Five Books That Are Stuck on My Shelves

Avid readers know all too well how easy it is to acquire books -- it's the letting go that's the difficult part. During the past 20 years, in which books have played a significant role in both my personal and professional lives, I've certainly had my fair share of them (and some might say several others' shares) in my library. Many were read and saved for posterity, others eventually, but still reluctantly, sent back out into the world. But there is also a category of titles that I've clung to for years, as they survived numerous purges, frequent library donations and countless changes of residence. I've yet to read them, but am absolutely certain I will. And should. When, I'm not sure, as I'm constantly distracted by the recent, just published and soon to be published works. Below is a random list of titles that I just can't seem to cast off with a hearty bon voyage.

A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth.
I know. I'm a bit embarrassed. The 1993 novel was showered with critical accolades and had an astonishing readership for such a lush, meaty epic. If I remember correctly, the publisher's first printing evaporated almost immediately, only adding to both reviewers' and readers' word-of-mouth praise. Set in post-colonial India, this novel of manners follows the travails and triumphs of four extended families and one young woman's desire to follow her heart despite a risk of serious repercussions. All this set against the tumultuous growing pains of a fledgling democracy.

Constantine's Sword, by James Carroll.
A longtime curiosity about religions the world over, as well as about my own faith, drew me to this sweeping history by Carroll, a National Book Award winner and Boston Globe columnist, in which he tackles Christianity's tense, emotional and often downright hostile relationship with Judaism, and the consequences, both intentional and unexpected. Heralded as a book that would compel disciples of both faiths to rethink their shared history and the accepted wisdom, it is a journey I most certainly mean to take.

Marie Antoinette, by Antonia Fraser.
It inspired a feature film, by a Coppola no less. Reviewers said that Fraser, a deft writer, brings to the life of the doomed queen of France a historian's critical eye and a novelist's flair for captivating the reader -- which makes sense since she has proven herself in both fields. Drawing upon Marie's life as an Austrian princess who is betrothed to the future Louis XVI and thrust into the Byzantine, ruthless milieu of the French court, Fraser's portrait is said to be neither sympathetic nor disparaging, as she fleshes out the truth behind the anti-royalist demagoguery and notes that the foundations of the Revolution were laid long before Marie set foot on French soil.

An Instance of the Fingerpost, by Iain Pears.
Restoration England is the backdrop of what friends described as a dense, thrilling, most unconventional murder mystery, the plot of which reminded me of Umberto Eco's masterful Name of the Rose. The poisoning of Dr. Robert Grove, a fellow at Oxford University's New College, is told from the perspective of four different narrators, unveiling myriad secrets and surprises. A fan of Pears's charming art mysteries, I feel certain I'll love this book, and my friends' praise only confirms that assumption. Now all I need is a whopping snowstorm and a tall mug of hot chocolate to get me started.

The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan.
Perhaps the quintessential book club book (and also a feature film), it's an intergenerational tale focusing on four elderly women who emigrated to America from China after World War II and ON their independent-minded daughters. Now residing in San Francisco, the parents love nothing more than to reminisce and swap stories of their daughters' latest shenanigans while playing endless rounds of mah-jongg. Their children's desire to lead a more Westernized life clashes with their parents' Old World sensibilities. I'm told that a heartwarming and heart-wrenching denouement ensues, but please don't give it away, as I've not even seen the movie. And when I realized my copy had gone astray, I passed on replacing it with a paperback edition, instead buying the hardcover (with that beautiful cover), now in its zillionth printing.

What tomes are waiting patiently on your shelves?

-- Christopher Schoppa

By Rachel Hartigan Shea |  October 2, 2008; 7:29 AM ET Christopher Schoppa
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Ah, the dilemma of the book lover and reading addict -- which to part with, which to keep. Here are the tomes gathering dust on my shelves (somewhat simpatico with Mr. Schoppa:
1) The Bonesetter's Daughter by Amy Tan (however, I loved Joy Luck Club)
2)Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser (I pick it up and put it down, mostly leaving it down. Again I have loved her other books)
3)Duchess by Amanda Foreman (just can't read it nor let it go
4) London by Edward Rutherford (it seems too much like a permanent commitment)
5)A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (Having loved but wept over Kite Runner, I just haven't been able to deal with the subject matter in this book. I know, I know -- head-in-the-sand syndrome OR perhaps self-preservation.

I love and look forward to Short Stack!

