Personal book canon – a self portrait in books

Glacier

The classics club asks for our personal book canons, which is a topic I love to discuss. I have previously written a bit about my personal book canon and about some of the books that are especially important to me. This time I want to focus not on the best books I have read, but on the ones that I feel have had the greatest influence on me.

These are the books I believe shaped me

Childhood

Growing up in Sweden it is very hard not to be heavily influenced by Astrid Lindgren. If you haven’t read the books yourself, chances are that someone read them for you, or you watched the TV-series or went to Astrid Lindgrens värld, the nice family park dedicated to her characters. In my case it was all of the above. Somewhat later I discovered the Narnia books, which I read and reread until I almost knew them by heart.

  • Findus and the fox (Rävjakten), picture book by Sven Nordqvist.
  • Who will comfort Toffle? (Vem ska trösta knyttet?) picture book by Tove Jansson.
  • All of Astrid Lindgren’s more famous works but especially Brothers Lionheart and Ronia the Robber’s Daughter.
  • Island of the blue dolphins by Scott O’Dell, the first chapter book I read on my own.
  • The Moomin series by Tove Jansson.
  • The chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.
  • Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
  • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
  • Momo by Michael Ende

Teenager

I read lots of Fantasy as a teenager, but little of it has stayed with me. The Harry Potter books came when I was already a teenager, so they had less influence on me than they might have had, but I still remember them fondly.

What did stay with me though was Simon Singh’s Fermat’s Last Theorem, which I was a bit obsessed with. I also read all the Arctic and Antarctic literature in the local library, which certainly influenced me.

  • Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
  • Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh
  • Shackleton’s incredible voyage by Alfred Lansing
  • Antarktisboken describing the Norwegian–British–Swedish Antarctic Expedition 1949–1952, main author John Giæver
  • Mot 90 grader syd by Monica Kristensen
  • Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman
  • 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
  • City of My Dreams by Per Anders Fogelström
  • Kastanjeallén by Dea Trier Mørch
  • Gaudy night by Dorothy Sayers

Student

As a student my hobby reading was mostly crime fiction, much of it enjoyable but little of it memorable. I did however learn more about glaciers, sang a lot of Bellman songs, and discovered both The Summer Book and Jane Austen. Oh, and I wrote a thesis, I guess that technically counts as a book too.

More recent additions

With more recent reads it is more difficult to identify the ones that made a lasting impact and it was very tempting to just list excellent books I have recently read. However, I have tried to stick to books which I believe have influenced me more than others.

Organizing my library

Bookshelf

Short summary: On how I spent a day rearranging my library in a new, less practical, way.

I do rearrange my bookshelves once in a while, mostly for practical reasons, but I never thought videoconferencing would be what prompted me. However, recently it started to bother me that the only shelves that were visible during conference calls were the ones with my unread books. In the unlikely case that someone asks me about one of them I would prefer it to be about a book I have read. Fortunately I found that my nature related books used approximately the same amount of space as my To Be Read -shelves, so I could have just let them change place. However, I had a bit too much time on my hands, and as I have written about before I enjoy combining my books in new ways, so I went for a less straightforward option.

In a large library a logical organization by e.g. genre and/our author name is of course necessary, but mine is not yet of a size where finding things is a problem, and thus I have more options. In this case I decided that rather than keeping my nature and science non-fiction together, as any sensible library owner would, I would mix them with memoirs, essays and even fiction of tangential relevance, hopefully finding new and unexpected links between them. I thus placed my ornithology field guides together with Bannerhed’s novel Korparna (the Ravens) and Durrell’s memoir Birds, beasts and relatives, all featuring birds in prominent roles, and placed my nature centred poetry among my Floras. Objectively the result is less practical than it was before, but it does make me happy to see weird collections like this one on my shelf:

  • The hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy by Douglas Adams (fiction)
  • A fieldguide to getting lost by Rebecca Solnit (essay collection/memoir)
  • The gentle art of tramping by Stephen Graham (a guide to “tramping” from 1926)
  • Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski (travelogue/memoir) and
  • Trekking in Greenland (actual guidebook)
  • Strövtåg by Sven Rosendahl (“Ramblings”, nature essays)

I find these titles much more intriguing when placed together like this than any of them would be if placed alone or with more expected company.

