Addicted to books


I recently posted on Eva Stalker’s initiative #TBR20 – read a nominated 20 books from the To Be Read pile within a set period of time. I’ve been thinking some more about this.


JacquiWine’s blog, which I referred to last time, talks of the ‘craving’ to buy books, avoiding the ‘temptation’ of visiting bookshops and buying, and of the impulse to ‘splurge’ on yet more books. There was also the issue of ebooks v. physical copies.


I don’t take much pleasure from reading an e-text. I don’t like the way my screen refuses to give page numbers, just the percentage of text I’ve completed, and some weird ‘location x out of y total’ figure that means nothing to me. In a ‘book’ as huge as the collected works of Chekhov these numbers are enormous. I like to feel the weight of a real, physical book in my hand. Ebooks are a poor substitute, so I shall exclude them from any TBR undertaking I subscribe to (which I don’t intend to do anyway). To my mind the Kindle is an unpleasant but useful substitute for the real thing – like alcohol-free beers.


I’ve also taken, over the last year or so, to using my local library again – but mostly for research purposes. If I’m reading a book I’m likely to write about here I like to be able to annotate it, underline key passages, and so on (in pencil, of course; ink is barbaric – and I include Wordsworth here, cutting pages with his greasy butter knife; Coleridge was a great inked-comments-in-the-margins culprit, too). Ebooks’ facility for ‘notes’ is ridiculous, cumbersome and annoying.


Then I came across the excellent blog by Belinda: Bii’s books. Back in May Belinda had some interesting things to say about her TBR project. She’d even devised a spreadsheet to constrain the urge to buy more books! As she said, ‘It sounds crackers’ to do such a thing…


Then on June 1st she continued in similar terms. She called herself an ‘almost unapologetic book buyer’ who loved a ‘spree’ of acquisitions. This leads, of course, to the ‘almost unbridgeable’ gulf that grows ever wider between books read and those accumulating relentlessly on the TBR pile. It’s a theme I find constantly on book blogs, or when talking to bibliophile friends.


She goes on to describe the desire to de-clutter, and take books TO the charity shop, and the conflicting desire to visit secondhand bookshops with a view to buying more. Here her imagery becomes revealing: she says at the end of the TBR20 project she ‘gorged’ like a ‘sugar addict at the end of Lent’ on buying new books. Repeatedly she says it’s ‘unhealthy’, this desire to ‘guzzle’ texts.


Better to appreciate the ‘treasures’ on the shelves already, she concludes. ‘Rekindle the passion’ for what one has in hand, is the message here. Reminds me of Kipling’s Kim, or a zen koan. Commendable – but I’m not sure I’m up to the challenge.


Unlike Belinda, I don’t think I have the resolve not to stray into the ‘path of fanciful desires’, to seek something newly invigorating. ‘I spend far too much time feeling like I’m missing something’, she adds, suggesting it’s how we’re ‘socially wired’ in this materialistic, capitalist world. (I haven’t even touched on the desire – the need – to do my own creative writing. Where’s the time?)


Finally she returns to the metaphor of addiction: the ‘seasoned alcoholic’ trying to self-convince that ‘coffee is a fair substitute for…vodka’.


She even tags this post ‘book obsession’.


That’s it, isn’t it. It’s an obsession. An addiction, almost. I have a parallel obsession, apart from books, with notebooks. In a cupboard I have enough pristine notebooks to keep me going for decades. But I still have to work hard to resist that temptation to buy another when I see a good one.


The other day, on an errand to town, I heeded the siren call of a charity bookshop. I won’t buy anything, I assured myself. Then picked up a good copy of Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End – only £1.


I put it back. As I walked away empty-handed I felt like I was leaving an AA meeting.


So: the TBR pile? I’ve been sent some novels to review, so they won’t count. I have several novels bought over the last two years which I’ve still not got round to reading, from de la Pava to Charles Newman and Shark, Will Self’s sequel to Umbrella, which I loved.


And there are those Library of America collections of Henry James criticism, Raymond Carver, Philip Roth, Bellow and the rest…oh my. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.



#TBR20: dealing with the To Be Read backlog

In yesterday’s post on The Nun I mentioned bloggers who write and read with such amazing rapidity yet maintain high qualities of output. I’d like here to spend a bit more time on this.

