I review a book without meaning to

I'm tempted to do something I don't usually do: write critically of a book that I have no intention of finishing. The book in question bothered me. I've been tussling with my botheration, trying to figure out what exactly I disliked, and I wonder if it will clarify my objections if I try to put them into words. Since it doesn't seem quite fair to the book to judge it without finishing it, I'm not going to name it or its author. This disguise is not meant to be impenetrable. Please understand the anonymity as a polite veil, not at all hard for an internet user of average resourcefulness to tear away.

As a reviewer, I'm sent a fair number of books by publishers, and I don't remember whether I happen to have requested this one, though I suspect I didn't. It arrived while I was suffering from a mild fever, a condition that's relevant because I won't be able to get to the bottom of my final dislike of the book unless I start with its initial appeal, which was considerable. I was feeling muzzy, bored, and a little vulnerable. My attention had been tenderized by a sick-day's indulgence in Twitter. The book in question is a novel, written in the first person. In the first few pages, in simple and declarative sentences, modestly spiced with British slang, the heroine-narrator lets herself be seduced into a risky sexual encounter. She enjoys herself intensely—the experience seems to fracture an idea of herself that she has—but she doesn't seem to have done this kind of thing before, and it isn't at all clear that she's going to be all right.

I kept reading, conscious that the plain grammar (subject-verb-object) and the explicit sex suited the debilitated state of my mind. The sentences practically read themselves. Sometimes, as a writer, one is aware that one also has the specious motive of doing something so as to be able to write about it later, and my conscious rationalization for continuing the novel included the somewhat recursive notion that if I did continue to read, I might be able to mine the experience for an essay about the kind of book that appealed to people who were spending too much time on Twitter and whose brains were befogged by toxins, viral or otherwise—about the limitations that the novel as a genre might have to accept in order to seize and hold attention in the current environment.

Less consciously, I had perhaps identified with the heroine, as someone who, like myself in an earlier era of my life, was putting herself in danger through a sexual responsiveness that she didn't understand.

My resistance to the text first became conscious to me in questions of style. Though technically written in the past tense, the short, plain sentences and their narrow time-focus gave the impression of a story unrolling in the present tense only. The heroine never thought about her past, though visits with a grandmother and with parents suggested that she did have one. She never reflected on how she had come to have the career that she did, or what had drawn her to her best friend, let alone on how she had become so cut off from her inner life that she could only return to it through episodes of violent, near-anonymous sex. This limitation in the telling of the story seemed one, however, with the urgency of the story's appeal. The narrator was Everywoman; the reader was not put at a distance by any details of her past or by any elements of her personality that the reader might not happen to share. On the contrary, the reader was constantly being invited to join in a fantasy: What if I were to have an irresponsible fling? What if I were to antagonize my friends? What if I were to mess up my safe but boring job? There was no awareness of anything in the heroine's life or mind that might hold her back. She was completely free. Or, to look at another way, her vanity and neediness were uncompromised by any consideration of other people as beings just as real as she was. The book began to remind me of Jay McInerny's Bright Lights, Big City, which I read twenty years ago when I was under the impression that I ought to keep up with best-sellers; the transgression began to seem monotonous in a similar way.

Because of the narrow focus—limited to the narrative's present, and to the perceptions of a narrator not motivated to understand anyone around her—a number of scenes had the flat feeling-tone of a certain kind of comedy routine, which depends for its success on the audience's collusion in a sadistic ridicule or dismissal of embarrassing feelings. Some of these scenes "worked" as jokes, but on second thought, seemed unlikely to be able to "work" in the real world. In one such scene, the heroine half-jestingly hits some children that she has been asked to take care of, and the children respond by precociously and coldly turning against her and voicing their hatred of her. I found myself thinking, well, in fact it is kind of awful of the heroine to have hit the children, but I doubt that real children would be able to find on such short notice sufficient insight and sufficient confidence to punish a faulty caregiver. In another scene, the heroine undresses while drunk for a man who is disgusted by her drunkenness, and I found myself thinking that if this character was charming enough to hold my interest as a reader, she probably wouldn't be the sort who, even drunk, would so badly misjudge the responsiveness of a potential suitor. In real life, she would have noticed his recoil, even through the haze of alcohol, before going quite so far.

