Clearing my Shelves

The summer holiday has arrived and it’s time to refresh, relax and (in our case) catch a breath and finish the process of moving in to a new place. One activity that will be very much part of this routine will be the removal of various books from my shelves.

As the years pass and more books accumulate, shelving space is increasingly at a premium. It makes sense, then, to try to pass on to others (either through charity shops or online sales) the books I don’t intend to read or rely upon again.

There’s something cathartic about doing this, deciding what will stay and what will go. Exercising control over what belongs on my shelves feels like an enjoyable assertion of my own free will: I’m not going to be kept in thrall by those books I don’t/didn’t enjoy is the thought, and I can follow the thought with decisive action.

In this post I’ve tried to force myself to reflect pretty candidly on the different reasons why the books I’m selling no longer seem to belong on my shelves. Here below is a picture of the books I currently have available for purchase (as displayed on a shelf I’ve allocated to them in the garage). They cover a whole range of subjects, from ancient philosophy to land law to psychology to an educator’s memoir. Below that is a summary of the various reasons why they’re for sale.

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a) Books which served a purpose and are not needed anymore: the primary examples here are the law books – mostly textbooks. In some cases they’re now quite out of date, in a field where new textbooks are published each year, and in most cases they’re available pretty cheap. I do retain some books from my period of legal studies – like Treitel’s classic treatise on the Law of Contract, and a textbook on company law (a nice study aide when I wrote a successful mini-dissertation on minority shareholder remedies), but I don’t envisage an imminent need for detailed reading material on criminal, EU, or tort law. Those, then, can go.

b) Books that excited me at the time but that don’t anymore: in this category I’d include some of the philosophy books – Bernard Williams’ Problems of the Self (a collection of essays) and Bernstein’s Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. Arlie Hochschild’s Commercialisation of Intimate Life, a sociological book with some interesting observations, also falls into this category, as do some history books, for example Mark Bevir’s The Logic of the History of Ideas and RG Collingwood’s classic study, The Idea of History. In each case, these books (or at least parts of them) were enjoyable when I first read them, but I can’t imagine returning to them again anytime soon. Partly, this is because my interest in philosophy itself has dwindled over the years: my reading tastes now focus more on biography and various types of history. Why? I’m not exactly sure but there has certainly been a more general shift from the abstract to the concrete in my choice of reading material over the years (philosophy and theology out; politics, economic history and biography in).

c) Books I didn’t enjoy or couldn’t get into: this is perhaps the biggest single category of book on the shelf. Of course, there are probably a lot of books like this on any avid reader’s shelves – and many such books remain, in fact, on my own ‘not for sale’ shelves, mainly because they could be useful as works of reference, or because I might want to give them a second chance. On this shelf, my recently purchased copy of John Cooper’s Pursuits of Wisdom, a sort of primer of ancient philosophy, which just doesn’t flow, is an example of the type; so too Charles Taylor’s large book on Hegel (Taylor picks fascinating topics in his books – many of which I own – but his prose style can be long-winded and trying); so too David Graeber’s book Debt (which held me for the first 10 or so pages before I found myself getting too frustrated with the assumptions he was making). Graeber is almost the opposite of Taylor in terms of prose style: he’s overly punchy. Others? Edward Said’s book on Humanism and Democratic Criticism was okay, but I have better books of his in my possession (and worse: On Late Style was a particularly disappointing read); John Burrow’s Crisis of Reason: European thought 1848-1914 addresses a fascinating topic but does so in a very stodgy way; Terry Eagleton is usually very readable but Trouble with Strangers: a study of ethics is among the least enjoyable of his books – its argument patchy, its prose not as luminous as that of his other books, and ethics is hardly his special field anyway; as for Galen Strawson’s Real Materialism (a collection of philosophy essays), I found both the writing and the subject matter more or less impenetrable.

d) a subset of c): Classics books that didn’t work for me. Here some examples are Neville Morley’s Antiquity and Modernity (a great topic, but the approach of the book didn’t speak to me at all), Irene de Jong’s Narrators and Focalizers (very dry) and Jonathan Hall’s Hellenicity (an interesting argument about the development of Hellenic identity, but a dense read: too dense for me at any rate). William Harris’ book on the Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity was another case of an interesting topic that wasn’t a particularly absorbing read (Harris’ other books, which unfortunately are very expensive, read really well, by contrast). Garth Fowden’s Egyptian Hermes – on Hermes the thrice-great – is the definitive treatment of its topic, but again it’s too dense for my tastes and it didn’t feel like an effort was made to bring the subject alive.