Max first put me on to the Twitter and blogger phenomenon of #TBR20. Essentially it was a project whereby one undertook to choose 20 books (or some other total) from the to be read pile and work through them within a set time, while refraining from buying any new books (link to his piece below). I’ll start with the blogger who instigated this scheme, though:

Eva Stalker in a post from Nov. 2014: TBR20 project proposed HERE

Link HERE to her conclusions when finished (and plan for future similar ventures)

Among those whose blogs I follow (and who post with admirable frequency and read voraciously) and who took up the challenge:

JacquiWine’s Journal 15 May reflections on finishing:

I need to carry on with the spirit of #TBR20, of valuing the books I already own rather than allowing myself to be distracted by the next craving. I’m not sure if I can go another four months without buying ANY new books; it might be a little too soon after the first round.

Jacqui provides links to those who inspired or joined in the project subsequently, including

Emma (BooksAroundTheCorner): her views HERE

Max (mentioned above): link HERE with further links on that piece to related posts.

I’m reluctant to join in formally. I understand Max’s explanation that TBR20 can provide the impetus, focus and discipline to get stuck in to the backlog, and stop finding distractions or excuses – or other books that come to hand; but he does also point out that there’s no point going for it if it becomes itself a burden.

So I prefer to carry on picking out, from time to time, individual volumes that languish on my shelves (some have been there years, like The Nun), sitting patiently awaiting their moment in the sun. And I’ve just been sent another couple of novels for review, so need to prioritise reading them, and have John Harvey’s The Poetics of Sight looking at me reprovingly from my desk as I write this. I need to review it.

I recently had new bookshelves installed, which meant emptying many of the old ones and then putting all the books back once the new shelves were in place. This enabled me to introduce a little system in their placement (though much of it was determined by size of book and depth of shelf), and I’ve isolated many of the TBR books. I’ll keep you posted on the progress I make.

First I need to choose between books which were published some time ago, those that I bought fresh from publication (de la Pava, Newman, etc.) – but there’s another category: those I’d like to reread (the TBRR pile?).

One final reason for dodging the formal TBR20 challenge: I like to choose my next book, often, on the basis of a contrast with the one just finished (something old like Diderot followed by something recent, for example; something modernist and challenging followed by something more conventional; fiction/non-fiction, and so on).

So, in the spirit of self-discipline I’ll shut down my laptop now, ignore the siren call of social media, book bloggers and email – and the constant stream of bullfinches and chaffinches visiting the window-mounted bird feeder by my window as I type – and get down to some serious reading.


It’s been quite liberating, writing this piece, and not the usual book review. Must do it more often. No revising, redrafting or polishing: just the thing itself.



‘Calumnies and persecutions’: Denis Diderot, ‘The Nun’

‘The cloistered life is that of a fanatic or a hypocrite.’

I’ve reached that happy time of year when my teaching commitments are almost over and I have some space in which to read and write. Having posted already this week on John Harvey’s social-cultural-philosophical study Clothes I felt inspired to join that doughty band of bloggers (like Kaggsysbookishramblings – her excellent blog is HERE) who post more prolifically than I can manage, yet are able to maintain admirably high standards of entertaining, well-written posts on their scarily voracious reading (where do they find the time?!) – don’t know if I can reach their level, but here goes with a second post this week.

thumb_IMG_2796_1024Denis Diderot’s (sort of) epistolary novel La Religieuse was first published in 1796, but started as early as 1760 (more on that later) which I read in the Penguin Classics version The Nun, translated by Leonard Tancock. I seem to recall buying it after reading Malcolm Bradbury’s final novel, To the Hermitage, published shortly before he died (too young at just 68) – a delightfully irreverent but highly intelligent response to the life and work of Diderot, and in particular of his sojourn at the St Petersburg court of tsarina Catherine II, who had invited him to curate her library and art works at what is now the Hermitage museum. There’s a review here from the online journal Études Anglaises. I enjoyed it when I read it over ten years ago. In the light of the TBR20 movement started by Eva Stalker I resolved finally to pick up The Nun and remove it from my pile of unread books (the TBR pile as it’s called on the Interweb).

The main difficulty was, I didn’t really enjoy the novel that much.

It began as a hoax. Diderot (1713-84) was the archetypal Enlightenment philosophe, a

First edition of Encyclopédie, 1751

First edition of Encyclopédie, 1751

scientific materialist and polymath humanist with strongly anti-Catholic views, which are apparent throughout this novel. He was most famous as the main editor of the Encyclopédie – a vast ‘dictionnaire raisonné’ of all human knowledge at the time, which began to appear in 1751.


One of his circle of Paris friends of eminent thinkers and writers was the Marquis de Croismare, who had recently retired from the capital to his country estate in Normandy. Diderot missed his affable company, so in order to lure him back to the city he made use of a scandalously notorious incident of 1758; a nun had petitioned the Marquis to intervene on her behalf in her attempt to revoke her religious vows and leave the convent (to which she’d been condemned against her will by her parents) for the outside world.