I stopped reading when I found myself resorting to diagnosis of the characters. The heroine becomes obsessed with the man she has the sexual encounter with, despite his commandeering, abusive manner, or maybe because of it. He is portrayed as someone at ease with himself—at ease with his sadism and manipulation. Oh, I thought, a sociopath, charming and dangerous. And the heroine's focus on connection with him as the only source of meaning in her life: Oh, I thought, she's a borderline personality, who disintegrates unless she maintains contact yet needs the drama of always falling out of contact. It occurred to me that in real life the story of these two people would be so exhausting to hear about that it would be hard to stay focused, while listening, on how sad it was. In real life, it would end badly, unless disrupted by care and insight. It would probably end badly even if it were disrupted by care and insight. One way for it to end would be by his killing her. I thought of a book with a similar setup (whose plot and ending I will implicitly be giving away, in order to make my analogy, so look away if you need to), Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat, though Spark's heroine understands herself in a way that this novel's heroine does not seem to. Though I admire Spark and would be happy to re-read her Girls of Slender Means or Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I didn't enjoy The Driver's Seat and have no intention of ever re-reading it. Once I made the comparison, I couldn't bear to keep reading the novel at hand—the thought of having to sit through the tedium of a borderline's relationship with a sociopath, only to be punished for my patience with an unhappy ending, was too much.

Does he kill her? I flipped to the end. (Spoiler ahead, obviously; if you think you might track down this book and read it despite me, stop reading now.) It turns out that the author—in a reversal of expectations that to my eye again functions better as a joke than as a plausible rendering of human experience—gives her heroine the opportunity and the strength of purpose to kill her beloved torturer. I don't think this is really a happier ending than it would be if he killed her; it certainly wasn't an ending that I wanted to spend any amount of time or effort reaching, once I knew it. What keeps Spark's Driver's Seat interesting (though it remains unpleasant) is that the borderline personality in that novel fails to find the sociopath she's looking for and has to make do with another personality type altogether, by blackmailing him. There's no such complexity of motive and outcome in the new novel. I don't think the unexpected reversal would have any chance of convincing a reader if it weren't for the stylistic constraints on its telling, which make it harder to see how unlikely it is—if it weren't for the impairments that also function as appetite stimulants.

Admittedly, I broke the rules of the reader-writer contract. It's possible that if I read every word of the novel in sequence, I would find the reversal of roles at the end psychologically plausible. I doubt it, though. I suspect that if such "funny," impoverished consciousness—the final triumph of "showing" over "telling," in the specious language of writing instruction—is the only way to hold attention in a splintered world, the novel is in trouble. If the novel must always be recapturing the reader's attention, by prurient means, the novel is in the plight of a needy borderline, doomed to tedious pursuit of the cruel, elusive reader, who alternates between taking his pleasure from the book and dropping it for more compelling pleasures elsewhere. My own reading pattern here—beginning to read almost in scorn for the book, finding itches scratched by it almost despite myself, ultimately dismissing and abandoning the book—is weirdly complicit. I've even kept my encounter with the book, like the heroine's with her sociopath lover, anonymous, as if my meeting with this book were somehow disreputable for both of us. I must have fallen more under its spell than I realized. For the sake of disenchantment, then, maybe I should reveal the name of the book after all: True Things About Me, by Deborah Kay Davies. It comes out next week in paperback from Faber & Faber.

Packing my library

A boxed library

Peter and I have moved! My Earthlink email address is kaput, though my Harvard forwarding email address (the one on my About page) remains intact. Here it is again, should anyone need it:

If anyone has a wish to snail-mail me something, please get in touch by email and I’ll let you know the new address.

