A selection of brilliant books

Mountain sunset

It may be because I spend too much time musing in front of my bookshelves rather than actually reading my books but I really enjoy rearranging my bookshelves (to a moderate extent of course). My library (that is, the part of my living room where my bookcases live) is not large enough for the books to actually need to be sorted in alphabetical order and as I’m the primary user I instead try sort them in ways that makes sense to me. Mostly that means that I place books that I feel somehow belong together adjacent to each other in the bookshelves but there are often multiple interesting ways to that. My  books by Lewis Carroll for example give a different impression next to my books about the history of mathematics than they would have if I had placed them among my children’s books. That also means that every time I reorganize my bookshelves I get to see some of my books in a new light.

Moving is of course the major reason for re-sorting a library. After one move I placed all my “books I find brilliant by woman authors” in age order on the same shelf and could suddenly see a line of great authors stretching back to Sei Shōnagon. Rather than individual authors they became part of a great history.

As in any categorizing effort I of course ended up with multiple difficult decisions. What if I loved one book by an author (A Room of Ones Own) but struggled with another (Mrs Dalloway) should I place one of them on the brilliant books shelf and the other in the general fiction section or prioritize keeping them together (and if so, where)? Should I include children’s books? What with books that could be placed on this shelf but also really should be placed in one of my other categories? To solve these issues I allowed myself to make some rather arbitrary decisions. Woolf and Sayers got one work each on my canon bookshelf with their other works shelved in other places whereas I kept all my Tove Jansson’s adult fiction together for now. I excluded children’s books not to overcrowd the shelf although that sadly excludes Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren which is otherwise a key work in my personal book canon. The final result may not be my ultimate personal book canon but it is close enough for now.

These are the books that currently live on my brilliant books bookshelf:

  • The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon
  • The collected works by Jane Austen
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  • Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
  • Selected poems by Emily Dickinson
  • Gösta Berlings’s saga by Selma Lagerlöf
  • A Room of Ones Own by Virginia Woolf
  • Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers
  • The Summer Book and various short stories collections by Tove Jansson
  • Mörkret som ger glädjen djup and Love Story of the Century by Märta Tikkanen
  • The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • The Bloody Chamber and other stories by Angela Carter
  • Kastanjeallén by Dea Trier Mørch

I find it very satisfying that whenever the world tries to tell me about a literary canon filled by male authors with only the rare woman scattered in it I can look in my own bookshelf and see an unbroken line of brilliant female authors and know that there is more than one truth.

This blog post was inspired by a discussion on Calmgrove’s blog about various ways to link different books. I was also inspired by this article about the art of unpacking a library from The Paris Review.

29 thoughts on “A selection of brilliant books

  1. I love the idea of a brilliant-books shelf or shelves! I have a couple like that, though not in name. I have a shelf with only Ursula Le Guin and Diana Wynne Jones, another with mostly Joan Aiken; also like you, all Austen’s books (with a handful of related non-fiction) and a selection of Brontë books all side by side. But mostly, though I tend to group related fiction and non-fiction titles together, the height of my built shelves (as came with the house) determine where things get placed.

    Thanks for the mention! And nice to see some authors I’ve read and a few others I hope to all listed above.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Bookshelf height is certainly a consideration but the Billy bookcases I use are at least easily adjustable.

      I must admit that I have yet to read anything by Joan Aiken, I’ll add her to my list. Unfortunately I see that the local library has lost their only copy.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Finding a system I like isn’t too bad, finding one that won’t collapse when faced with a steady stream of new books on the other hand… I fear that if my book collection expand too much more I may have to use a more obvious system.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. My own shelving system tends to topics, usually whatever I’m researching or teaching. And then there are the unshelved books. What poor tomes do I consign to piles on the attic floor? I’ve actually been rotating them so nothing is completely absent from my eyes for more than half a year.
    And speaking of women authors, by coincidence I just happened to post a review of two books by such. Maybe one of them could join your shelf!


    1. Rotating the unshelved books sounds like a very fair system, making sure none of them are completely forgotten.

      Is any of the books you reviewed something you would place on a “shelf for brilliant books” if you had one? I can’t tell from your comment if you are recommending them because you found them to be brilliant or because they were written by women.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My apologies for the ambiguity, but it’s due to my views on literary tastes. I had mentioned them because they were written by women, as are the books on your brilliant shelf. But I don’t know your reading tastes well enough to say whether you’d find either book brilliant.

