In curating your ideal bookshelf, you are constructing an expression of yourself in that specific moment: what’s important to you right now? The contributors to My Ideal Bookshelf have different ideas of import. Some focus on reference, others on beloved texts, others on texts they haven’t read yet but want to or think they need to. As an editor at heart, curation comes naturally to me: my spring cleanings are more ruthless culls. With my birthday on Tuesday, I thought this would be a good time to start a new tradition: to celebrate my nativity each year, I will curate my ideal bookshelf, so that I may count my rings in the future. The rules? Ten books I would actually use as reference material. Commence shakedown.
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon
The reason I’m taking my sweet time getting through Michael Chabon’s bibliography is because it’s my comfort reading. Well, a lot of things are my comfort reading at the moment (Sherlock Holmes, The Song of the Lioness), but Telegraph Avenue had been a bit underwhelming and I wanted something a bit more classic Chabon. A novel that began life as a story entitled Jews with Swords seemed like just the ticket to calm my nerves during finals. And then I took all of finals to get through it. Well, I suppose they can’t all be winners…
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
It’s been a bit of a rough year for Michael Chabon, one of my favorite writers—John Carter, which I went to go see because of his involvement in the writing, didn’t do terribly well at the box office. I personally dug it, but I will also be the first to admit that I am biased towards totally ripped scientist princesses. Still, my faith in Chabon remained as unshaken as ever, and I happily leapt at the chance to read Telegraph Avenue pretty much sight unseen. If you’ve been with me long, you’ll know that’s extremely rare, as I gravitate towards story over style. But was my faith rewarded?
Name a book you love in a genre you normally don’t care for. What made you decide to read it? Did it make you want to try more in that genre?
What genre do you avoid reading and why?
Hey, that’s four questions!
As the name of my blog and self-appointed title suggests, I’m a literary omnivore. I will and do read anything, if I think it’s worth a shot. That qualification is usually based on whether or not the story sounds interesting, not genre, which I define more as setting than anything else, although I am currently coming to grips with the fact that there’s more to it than that, but those don’t apply to my taxonomy. I don’t avoid any books.
That said, I’m not overly fond of “urban fantasy”, which is actually an awful misnomer for supernatural fiction (assuming fantasy means secondary world with or without magic, which is how I define it, urban fantasy would be something like The Lies of Locke Lamora—fantasy with a focus in urban environments) or mysteries that aren’t Sherlock Holmes. I’ve been burned before, but I still maintain my faith that any story is possible of being amazing. In the supernatural fiction camp, I’m awfully fond of Michael Thomas Ford’s Jane Bites Back. In the mystery camp, I really liked Farthing and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, both alternate history mysteries.
If you had to pick only 5 books to read ever again, what would they be and why?
Ouch! Let’s see…
- The Lord of the Rings, because if you have to ask, you don’t know me very well.
- The Magician’s Book, because Laura Miller is a genius and I love it so much.
- Middlesex, because Cal is a human being to me, not a character.
- A Game of Thrones, because the devil is in the details.
- Maps and Legends, because Michael Chabon is a genius and I love his nonfiction essays, especially “Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes”.
Well, that was actually easier than I thought it would be! Fantasy and literary criticism, that’s me.
Do you find that your mood affects the things you read? Like, if you’re in a bad mood, do you tend to indulge in reading that will support it or do you try to read things that will cheer you up? Do you pick different types of books on dreary, rainy days than you do on bright sunny ones?
For that matter, does your mood color what you’re reading, so that a funny book isn’t so funny or a serious one not so deep?
Oh, absolutely. If I’m in a bad mood, I want to read something absolutely transcendent to distract me—that’s why I’m having a hard time reading Why I Grew My Hair Out at the moment, because it’s not. I guess I’ll grab some Michael Chabon soon, that ought to do the trick. I don’t tend to change my reading based on weather, however, and my mood doesn’t tend to color the tone of what I’m reading, although I might not laugh out loud if I’m in a poor mood.
Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon
Is it any secret that I adore Michael Chabon? As I was telling a friend of mine recently, I’m terrified that I’ll one day attend a reading and, meaning to tell him that I want to live in his imagination, end up saying something like “I WANT TO WEAR YOUR BRAIN AS A HAT”. After reading the brilliant Manhood for Amateurs, I put down Chabon’s earlier collection, Maps and Legends down on my list. I had to have more of my favorite stylist defending and celebrating “genre” fiction. …y’all know how I feel about that word. Maps and Legends was less of what I had in mind, but still astonishingly wonderful.
But it had—crucially, to my theory of what makes great mass art—the powerful quality of being open-ended, vague at its borders. Onto its simple template of horses and apes and humans, of quest and pursuit across a simplified landscape, a kid could easily project himself and the world he lived in. In its very incompleteness, born of lack of budget, the loose picaresque structure, and even of cancellation itself, it hinted at things beyond its own borders. There was room for you and your imagination in the narrative map of the show. (80)
Michael Chabon, Manhood for Amateurs
Let’s get my Chabon fangirling out of the way at the top—aren’t we so lucky that one of the best writers I’ve ever witnessed is part of fandom and one of us? It totally makes up for that time Diana Gabaldon called us all white slavers. (As to why white slavery is worse than, say, black slavery, I haven’t the foggiest.) This quote comes from an essay in Manhood for Amateurs (I stupidly didn’t write down essay titles in my commonplace book) where Chabon discusses a show he and his friends watched as a child and expanded upon once it was cancelled. I remember immediately writing down “so this explains Firefly” in my notes upon reading it. Nobody quite knows what makes a fandom; for every Star Trek and The Lord of the Rings, whose fandoms probably outrank some countries by population, there’s a plaintive cry of “Where’s the fandom for this?” in anonymous posts. There’s no correlation to length of the work—the entirety of Firefly, whose fandom is still going strong, runs 749 minutes or 12 hours and 48 minutes, short enough that my campus hosts an annual marathon of it through one night. Even genre isn’t an indicator; contemporary fiction shows like How I Met Your Mother and House have fairly strong fandoms. Everyone comes to fandom for a different reason, but I think Chabon has hit upon something extremely important here.
There’s something wonderful about getting in on the ground floor of an author’s career–about being one of the first people to read and admire them, before they became famous best-sellers.
Which authors have you been lucky enough to discover at the very beginning of their careers?
And, if you’ve never had that chance, which author do you WISH you’d been able to discover at the very beginning?
I feel like I haven’t discovered anyone at the beginning of their career, in that I read their book before it exploded in popularity. Technically, I read and enjoyed Jaclyn Dolamore’s and Kristin Cashore’s first books early in their careers, but they were pretty well-known regardless.
I wish I’d discovered Michael Chabon or Jeffrey Eugenides at the very beginning—they have such a beautiful way with language that I would have enjoyed watching them grow. (Also, I would actually have copies of Eugenides’s short stories. Collect them already!)
But ultimately, it doesn’t matter to me if I discovered an author before they went supernova. I pay a lot more attention to personal recommendations than to best-seller lists. While there are some series I drag my feet about because they’re popular—the Millenium trilogy, anyone?—I think I still read them with the same attitude as I would if I’d stumbled across in a bookshop five years ago. (Only, you know, not, because five years ago, I was fourteen and had barely stopped being annoying.)
It’s the last Sunday in 2010, so you know what that means—it’s time for my annual top ten list, taken from the books I’ve read this year, not books only published this year. (I don’t think I’ve even read ten books that were published in 2010.) Here’s last year’s, if you’re so inclined. I have to admit, having an entire year to pull from (as opposed to last year, when I had about four months’ worth of sparser reviews to pick through) made things a bit difficult; there some books I wanted to include, but ultimately ended up deciding against. If you’re interested in what I left off the list, feel free to rifle through the 5 and 4.5 Stars subcategories under Ratings. That said, let’s dig in.