Apologies for the blog silence. I have discovered that the reason that there are so many essays about unpacking one’s library and so few about packing it is that the latter process more or less does to you what Dave does to HAL at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it begins to seem prudent, with such a diminished capacity, to remain silent. Today, on day five of a flu of some kind, I seem to have lost my corporeal voice as well, so the silence apparently is to continue. We love our new apartment, thanks for asking, except for the bathtub drain that had to be unclogged by professional “snake,” the two successive leaks under the kitchen sink, the busted lock on the front door, and the fiendishly permanent child guards on the windows, which required five trips to the hardware store in order to collect all the equipment necessary for their uninstallation. (Babies apparently wish to hurl themselves out of apartment windows with all the ingenuity and resourcefulness of inmates at a Supermax prison, and must be correspondingly restrained.) Air conditioner brackets were my Waterloo.

The last count that I made of our book boxes before moving was 146, and we packed for another full day after that, so I think we ended up moving about 200 boxes of books. (We were able to stack them in an empty apartment on the floor below us, thus the weird orderly accumulation of volume in the photo above.) Furious and hasty has been the deaccessioning, but we still haven’t found enough bookshelf space in the new apartment to fit what remains. Some day soon I plan to return to being a writer, instead of just a subpar handyman and occasional haunter of Twitter, but that day is not yet, alas. There are no plans to acquire an e-reading device. Where would it go?


Five years ago, I denounced deckle edges as an abomination. Before books melt away into ether once and for all, I feel compelled to express another strong opinion about the production of physical books: I hate glue bindings.

I have been gently counseled by book designers that my hatred may not be entirely justified. In fact, they say, there are glue bindings and there are glue bindings. “Hot melt” glues are indeed shoddy, I am told, but some “cold melt” glues are thought to be quite durable if they are applied via “double fan binding,” a process so named because it involves fanning the pages in first one direction, then the other. I hasten to say that all this may be true; I’m no expert. But it doesn’t matter. The trouble with glue bindings is that you never know until it’s too late. At the moment you buy a book bound with glue, it may indeed be more rugged than an identical book sewn together with thread. The question is the integrity of the glue ten years later. Thread lasts, if it’s kept dry and dark. In the Egyptian wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you can see folded sheets of linen from pharaonic days. Glue, however, often doesn’t last. It’s no help to hear that some glue does. Nowhere in or on a book is there a list of the ingredients of its binding’s glue, and even if there were such a list, only astute chemists would be able to predict longevity from that information.

Let me break your heart with some examples. Here is a Northwestern-Newberry paperback of Herman Melville’s Pierre, purchased by your blogger in the mid 1990s, much re-read, and much annotated.

Melville, Pierre (broken spine)

A university press edition! People, they did this to scholars. Not all university presses are so heartless, though. To vindicate them, I include a photo of a University of California Press paperback of Moby-Dick, purchased by your blogger in the late 1980s, also much re-read—though not annotated, because the Barry Moser illustrations made it seem sacrosanct.

Melville, Moby-Dick (sewn binding)

I’ve opened the Moby-Dick to the center of a “gathering,” that is, to the center of a set of pages that were folded together, so if you look closely (after clicking on the picture to expand it), you can see a Morse code of thread running vertically along the fold. (Not all sewing is equal, by the way; the best kind is “sewing through the fold,” also known as “Smyth sewing,” after the brand name of one of the sewing machines capable of doing it.) Though the California paperback is at least five years older, it’s in good shape, and the Northwestern-Newberry is a shambles. For comparison, here’s the latter stacked on the former.

Glued 15-year-old Pierre vs. sewn 20-year-old Moby-Dick

You’re probably thinking, Well, I’m not going to trouble my little head with any of this. I buy hardcovers, after all. Surely they’re sewn not glued. Oh ho, and there you would be wrong. The poet Elizabeth Bishop has been so thoroughly and repeatedly canonized that if I am asked to read one more review solemnly scolding her editors for posthumously printing the fragments found in her desk, I will run screaming into the night. But is the latest of the scolded monumental editions, by her longtime publisher FSG, bound with thread? It is not. (As it happens, though, the mid-1980s FSG hardcovers of Bishop’s collected poetry and prose were glue-bound, too, and seem to be holding up, so maybe FSG uses nice glue, at least with Bishop.)