Diderot started writing to the Marquis a sequence of letters in the name of another such desperate nun, Suzanne Simonin. Adopting this fictitious persona he constructed a scenario in which she’d escaped from the miserable cruelty of her convent, to which she too had been condemned by her parents.

The plan went wrong. Instead of the desired outcome – the return of the Marquis to Paris to facilitate Suzanne’s liberation – he offered her asylum and a job on his country estate, and stayed put. Eventually Diderot had to send letters to the Marquis telling him ‘Suzanne’ had died. Later, over a period of years, he worked the original material into a full-length novel, but it wasn’t published in its final form until after his death in 1796, and of course after the Revolution which some of his works had contributed towards fermenting.

The Nun takes the form of a curious hybrid: letters addressed to the Marquis petitioning his support (paid employment and asylum), but also a sort of autobiography or memoir in which Suzanne describes her cruel banishment to cloistered incarceration by her heartless parents, followed by her experiences in the religious houses to which she was confined.

It’s not all gothic gloom; at first she is treated with loving kindness by a saintly Mother Superior. When she dies, it all goes horribly wrong. The new Superior is jealously tyrannical in her persecution of her predecessor’s former favourites. Convents are portrayed here as unholy hotbeds of hypocrisy, corruption and persecution, with an unhealthy atmosphere that generates madness, idolatry (or fear) of superiors, bullying, calumnies and febrile sexual depravity. Just look at the cover image above…

Suzanne takes her vows in a weird sort of fugue trance – a characteristically unconvincing scene. Her later attempts to renounce the veil are met with cruel vengefulness: she’s systematically exposed to mental and physical torture, solitary confinement and ostracism. She often contemplates suicide.

Unfortunately I found the prose indigestible. I’m sure the translator did a good job, but 18C French can be pretty stodgy. And the relentlessly victimised Suzanne has a voice that generally comes across as inconsistent and implausibly literary. Here she is on the opening page, explaining her purpose in writing:

…I have made up my mind to overcome my pride and reluctance and embark on these recollections in which I shall describe part of my misfortunes without talent or artifice, with the ingenuousness of a girl of my age and with my natural candour.


Like so many gothic narratives of swooning female victims in menacing cloistered environments (there’s a touch of Clarissa’s influence there, too, perhaps; Richardson’s novel was published in 1748), there’s an unsavoury prurience apparent. The narrator’s constant reminders of her youth, innocence and natural piety become tiresomely strident, and the mistreatment she endures with either stoical submissiveness or passive resistance becomes a catalogue of sado-masochism verging on torture porn that the underlying socio-political message fails to justify.

After one particularly vicious campaign against her, for example, Suzanne reveals her wounds to her superiors; she then melodramatically addresses her putative aristocratic reader –

I can hear you, Sir, and most of those who read these memoirs, saying: ‘So many horrors, so varied and so continuous! A series of such calculated atrocities in religious souls! It defies all probability!’


Quite so. And just who are we meant to understand constitute her readers? Not just the Marquis, then, but ‘memoir’ readers. It doesn’t add up.

I have a similar problem with the sexual aspects of Suzanne’s revelations. At one stage she’s accused of what is clearly signalled as masturbation and lesbianism, but her coyly euphemistic account overbalances into unintentional humour:

I was credited with intentions I dare not mention, and unnatural desires to which they attributed the obvious disarray of the young nun [who had just fled screaming from her]. Of course I am not a man, and I don’t know what can be imagined about one woman and another, still less about one woman alone, but as my bed had no curtains, and people came in and out of my room at all hours, what can I say, Sir? For all their circumspect behaviour, their modest eyes and the chastity of their talk, these women must be very corrupt at heart – anyway they know that you can commit indecent acts alone, which I don’t know, and so I have never quite understood what they accused me of…

 Really? You either know or you don’t. This is equivocation that begins to resemble the genre of a bawdy Carry On film.

Credibility is strained even more when her last Superior engages in a series of intimate

Portrait of Diderot by Greuze, 1767. Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Diderot by Greuze, 1767. Wikimedia Commons

Sapphic trysts with her that culminate in what is clearly orgasm – which again Suzanne claims she doesn’t understand (‘I jumped up, thinking she had fainted…’) She thinks her Superior was simply taken ill!

This novel has a certain amount of interest as a blast from the Age of Reason against clerical hypocrisy, but as a novel it fails to satisfy.

Next time – before too long, I hope – I intend to return to the topic of the TBR pile. This attempt wasn’t entirely rewarding.