Posted by: Patty | October 2, 2008 9:02 AM

Foucault's Pendulum - I have started it about five times always get sidetracked. So there it sits staring at me and waiting.

Posted by: Beau | October 2, 2008 9:33 AM

I'm planning to read An Instance of the Fingerpost soon, just having read two of his more recent works. (The Portrait- I spotted the two big twists miles away and it sort of dragged; The Dream of Scipio- interesting, but could have used a better ending).

The Joy Luck Club wasn't my favorite Amy Tan- I think I remember like the Bonesetter's Daughter more.

The one I need to read but haven't is The Picture of Dorian Gray. I've also had trouble with the Iliad and the Aeneid (having successful conquered the Odyssey only by reading it in a lit class).

Posted by: Sarah | October 2, 2008 10:45 AM

So many, including "Constantine's Sword" and "Marie Antoinette." I couldn't possibly list them all, but they include hardback copies -- because I simply couldn't wait for the paperback -- of "The Children" by David Halberstam, "Personal History" by Katharine Graham, and "Hitler's Willing Executioners" by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. Consider that those books came out in the mid-1990s, and you get an idea of how long I've had these copies.

Even better, I have 20-year-old paperbacks of "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Les Miserables" that I still haven't read yet, and which I fully intend to read.

Posted by: KLeewrite | October 2, 2008 12:15 PM

The Anatomy of Melancholy, by Robert Burton.

A great book to dip into -- a feast of language and even funny in parts (Causes of head-melancholy, unlawful cures rejected, etc). But at 900-plus pages, a commitment I have yet to make. Someday! (perhaps)

Posted by: mark tarallo | October 2, 2008 12:16 PM

Don Quixote - I've nearly finished Book I as translated by Edith Grossman and Tobias Smollet, and while I have loved what I've read, in both instances I've reached a point where I feel like I "get it" and no longer need to read on.

Also, Augie March by Saul Bellow. I love my Penguin Classics edition of this book, and several times a year I stuff it into the bag I take to and fro to work with every intention of reading it on my lunch breaks. And yet, I never get past the first three or four paragraphs. I think I like the idea of this book and I love that it sits on my shelf, but I doubt I will ever read it.

Posted by: Basil | October 2, 2008 1:06 PM

Nicholas and Alexandra (Robert Massie). Partially because Russian history fascinates me, partially because it's such a well written book (if now a bit out of date, academically speaking).

An extremely battered copy of Antoine de Saint-Expury's The Little Prince. A 10th birthday present I can't part with.

T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems, 1909-1962 and Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. Eliot could be heavy and literary and obtuse, but some of his smaller poems have really lovely imagery. And the Practical Cats are just downright fun.

My Asterix and Obelix collection (does that count?). Still the best source for fake Roman names out there ;)

William Wegman's "Man's Best Friend" and "Fay". I wasn't that big into his later anthropomorphic trends, but the early Man Ray and Fay pictures are still really striking and well crafted. I gave a lot of the later books away, but I got both of these signed at separate Smithsonian RAP events.

Posted by: Chasmosaur | October 2, 2008 1:32 PM

An Instance of the Fingerpost is exceptional. I can't recomend it highly enough. Read it.
For me there are so many sitting on my creaking shelves that it is hard to know where to begin. How about Peter J. Powell's People of the Sacred Mountain a massive two volumne history of the Cheyenne tribe and Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks. Still haven't finished all of Wallace Stegner's work either but given time...

Posted by: Michael Bartley | October 2, 2008 7:58 PM

Underworld -- Delillo. I move quite a bit, or have since this monster was birthed. I read the adapted pps in Harper's lo those many years ago -- the great scene set at the Polo Grounds. Based on that I bought the book, plowed through about p. 250 or so, moved yet again, and never got back to it. There it sits, eyeing me like a sad hound dog waiting for another walk around the block. I'm not sure I have it in me to pick it up again, but I'm pretty sure it'll make the next move, too. Like Emmylou sings: "One of these days..."

Posted by: Al O. from Tupelo | October 2, 2008 8:25 PM

David Copperfield - I enjoyed Great Expectations so much that I wanted to read this one, but alas, there is sits...

War and Peace - same story as above, just substitute Anna Karenina

The Brothers Karamazov - ditto, substitute Crime and Punishment

Can you spot the theme??? sigh.

BTW, your compelling descriptions of those books makes me want to go out and read them!

Posted by: Suzanne | October 2, 2008 11:27 PM

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