The Reading Life: On the Books I Bought But Didn't Read This Year

In his novels, Nick Hornby creates loveable if bumbling characters, who fumble their way through life's pleasures and traumas. My favorite things about them (his books and his characters): They are funny and poignant and ultimately hopeful without sacrificing depth and truth. Which is to say: Hope, the sustaining kind, does not spring from oversimplifying or glossing over life's tragedies. Just like in real life.

Besides writing novels, Hornby pens a monthly column, "Stuff I've Been Reading," for Believer magazine, and a third collection of his pieces, "Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books," was published earlier this month. I haven't gotten to it yet, but I'm looking forward to it because Hornby gets what it means to live books.

Take, for instance, this line from "The Polysyllabic Spree":

"All the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal. ... But with each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not."

One feature of his columns involves Hornby accounting for the books he has read and those he has purchased each month, and the two lists don't always correspond. The books we buy and place on our bookshelves and in our reading queues reveal, before we read them and perhaps even if we never do, who we hope to or are in the process of becoming. They reveal where we are trying to go, what we are trying to learn, who we are trying to be.

I've often feel badly about the books I've bought but not read, unintentionally reducing the existence of books to utility, as if they were a pair of scissors or a vacuum cleaner that I didn't really need because I already have one. What a waste of money!

Hornby reminds me that my purchases are driven by something deeper, and more difficult to articulate, than function, which are my existential preoccupations, conscious or not.

Three books I've purchased this year but not yet read:

"The End of Sparta" by Victor Davis Hanson. I bought this novel at Books on the Common in Ridgefield. It was the only copy on the shelf, and I bought it despite suspecting it would sit on my own shelf for quite some time before being read because I worried that if I didn't take it home with me that very day, I would forget about it entirely.

Hanson, a classicist, recreates the Battle of Leuktra, between the Thebans and the Spartans. Last year, I read and loved "The Song of Achilles" by Madeline Miller, also a classicist. Being of Greek heritage, I grew up hearing, just about every day of my life, how the Ancient Greeks understood everything, except how not to destroy themselves. Could reading novelizations of the ancient world provide another point of access to insight? I'm hoping.

"The Enchanted Wanderer" by Nikolai Leskov. I found this beautiful hardcover on the shelves at Westport's Barnes and Noble. Sweetening its appeal: It was translated by my favorite translators of Russian literature, the husband and wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I had not heard of Leskov before, but he was apparently admired by Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, and Maxim Gorky. If he was good enough for them...

In Russian literature, I've always felt at home. Partly, this is because of our shared religion (Eastern Orthodox Christianity), which confers on me a familiarity with and connection to the religious customs and rites described in pre-Soviet Russian novels. But also because of how Russian authors I have read and loved frame suffering—as not only inescapable but also essential and potentially redeeming. If we can't avoid it, we might as well make it matter.

"Astor Place Vintage" by Stephanie Lehmann. I picked this up at Barrett Bookstore in Darien purely because of those three words in the title. "Astor Place" was my subway stop for eight years when I attended New York University, and "vintage" always gets my attention. I'm prone to daydreaming about the past (and wishing I could invent a time machine to travel back in time...never the future, always the past).

The novel follows Amanda Rosenbloom, owner of the eponymous Astor Place Vintage shop. She discovers a journal, over 100 years old, sewn into a fur muff and becomes drawn into the story of the woman who penned it, Olive Westcott. Olive had dreams of becoming a department store buyer despite the limitations placed on women of her time. I'm hoping there will be some magical realism, which is another of my favorite genres because...don't we all need a little magic in our lives?

What books have you bought but not read this year?

The Reading Life explores moments and experiences—silly, funny, challenging, expanding—that make up life as a reader.

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