My favorites at over at BookTube continue to do their book-challenges and their book-unboxings and their book-hauls, so I thought I’d post my own first book-haul of June 2014! Not my first book-haul of the month just across the board, mind you; in my unofficial capacity as postal-gopher for Open Letters Monthly, I’m in the Christmas-every-day position of getting hauls of new and forthcoming books all the time – 51 so far in June. But although I do my best to read all of those incoming OLM books, there’s a slightly different feel to them than there is to the quite separate stacks of book-hauls that I hunt down and assemble for myself from Boston’s various used-book venues. Some fairly impersonal metrics of utility or buzz govern the selection-process of many of those new and forthcoming OLM books, after all, but the used books? The used books are just for my own enjoyment.
It’s for this reason that these Stevereads book-hauls have no new books in them, even though new and forthcoming books form roughly 80 percent of what I read. Instead, these deal with the remaining 20 percent (which might sound like a small percentage, but keep in mind that numerically speaking, it’s still more books than most people read over the course of two or three years) – but it’s a 20 percent near and dear to my heart! I love it when some new OLM book fills me with eagerness to sit down and read it (Joshua Howitz’s War of the Whales, for instance, or Samuel Hynes’s The Unsubstantial Air), but all my 20 percent “personal” books fill me with that same eagerness, even if – as is often the case – it’s an eagerness to re-read something.
So here’s my first June book-haul, with a little accompanying palaver about each! Just like they do it over at BookTube, only a) without the hair product, b) with no nagging requests to “like” and “subscribe,” and c) no books written for children!
At the top of the pile is something you’d surely think would be a screaming redundancy in my personal library, and you’d be right: it’s The Lord of the Rings, of which I have about six different editions (two sets of mass market paperbacks, one set of trade paperbacks with movie-still covers from the Peter Jackson movies, one UK-paperback trilogy, and a couple of one-volume collections). But this particular Lord of the Rings is different, and it’s a difference that made me gasp a little when I saw it at my beloved Brattle Bookshop (which accepts phoned-in gift certificates from all and sundry, hint-hint): this white-spined 1970 boxed set edition is the very first Tolkien I ever owned. It was through this edition that I was introduced to this author – and these three books – that would go on to bring me so much pleasure. Opening them again now, after 45 years (by the smell of it, this set lived a long, neglected life in somebody’s basement for most of that time), I had vivid reminders of the surprise and dawning happiness I had when I first read the trilogy – and I encountered again Peter Beagle’s one-page Introductory note with its great final paragraph:
I said once that the world he charts was there long before him, and I still believe it. He is a great enough magician to tap our most common nightmares, daydreams and twilight fancies, but he never invented them either: he found them a place to live, a green alternative to each day’s madness here in a poisoned world. We are raised to honor all the wrong explorers and discoverers – thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses. Let us at last praise the colonizers of dreams.
Next is Benson Bobrick’s 2001 book Wide as the Waters, his history of the fascinating events and personalities behind the creation of the King James Bible. It’s well-trod ground – Adam Nicolson and Alister McGrath both did books on the exact same subject, pitched for the exact same kind of audience – but I’ve never read Bobrick’s, even though his 1997 book Angel in the Whirlwind is a very, very good account of the American Revolution (and even though I read, enjoyed, and reviewed his colorful The Caliph’s Splendor), so this particular entrant in our list today falls under the ‘new to me’ heading that’s always exciting, since nature abhors lacunae.
Up next is a wee little Dover paperback you can hardly see: an 85-page reprint of the elegant, idiosyncratic translation of “Tristan and Iseult” that the great Hilaire Belloc first did in the early years of the 20th century and then fiddled with for a decade. This Dover edition is a pretty thing, green and slim and with a cover featuring a detail from the famous painting of the unhappy young lovers by J. W. Waterhouse (as is so often the case with me, I immediately found myself wishing it weren’t a detail – the full painting is RIFE with telling details, and there’s something unexpectedly adorable about super-hottie Tristan’s metal booties) – it was an impulse buy, since it’s nicer than any other edition of this tale I have.
