should have been more insistent here.
Robert Caro, The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Maybe my attention span is shortening, but at 736 pages, this too is a bit too detailed for me. We all know that politics is petty but it’s enough to give just a couple of examples and not a play-by-play of the entire eight weeks. The book feels a little like a Twitter reenactment of the first eight weeks of LBJ’s presidency.
Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Two-part Interventions. This novel is “grabbed from the headlines” and based on the story of the pianist Joyce Hatto and her husband and producer William Barrington-Coupe, who was discovered to have faked his wife recording. The story was covered in the New Yorker soon after the fraud was discovered.
The book is readable but not satisfying. Schwartz goes to great efforts to demonstrate Philip’s devotion to his Suzanne but the relationship is flat and has undertones of a romance novel. The parts about the fraud and the chain of reasoning that leads someone to commit such fraud while being well aware of the risks, are the better parts of the book. Alas, when once can choose only 1 or 2 from eight, difficult choices have to me made.
Joseph Epstein, Essays in Biography. This is a book I will probably end up buying. It contains short biographical essays for about forty people, mostly literary figures. I read the one about Bernard Malamud and enjoyed it very much. When a name comes up, I would prefer to turn to this book than to a Wikipedia entry.
And now for the keepers: I put three aside although clearly I will not get to all of them before the due date, so they will probably need to be returned and borrowed again.
Pow! and Big Breasts & Wide Hips by the 2012 Nobel laureate Mo Yan. Both books come with a warning to readers about writing that is violent and bloody, but the first few pages a Pow! Are quite captivating so I will give them a try.
Peter Hoeg, The Elephant Keepers’ Children. Since I loved Simlla’a Sense of Snow I am going to give this book a go as well.
The spring semester begins next week and my reading for leisure is expected to slow down. I wish there was a better way to manage requests from NYPL so that I don’t end up with eight books in one week. Netflix seems to manage that with the 1-at-a-time or 2-at-a-time system, so how about it NYPL?
Recently, someone asked me where I get my books, and this sent me to plot the data from my book list so I can generate some statistics. In 2012, I read a total of 29 books, in print and e-book formats. According to a study by the Pew Research center, a non e-book reader reads an average of 15 books per year while the combined e-book/print readers read an average of 24 books per year.
Bottom line: combined readers read more, and my numbers are further evidence.
Like, 21% of Americans, I too read e-books, and have been encouraged to read more, but unlike most Americans, my first choice is always to get my books from the public library. In fact, of the 29 books I read this year, 17 were library books. These include 13 kindle books and 4 print books. Of the 13 kindle books I read this year, 9 were borrowed from the New York Public Library.
Like 88% of American e-book readers, I read printed books as well. As I said, I read
17 print books this year, 13 of them were library books.
But this is where I differ from most American: My fist choice is always to borrow books from the library.
The Pew study reports that these readers
… are also more likely than others to have bought their most recent book, rather than
borrowed it, and they are more likely than others to say they prefer to purchase books in
general, often starting their search online.
As you can see 45% of the books I read this whether print and e-books were borrowed from the library. Not all the books I wanted to read were available at the library, but that was not the only reason I bought book. Four of the 29 books I read were in Hebrew and not available from the library. Some had long waiting periods at the library and for whatever reason I could not wait, and some I wanted to own.
I have many grievances against NYPL (maybe subject for a future post), but I am first to admit that their offering of e-books has increased. I read 13 e-books this year, 9 from the library and 4 from Amazon. Of the four, two were available from NYPL, but I could not wait for whatever reason.
If, as the Pew study reports, most readers prefer to buy books than borrow them from the library, then the library isn’t doing a good enough job in getting their message across to readers. The question is what should we be doing?
As I was riding the subway this week I noticed the Audible campaign ad and could not help but wonder on the possible impact if NYPL engaged in such a campaign. Most New Yorkers, I suspect, are not aware of the resources available from their library.
Without a doubt, the best book I read the summer is Running by Jean Echenoz, but his two other biographical novellas, are also worth mentioning.
Running, Lightening and Ravel are three novellas by the French author Jean Echenoz (B. 1946). Each slim volume is about 120 pages long. The style is not quite as minimalist as it is subtle.
Running tells the story of Czech runner Emil Zatopek, who began running at the cusp of World War II and ran through communist Czechoslovakia, through the spring of Prague, through imprisonment and forced labor, and finally lived to see the collapse of the Berlin wall, all the time running between glory and survival.
Lightening focuses on the life Nikola Tesla, underappreciated genius whose end was all but inevitable given his disturbed personality.
Ravel, tellingly from the title, brings us the last ten years in the life of this French composer, who much to his own chagrin, was made famous to the world for the one composition is regarded the least, the Bolero.
Echenoz’s portraits of these three people are distanced, sober and loving. Both their genius and faults are appreciated. Zatopek is focused on his running, Tesla on his obsessions and Ravel on his image. Their struggles were heart wrenching, yet different and as a reader I responded to each character and his personality.