Glue-bound Philip Roth vs. Smyth-sewn Henry Roth

How, those of you whom I have succeeded in making anxious may want to know, can a glued binding be distinguished from a sewn one? On the left, in the photo above, is a glued Philip Roth (Zuckerman Bound, FSG, 1985), and on the right a sewn Henry Roth (Call It Sleep, Pageant, 1960). The little black-and-white skunk-tail-esque ribbon on the Philip Roth is spurious; it’s meant to hearken back to the days when an actual piece of fabric went all the way down the spine interior, and the gatherings were sewn into it, and its presence needn’t imply the existence or absence of any such thing now. What’s indicative is the way the pages meet the spine. In the glued Philip Roth on the left, the pages all run straight into the binding and stop dead. In the sewn Henry Roth on the right, the pages are folded together in gatherings, and they meet the spine in distinct bunches, which look a little like the illustrations of stomach villi from my high school biology textbook.

Spines of glued Pierre and sewn Moby-Dick

For further reference, here are the tragic Melville paperbacks again, glue on top, sewing beneath.

Wieland, repaired with needle and thread So nothing ever goes wrong with a sewn binding? Well, no, sometimes things do go wrong, but when they do, you can fix them yourself. To my dismay, I once discovered that the thread hadn’t passed through a signature or two of pages in my Kent State University Press hardcover of Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland. I therefore sewed the pages to their neighbors.

More alarmingly, I was three-quarters of the way through marking up a Library of America edition of Howells when I found that a number of pages had been omitted altogether. I found them in a database, printed them out, and sewed them in, too—not as elegantly as I did with Brown, I’m afraid.
Howells, repaired with needle and thread

If pressed, I suppose I can bring myself to admit that these book repairs could have been done with glue, and that all I’m saying is that I’m more comfortable with needle and thread. In the interest of objectivity, in fact, I will will conclude with one more photo, of a 1922 translation of J. K. Huysmans’s Against the Grain whose previous owner “completed” it by pasting in slips of onionskin typing paper containing the passages omitted from the English translation. The glue he used has for the most part held up. (The book itself of course has a sewn binding.)

Huysmans, completed with glue

Glut and deflation

"We are undergoing what they call in California 'a paradigm shift,'" writes Nigel Burwood at Bookride, his brilliant blog about bookselling. "An older more bookish generation is dying off or downsizing," he explains. And as a result, booksellers like Burwood "are being offered far too many books."

I've been wondering about this. I'm a buyer of secondhand books rather than a seller, so I'm not as acutely aware of market vicissitudes, but there is an indicator that I've been curious about. At the used-book search site Abebooks.com, if you aren't ready to buy, you can "Save for later" the books you've found. Since my reach usually exceeds my financial grasp, and since searching for copies of books in and of itself satisfies a certain obsessive-compulsive craving, I often have dozens of books in my "Save for later" list. Over the years, I have learned that the list is not stable. From time to time, either I or Abebooks upgrades software and inadvertently deletes all the titles. Sometimes individual books vanish from the list without explanation, perhaps because a software cookie has expired, but if you notice that such a book is gone, you can easily search for it again. Even less distressingly, if a bookseller goes on vacation, his book remains in your "save for later" list but the price is replaced by the notation "Temporarily unavailable." It comes back of its own accord when the bookseller does.

Excruciatingly, however, the price next to a title in your "Save for later" list is sometimes replaced with the notation "Book sold!" That exclamation point always cuts like salt dashed into a wound. How long did the very good set of all eleven volumes of the Bodley Head Henry James in very good dust jackets remain in my "Save for later" list, priced at $150, without my finding the necessary funds and courage? I do not know, but I remember the day that the numerals disappeared, the title went from clickable blue to unclickable black, and I was forced to concede that "Book" had "sold!"

As recently as a few years ago, I felt such pangs more or less monthly. As much as the pangs pained me, I recognized them as a sign of general economic health and my own good judgment about prices. After all, I put a book in my "Save for later" list because I thought it was the cheapest available copy in good condition of an edition that I wanted. If anybody else wanted the same edition, the copy in my cart was exactly the one they would buy, if they had any sense.