        Perhaps offering the review was an ill-judged move if I can’t give a recommendation of brilliance. You are welcome to edit out that part of my original comment and the related material in your and my replies if you feel that appropriate.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. No problem, I certainly didn’t expect you to know whether or not I would like them but if you recommended them because you personally found them to be brilliant I would be more interested. I don’t really have any problem in finding books written by women but I’m always looking for brilliant books and the fact that someone found something to be brilliant is always interesting as a possible predictor.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post. I’d never heard of Lagerlöf until I read an essay by Mencken the other day in which he praises female novelists’ particular fitness for realism. Lagerlöf was one he singled out. I’m intrigued but must admit the term ‘saga’ intimidates me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Saga” is used more broadly in Swedish, here it could equally well be translated into story or tale so I wouldn’t let that scare you. However, for realism I believe some of her later works are more relevant.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A brilliant “brilliant” list, ireadthatinabook!

    To comment on just a few of the authors and works you included, I think Anne Bronte is very underrated (not that much lesser a writer than her iconic sisters), “Gaudy Night” is a really interesting mystery with a women’s-university setting, and there are few current novelists better than Margaret Atwood.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I obviously agree or they wouldn’t have ended up on my “brilliant shelf”. I love Sayers as a mystery writer but for me the real draw of Gaudy Night is the discussion on a whether or not a truly equal marriage is possible and what it would take. Looking at the earlier books on my shelf neither Fanny Price nor Jane Eyre might expect what we would call an equal marriage today but they stay true to themselves and defend their right to choose what they know to be right for them. One of the more modern authors on my list, Märta Tikkanen struggles with the same questions in her description of a marriage where love and romance is offered but not true partnership. All these of course describe romantic relationships but I would argue that the discussion is wider, how can we be true to ourselves and partners to each other? Placing them on the same shelf allows me to follow such recurring themes through time.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Ah, the interesting dynamic between mystery writer Harriet Vane and amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey! And, yes, the books on your list often wrestle with gender relations and how equal a woman and man can be in a marriage — whether in the 19th century or more recently. Your reply was like a great mini-essay!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I love rearranging my shelves! I try to put similar genres together but actually it’s more about the feeling I got when reading them. Dark or fluffy or incredible unique etc (even though that last one isn’t a feeling …) tbh my shelves are probably just as chaotic as I am 😉
    But I will check out some of the books from your brilliant shelf!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I recently arranged my shelves entirely by alphabetical order, completely ignoring genre, and I really hate it, hah. I need to get back in there and re-sort them in a way that makes sense to me.

    Love the brilliant female author shelf idea.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I appreciate it when other’s bookshelves are in alphabetic order, at least if they have many books and I’m looking for a particular one. However, I would find it very depressing in my own library, I hope it won’t grow large enough for it to be necessary.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This was so much fun! I haven’t really thought about having a ‘brilliant books bookshelf’, but I suppose the books that are the dearest to me are all in one place together and they are mostly Virginia Woolf’s diaries (her novels and essays too, but the diaries are dearest) and Leonard Woolf’s autobiography. They are such cherished books.
    I haven’t read Gaudy Night but will do as I too find marriages very interesting. I agree with you about Jane Eyre, and it just so happens that I think the Woolf’s had an incredibly supportive (if unconventional) marriage.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve only just started exploring Virginia Woolf’s texts. So far I have found them to be either brilliant or “I’m sure this is good but I lost focus and now I don’t know what I’m reading anymore”-texts. So I keep reading for all the brilliant parts but it goes slowly as I’m a bit scared of the other parts…

      If you enjoy classical crime novels I would recommend starting with “Strong poison” followed by “Have his carcase” before reading Gaudy Night. The first two are rather standard crime novels, although Sayers is always good, but they let you follow the relationship from the beginning. However, if you wouldn’t read them otherwise you can ignore them and go directly for Gaudy Night, that’s what I accidentally did the first time.


  8. Good tip, although I might start with Gaudy Night and then go backwards and fill in the gaps! I wonder which VW titles you’ve read? Her fiction is quite diverse – experimental, conventional and funny are the 3 groups I would use!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A Room of One’s Own (which I loved enough to place it on the Brilliant Books shelf), To the Lighthouse (which I also really liked) a few very good short stories, and then Orlando and Mrs Dalloway which never really drew me in. Any suggestions on which one I should try next?


  9. My favourite is Jacob’s Room, which I think is one of the most poignant 1st World War books written, but if you liked To the Lighthouse you might like the Waves. It’s all about the rhythm. I admire her for just trying to find new ways of writing, whether they’re successful or not is a different matter!

    Liked by 1 person

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