TBR: How to Choose a To Be Read Stack + My December List

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If you’re a serious book reader (as I, and many of you are), I’m sure you’ve encountered the classic dilemma of how to choose what to read next, also known in the online book community as deciding on the ‘TBR:’ To Be Read List. 

On the one hand, there’s the allure of the fun, easy read. The one that will pull you in right away, keep you turning the pages at a rapid pace and allow you to breeze through it in a few days. This category often encompasses crime, mystery, young Adult and those various romance novels. 

On the other hand, we have the ‘literary’ books. These are the ones considered the greatest novels of all time, works of arts that force us into deep contemplation and make us ask the big questions: what is the meaning of life, what are the strongest forces surrounding us, who are we, etc. They’re heavy, often lengthy and to be completely honest, quite gruelling at times. Are they fun? Not exactly. However, they do provide us with a strong sense of fulfillment when we’ve plodded our way through and conquered them at long last. 

You can see how we’ve reached the dilemna: how to choose between pure entertainment and accomplishment? It’s a tough one, but I’ve found the key is doing the balancing act. When I’m selecting my upcoming TBR list, I try to choose a couple of books from each category in order to satisfy my lust for fun and my more rational desire to learn. Hence, I have a rule that as soon as I finish a mammoth novel (cc: East of Eden by John Steinbeck, Underworld by Don DeLillo), I immediately pick up something light and easily consumable to remind me of the pure joy reading can bring, knowing I deserve a reward for my hard work.

With this in mind, I present to you my December TBR List. 

Book # 1: Jonathan Safron Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

This book is a bit of a hybrid of both categories, although I’d likely place it in the latter due to its heavy subject matter, nonlinear storytelling and creative use of visual content. The novel follows nine year old Oskar Schell as he embarks on a journey around New York City to find information on a key found in the bedroom of his late father who was killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The novel also examines the lives of his paternal grandparents, survivors of the Dresden bombings in WWII.

I just started and find it a bit disorienting with the various multiple voices, but am excited to see where it goes. Safran Foer has gained a lot of attention in recent years with his innovative storytelling techniques so I’d say he’s a good contemporary author to follow moving forwards. 

 

Book # 2: Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic

This novel 100% falls in the former category of pure entertainment. A prequel to one of her most famous works, Practical Magic,  we are taken on a journey into the world of 20th century witches and wizards living in New England and New York City. The novel follows the lives of three siblings, Franny, Jet and Vincent as they come of age and discover their magical powers with the help of Aunt Isabelle. 

I’ve only read a few pages so far, but already it’s full of those warm, mystical fuzzy vibes you want for the holiday season. 

 

Book # 3: George Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo 

The winner of this year’s prestigious Booker Prize, this falls strongly into the latter category of thought-provoking reads. The novel takes place following the death of Lincoln’s son and much of it is set ‘in the Bardo,’ a space between life and death.

I’ve previously read only one Saunder’s book, a collection of short stories called CivilWarLand in  Bad Decline . Set in a near future dystopia, the stories are full of satire, black humour and contemplation of consumerism and materiality. Saunders has an intensely unique voice, so if his new work is anything like these stories, I’m in for a existential crisis fuelled bumpy ride.

 

Book # 4: Patrick DeWitt’s Ablutions 

This work is also a bit of a hybrid, but since it’s quite short, almost a novella more than a novel, I’m putting it in the fun category. DeWitt’s novel follows a bartender and is shockingly written in the second person. The only novel I’ve read that has used this technique (it puts the reader into the story by using ‘You’ constantly as the main pronoun) is Jay McInerney’s classic Bright Lights, Big City. I’m curious to see how it works out.

DeWitt went on to win Canada’s big literary award, the Governor General’s prize for his novel The Sisters Brothers so I have confidence it’ll be an enjoyable, if fairly experimental read. 

  

You’ll notice I only have four books on my list for December and this leads me to another point: the need to leave space for spontaneity. We all know what it’s like to walk into a book store, pick up a book and immediately want to buy it and start reading. As much as it’s good to plan it out, I wouldn’t want to deny that fun living.  

And so, my hope for me and you this December is we fall in love at first sight with a book, and it immediately goes to the top of our TBR list right into the cherished ‘Currently Reading’ position. 

Talking About: Growing Up and William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience

I've been talking a fair bit in my opening posts about subjectivity, so I thought what better a place to start my examinations of literary works than with William Blake's collection of poems, Songs of Innocence and Experience.

Songs was on the syllabus of a poetry course I took while in my first year of university, and I regret the fact that I didn't appreciate it as much as I should have at the time. Blake is considered to be a poet of the Romantic Age, having lived from 1757 to 1827, and so I think to many of us reading today his poetry has that sort of aged, old fashioned feel to it that we might associate with other writers such as Shakespeare: his rhetoric includes 'thy' and 'thee', he uses an organized rhyme scheme, and there are many allusions to religion and the natural world.