The pangs became less frequent in 2008, with the advent of the Great Recession. Oddly, though, they didn't return with the so-called recovery. In fact, over the past year, almost no books in my cart have been sold out from under me—so few, in fact, that I erroneously concluded that Abebooks must have changed its methodology and must now be silently vanishing sold books from "Save for later" lists, perhaps on the advice of some marketing psychologist who had revealed to the site's managers how traumatic those words and that mark of punctuation were to fragile personalities like mine. But then, a month ago, I was once more stabbed in the heart: "Book sold!" It was a shock. Once I recovered from the particular loss, though, I became perplexed. So Abebooks hadn't changed its methods. That meant that only one book I wanted had been bought by someone else in the course of almost a year.

A number of explanations suggest themselves. First: perhaps there is no economic recovery, not really, at least not among people who buy the sort of books I like. Second: perhaps e-readers, by changing habits, have thinned the ranks of collectors and made physical books a drug on the market, as Burwood has suggested. Third: perhaps it's a sign of deflation. (Number three isn't so much an alternative to number two as an alternative way of thinking of it.) General deflation would be a worldwide economic nightmare, to the extent that I understand it, but it's possible that there might only be deflation in the market for used books. New booksellers, especially online,  constantly vary their prices, but used booksellers usually price their books just once. That practice works well in an era of mild inflation; the real cost of a book drops the longer it sits on the shelf, as a reasonable seller would want it to. But if, because of changing tastes or general economic malaise, the demand for used books is dropping, then most old prices are now too high, and as time goes by, the real value of these books to buyers will fall ever further below the price written on the front flyleaf. But few booksellers are likely to want to endure the tedium of repricing their whole stock.

Deflation would explain why I often nowadays buy books through another feature offered by Abebooks, the "Wants" list. If you enter search criteria for a "Want" and add it to your "Wants" list, Abebooks will email you any new books entered into its database that match. Often the newly added copies are priced substantially lower than the ones currently sitting around, perhaps on account of the factors sketched out above.

To look on the bright side, if the trend persists, I might someday be able to afford a library much ampler and substantial than I ever thought possible. (Where to put it is another question. And if the market for used books collapses altogether, of course, I won't be able to find the books that I will theoretically be able to afford.) Among the drawbacks of this state of affairs, however, is the sense of an era ending. One kind of book that I like to have is a reasonably attractive hardcover scholarly edition of a literary classic; recently, for example, I got a bargain on the second edition of Eugene Vinaver's three-volume Sir Thomas Malory. In that vein, when Jenny Davidson's blog Light Reading alerted me last week to a TLS review of a new edition of the poems of John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, I devoured the review at once, because I don't have an edition of Rochester, and I've never been able to figure out which one to get, if I were to get one. Bad news: the new Wiley-Blackwell edition costs $99, but according to the TLS, the edition you probably want is Harold Love's 1999 Oxford English Texts edition, which costs $350 new, and only about a C-note less used. The price of scholarly hardcovers of classic literary texts has been rising for decades, and in many cases, they're now out of the reach of everyone except research libraries and a few of the academics who specialize in that specific author, if said academics are well funded. Indeed, when columnists at the Chronicle of Higher Education recently recommended that new graduate students "build a personal library," they weren't referring to the purchase of books at all. They were merely advising that grad students store in a software program the titles of articles and books they read, preferably along with a few keywords. (Happily, Penguin often republishes the texts I covet, but they're stripped of much of the scholarly apparatus, and a paperback isn't as durable, nor is it quite the same aesthetic object.)

Other, less difficult media

While rummaging through my shelves, I came across a poem from the 1950s that seems strangely apropos to current debates about the future of the book, or its possible lack of one: “To Posterity,” by Louis MacNeice:

When books have all seized up like the books in graveyards
And reading and even speaking have been replaced
By other, less difficult, media, we wonder if you
Will find in flowers and fruit the same colour and taste
They held for us for whom they were framed in words,
And will your grass be green, your sky be blue,
Or will your birds be always wingless birds?

I now also see, thanks to the online equivalent of rummaging, that MacNeice’s letters will be published in a couple of weeks.