e) books it makes commercial sense to sell – I would be quite happy to keep hold of my copy of the collection of essays on Gender and the Body in the Ancient Mediterranean, edited by Maria Wyke, but if I can make £35 for it (and in advertising it for that price, I am the cheapest would-be seller online) I’ll gladly take the money (the book was purchased years back for £7).

f) books whose wisdom I no longer need: Mike Carot’s book of poker tells and Hwang’s book on pot limit omaha fall into this bracket. Read into that what you will… Also Terence Irwin’s book on Plato’s Ethics is surplus to requirements because this subject is fully covered in a different book I own by the same author (The Development of Ethics, volume 1). A further example here is the collection of essays on animal ethics: I’ve been a fully signed up vegetarian for a number of years now and no longer need to be convinced of the ethical case for vegetarianism.

g) Books I reviewed (somewhat ruefully): I spent far too long wondering about how to review two books on the shelf for journals (a book about the theology of Henri de Lubac and one about gender and ancient religion). These books hold particular memories. Influencing my approach to both reviews was the comment of Mary Beard that ‘you shouldn’t write anything in a review that you wouldn’t say to someone’s face’. Well, maybe I’ve grown bolder over the years but I’d certainly review both books quite differently now if I were to do so again. In one of the books, for instance, there were issues with dryness, unshapely sentences, jargon and the ‘so what?’ question (i.e. what does this matter?). None of this was mentioned in the review. With the collection of essays, there was an attempt to tie the essays together under a single banner which didn’t really work (the essays covered different topics in quite distinct ways and bore only the loosest of relations to one another) This is a common complaint of many reviewers of such volumes but it’s one my review didn’t manage to touch upon. I suppose I feel now that life is short and that these are the sorts of things (among others) that should just be said without hesitation if they’re what a reviewer feels – and let the chips fall where they may.

h) Duplicates: I already possess JA Mangan’s excellent book on the Games Ethic and Imperialism – an exploration of the place of sport in British education in the 19th century – so this copy is for sale.

So that’s a rough – and admittedly candid, though hopefully not too curmudgeonly – summary of the reasons these books are for sale. I hope I didn’t put you off making a purchase!

Favourite Reads of 2019 (2)

(Continued from previous)

5 Josephine Kamm, How Different from Us: a Biography of Miss Buss and Miss Beale

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A fascinating read about the lives of two Victorian educators, Frances Mary Buss and Dorothea Beale. I discuss some of the highlights of the book in another post here.

4 Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity

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Another book about which I’ve written already (here): Nussbaum, as the title of the book intimates, wants to redirect the focus of education in the humanities back onto the cultivation of humanity itself (and she does so with reference to some of the key arguments in ancient philosophy). The book was written in the 90s but its arguments felt relevant – perhaps even urgent – at a time when the intellectual tenor and human sensitivity of our public discourse isn’t exactly the best it could be.

3 Isobel Hurst, Victorian Women Writers and the Classics: the Feminine of Homer

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This is a bit of a cheat – as, so far, I’ve only read the first 2 chapters. However, it’s already given me some clear glimpses of a whole area of history and research re: the classical world (19th century women’s reception) that I’ve not thought much about before. It’s also beautifully written.

2 Martial, Epigrams 

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I hadn’t previously appreciated just how racy, funny and exuberant Martial’s epigrams are. My (inaccurate) memory of studying a selection of them many years ago was that they offered little more than a pretty unremarkable window into everyday Roman social reality. That selection must have omitted a lot of good stuff – and what sort of ‘social reality’ is it that we get in Martial, anyway? I’m looking forward to reading some of the Epigrams with students over the course of the upcoming term.

1 Giorgio Bassani, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

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Another beautifully written book (which I blogged about earlier this year here). I’d first tried to read this novel a couple of years ago, but couldn’t get into it then. This year, however, it stood out as the novel that (for various reasons) it made sense to read to my mother at her bedside during her final illness. She enjoyed it immensely – as did I, and its story (and the memory of reading it) will always hold a profound meaning for me.