A big thing is next: Elizabeth George’s hugely satisfying 2012 novel Believing the Lie, which struck me at the time as a marked departure for her, even though on the surface it’s yet another detective/police procedural novel starring Inspector Lynley (i.e. the Earl of Asherton). Back when it was new in hardcover, I dug into it with my customary eagerness for this writer’s books, and right away I started noticing differences, some minor and some major; this is a bigger novel in its feel and confidence, rich enough and textured enough so that for the first time I felt a little annoyed at the publisher’s label of “An Inspector Lynley Novel” – to me, for the first time, this felt instead like a novel that just happened to number Inspector Lynley as one of its characters, less beholden to formula than any previous Elizabeth George novel I’d read. I noticed that this same trend continued – if anything, deepened – in last year’s big novel Just One Evil Act. Of course I have no idea what happened to the hardcover of Believing the Lie I originally owned, so it was nice to find this paperback – I strongly recommend it, especially if you like your murder mysteries dense and atmospheric.
“Dense and atmospheric” also very much applies to the next book, A. C. Grayling’s controversial Among the Dead Cities, a study of the history and the morality of the concentrated “area bombings” on civilian targets carried out by the Allies during the Second World War. The book came out in 2006, and I consumed it eagerly and found it both invigorating and disturbing (had Open Letters existed then, I would certainly have reviewed it), just as its mild-mannered author had no doubt intended. In dealing with all aspects of the Allied bombing campaigns, Grayling’s logic is both window-clear and inexorable:
But there are other questions about Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They fall into a category made special not just by their character but by their timing. The bombing of Hamburg in Operation Gomorrah took place at the height of the war, when the outcome of the struggle was not yet certain, even though the Allied powers knew they had industrial and manpower advantages that so far outstripped those of the Axis states that the balance of likelihood already lay well on their side. These other, later bombings occurred when almost everyone involved could see that the war’s end was approaching. One can seriously ask for their justification even if one is already persuaded that such area attacks as Operation Gomorrah, conducted at the height of the war, were necessary or at least warranted by the circumstances at the time.
My original hardcover copy of Among the Dead Cities vanished just as mysteriously as, apparently, my original copies of every other book I’ve ever owned, so I was pleased to find this one to re-read and put on my burgeoning WWII shelves.
Up next is a big book I just plain missed when it came out in 2008: Lawrence Freedman’s A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East, in which Friedman – a genial, intelligent writer whose book Kennedy’s Wars was an entirely credible entry into a field crowded with crap – examines the long and troubled United States involvement with Iraq and Iran, starting with the administration of President Carter and extending down to the dolorous present-day. I missed reading this when it came out, I missed reviewing it for Open Letters or anybody else, and I somehow managed never to come across it in any of a thousand used bookstore trips in the last six years. But I just recently found a copy, so it, like the Bobrick, goes to the top of the pile (although I shouldn’t kid myself: if you were to spy on me tonight at 2 a.m., you’d likely find me breathlessly absorbed in The Two Towers).
Last from this haul is a big, lavishly illustrated edition of Gavin De Beer’s 1967 study of the Second Punic War called Hannibal: Challenging Rome’s Supremacy, one of the best books I’ve read on one of the most perennially interesting subjects human history has to offer. De Beer has pronounced opinions on every aspect of Hannibal’s war with Rome, from the exact composition of his armies to the exact route he took to cross the Alps, and all of it is livened up considerably by an open admiration of the book’s central character in all his apparent contradictions. De Beer smartly acknowledges that those contradictions matter little in the face of posterity’s verdict:
Little has changed, and yet, down the corridors of time, something has changed. The Greeks beat the Trojans, but now, after three thousand years, it is a greater compliment to be called a Trojan. Scipio beat Hannibal, but now, after two thousand years, it is Hannibal who has vanquished his victor, for he commands a fame and a sympathy which are not extended to Scipio. The same can be said of Arthur and the Anglo-Saxons, Harold and William the Conqueror, Napoleon and Wellington. Admiration is like belief; as Shelley so eloquently showed, it is not a matter of volition, but of temperament, and therefore of taste.
It’s been at least thirty years since I last read De Beer’s book or even saw a copy, so finding it the other day struck something of the same chord as finding that old box set of The Lord of the Rings: joy mixed with strong nostalgia. Now if I can just manage to hold onto them this time …