At the time I think I found Blake to be somewhat irrelevant to my own life in the hyper modern world of the twentieth century, which is a shame because looking back, I realize how pertinent Songs are to adolescents reaching the threshold of adulthood, and moving from the magical realm of childhood to the darker, grittier world of maturation. 

Songs of Innocence, for me, beautifully captures the innocent world of childhood, and the sort of hopeful outlook that everything will be alright. Innocence takes the reader through pastoral settings filled with 'the lambs innocent call' and shepherds, across 'Echoing Greens' where 'Old John with white hair/ Does laugh away care'. The charming, bright and sunny natural world Blake presents can be seen as representing the dreamy interiority of youth, where life seems rather glowing and promising.

There's a sense that, even when conditions are not so idyllic, the presence of God will always lead one towards the light of goodness and salvation. In 'The Little Black Boy', a poem where poet and critic Stanley Kunitz argues that Blake is critical of both the slave trade and the harsh factory conditions of the Industrial Revolution, the little boy who is 'black as if bereav'd of light' learns from his mother that 'on the rising sun: there God does live/ And gives his light, and gives his heat away.' While they may be on earth, 'these black bodies and this sun-burnt face/ Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.' Eventually, when their 'souls have learn'd the heat to bear/ The cloud will vanish and we shall hear his voice,.'

This theme, that through God one will overcome one's circumstances, persists through 'The Chimney Sweeper' and the poems 'The Little Boy Lost' and 'The Little Boy Found'. Although the poems become increasingly darker, even in the final poem 'On Anothers Sorrow', Blake insists that 'Think not, thou canst sigh a sigh,/ And thy maker is not by.' Rather, 'he gives to us his joy,/ That our grief he may destroy'.

There's no evidence that when Blake first wrote Songs of Innocence in 1789 he had any intention of later writing Songs of Experience. However, as Geoffrey Keynes finely explains in his Introduction to the Oxford University Press edition of Songs of Innocence and Experience:

'The Innocence poems were the product of a mind in a state of innocence, and of an imagination unspoiled by stains of worldliness. Public events and private emotions soon converted Innocence into Experience, producing Blake's preoccupation with the problem of Good and Evil. This, with his feelings of indignation and pity for the sufferings of mankind as he saw them in the streets of London, resulted in his composing the second set.'

The title page of Songs of Experience is dated 1794 and it is believed that they were always combined with Songs of Innocence, in a single volume, from their initial inception. As a result, Blake forces the reader to look at each section as part of a dichotomy, and to read the poems against one another, rather than as separate entities. As Kunitz suggests, 'One poem does counterpoint another to highlight the contraries of innocence and experience, good and evil, to represent all the contradictions of one's life.' 

It's clear from the opening poems that Blake is presenting a much darker and sinister world than that which we encountered in Innocence. Rather than having a vision of a child who urges the poet to 'Pipe a song about a Lamb', as happens in the 'Introduction' to Innocence, here in the 'Introduction' we have the poet 'Calling the lapsed Soul/ And weeping in the evening dew'.

We are now in 'a land of poverty' where, for poor children, 'their sun never does shine./ And their fields are bleak & bare' and it is 'eternal winter'. In 'The Chimney Sweeper,' a poem that exists as a direct antithesis to the earlier version appearing in Innocence, Blake questions his earlier belief that God and religion can truly offer salvation, stating, in the voice of a child, that while his parents may 'think they have done me no injury: And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King', in reality these figures simply 'make up a heaven of our misery'.

As Kunitz describes, the songs here 'begin to concentrate on the evils of the world, the hardening of the soul, the afflictions of life.' They are filled with images of tears, graves, darkness, incompetent parents that fail to care for their children, and these now untrustworthy religious institutions. Perhaps this is shown most poignantly in 'A Little Boy Lost' where a little boy is murdered after speaking egotistically to a Priest. There's no longer a belief that if one believes, they will reach salvation. Rather, the Church may be as corrupt as everything else.

As I stated above, I think it's too bad that I didn't appreciate these poems more as an eighteen year old because I think if I had. they might have been helpful in the following years as the cynicism of my twenties kicked in, and inevitably my own sunny outlook of the world became tainted with the brutal realities of what adulthood was really like. The journey that Blake takes us on here is, I think, rather typical of what all of us go through as we mature, and the fantastical dreams of our childhood fail to come to fruition in the ways we previously imagined.

It's for this reason that I associate this collection of Blake so much with subjectivity, because what I think Blake does beautifully is prove the fact that really, there is no objective reality that any of us can access. For even within one individual, there's no hard, definitive 'I' that consistently gazes at the world in the same way. Rather, even within all of us, there are competing forces at work that push and pull our views in different directions. This can be no more evident than in the volume of Songs of Innocence and Experience that takes us on the journey from innocence to experience, and, along the way, questions its own earlier conclusions.