Boys and Books

I’m asked fairly often by the boys who visit my classroom about the books they see on its shelves: about whether I myself have read them all (I reply that I certainly haven’t); about what a particular book that catches their eye is about (sometimes this can lead into an interesting conversation); and, perhaps most commonly of all, about whether I myself have a favourite book… and if so, could I recommend it?

As someone who loves books, this last question is not one I find it particularly easy to answer. There are just so many great books to choose from, and I prefer to try to tailor any recommendations I make to individuals, having worked out what they’ve read and enjoyed in the past and/or what they’d like to explore in some new reading.

This all being said, I’ve also been thinking a bit recently about the books that I myself found exciting as a teenager, and in this post I’m going to consider whether these might be good texts to recommend to a teenage reader still today.

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Before I start, a necessary admission: my memory of my teenage reading is far from perfect, and I certainly don’t want to misrepresent its true scope and nature. I had been a voracious reader up until about 13/14 years of age, mainly of fiction and history. Standout favourite reads in my pre-teenage years had included Richmal Crompton’s series of Just William books (I seem to remember that the sight of me reading these books would irritate the headmaster of my prep school, who regarded them with scorn for some reason), various animal themed books by Colin Dann, and (when I was about 12) the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. I also remember enjoying both The Great Gatsby and Buchan’s 39 steps when we studied them in English.

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However, for 3 or so years after that (until I started my A levels) I found that the tasks of keeping on top of academic work, learning two musical instruments and playing a lot of sport didn’t really leave much time for anything apart from ‘fun’ reading (particularly footballers’ biographies and autobiographies).

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Nevertheless, one text I did read during this time stands out in my memory for the impression it created: Sophie’s World, by Jostein Gaarder. This book managed to combine a simple storyline about an inquisitive young girl with an introduction to some of the key western philosophers. I greatly enjoyed the book, which I remember as having a thoughtful tone, and I liked especially its exploration of the life and philosophical approach of Socrates.

When I reached the sixth form, I had time and space to do a little more reading, and I was lucky that my parents’ bookshelves had plenty of titles to investigate if/when I was feeling intellectually curious.

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Undoubtedly the single most important book I discovered on these shelves was Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. From page one, I was gripped – not just by Russell’s prose style, which I still find to be both grand and acute, but by the scope of the book. I realise this is a common experience for those who read Russell for the first time (and I know that reading Russell is not an altogether unheard of formative experience for intellectually minded teenagers).

My honest recollection is that I felt that Russell’s book really did pull the rug out from under much of the learning/studying I had been doing at school. Why weren’t school classes considering what seemed to be the fundamental questions that Russell and these other thinkers had devoted their lives to? And why did so many people around me seem to live without paying much attention to these incredibly important questions? Another abiding memory of reading Russell is that I was completely entranced by his exposition of the thought of the early Greek philosophers. I think the book remains worth reading for those chapters alone.

I was compelled to go out and find more Bertrand Russell to read and managed to get hold of two further books, both of which I liked a lot: two essay collections, Unpopular Essays and Why I am not a Christian. For a while, as a 17 year old, my goal in life was to become a modern day Bertrand Russell.

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Studying both Virgil and Horace at school as part of Latin A level had given me a sense that there was a lot of fascinating material waiting to be explored in classical literature – and I was lucky to be presented with an Oxford Classical Dictionary as a Christmas present during the sixth form. I spent quite a lot of time with my nose in this, though I remember struggling to sustain an interest in a number of the minor biographical entries. (For my sins, I also used to enjoy browsing an English Dictionary and learning new words before I went to bed at night).

Perhaps my number one fiction read from this time was Conan Doyle’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which I found to be absorbing and well-written. It was good also that Conan Doyle’s stories were short, as I didn’t have much patience for long drawn-out fictional tales at this point in my life.

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So that’s about it: a brief survey of some of the standout reads of my own adolescence. I think I’m still happy to recommend these books to anyone who asks for a recommendation today (well, perhaps not the OCD if a page-turner is what’s required). Strangely, though, I’ve never put any of these books in the hands of pupils who’ve asked me for recommendations to-date (though I have mentioned them). I’m not completely sure why this is: perhaps because I don’t retain my copies of Russell or Conan Doyle any longer on my shelves. There are certainly, though, many other good books to try instead.