I do have a sneaking suspicion that my urge to rearrange, and indeed this whole blog post, is a sure sign of me having spend a bit too much time at home lately, but at least I have a good excuse…

How do the rest of you organize your books? Anyone else favouring weird systems that are impenetrable to anyone but yourself?

Status report

Spring morning

Spring has hopefully finally decided to stick-around, the birch leaves are out and my walk paths are getting lovelier each day. Overall things are fine around here, which makes me feel a little bit guilty and very very grateful. Apart from having to switch to online teaching things have changed surprisingly little. I have lived far from my family ever since I moved abroad and with everyone coming online I almost have closer contact with them than I am used to.

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What has changed is the amount of reading I have done, 41 books in the first four months, way above my average. Most of it has been comfort reads though, a clear sign of troubled times. In the last few months I have focused on crime classics, Moomin novels, and Science fiction (mostly Martha Wells’ murderbot series). Adding only Fredman’s epistles to my Classics club reading challenge and staying mostly in Europe and North America.

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Reading highlights

Closing the books – 2019 edition

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The geographical distribution (author’s country of birth) of my 2019 reading. (Guide on how to make this type of maps).

A year has ended which means that I once again get to use all the data that I have collected in my trusted reading spreadsheet during the year.

All in all it has been a good reading year, in total I finished 123 books in 2019 (118 in 2018 and 99 in 2017), 51 by a woman, 52 by a man and 20 by multiple authors.

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Decade of first publication for the books I read during 2019.

As in the previous years books by authors from UK (46), US (33) and Sweden (11) dominated my reading, but I managed to read books written by authors from 22 countries (27 in 2018 and 21 in 2017). Although the numbers are down a bit from 2018 I am still happy with them as they indicate that even without the reading challenge I participated in in 2017 and 2018, I still keep reading fairly widely. Among books not originally written in English or Swedish, my favourites this year was The Good Shepherd by Gunnar Gunnarsson (Iceland), Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag (India) and The three-body problem by Cixin Liu (China).

Some other 2019 reading highlights have included:

2019 was also the year I rediscovered how much fun Science Fiction novels can be and I made heavy use of Baen’s free library to try new authors (their free anthologies are especially great for that).

I also got my first proper ex libris, which made me really consider what my physical books actually mean to me. 60 of the books that are most important to me now carry a bookplate and I plan to add ca 1 book per month to that number from here on.

Book blogging has also remained important to me, although I have been somewhat less active than in 2018. It is my primary place for bookish discussions so I am very happy for all of you who keep visiting and commenting, thank you!

Most visited blog posts in 2019

I wish you all a happy new reading year!

 

Memories around books

text

I come from a family where reading is valued and books abundant, something which has undoubtedly shaped my taste (and given me an academic advantage). Books matter to me, not just as vessels for text, but as objects. The first thing I do when I spend more than one night in a new place is to place all the books I brought or bought somewhere where I can see them. In my eyes a shelf of books will always make a home more inviting, something I believe most book-lovers would agree on (and most real estate agents would question). Books may not be all I need to make a place a home but they are a good start.

After spending a few days handling my books as I selected which ones to place an ex libris in and carefully glued it on, I have started to think deeper about books as objects. Vessel of information/entertainment, object of beauty, identity marker, status symbol, paperweight, memorabilia and link to previous readers, there are so many roles a book can potentially fill. Of course in most cases the text is what is important, in which case the best answer to the eternal paper book vs ebook question is probably whatever is most convenient. However, the last few days have reminded me of just how full of memories some of my books are. Memories of past reads, of the person who gave the book to me or of the time I bought them. For some books those memories are more important to me than the actual texts.

I have really enjoyed spending some time with my books and rediscovering those memories. As of now 34 of my books have gotten bookplates, which feels like a good starting point. I also have a notebook where I write a few notes on each book I label, to remind myself why they are important to me. So those books are properly catalogued, even though none of my other books are.

I have found the whole process to be a good reminder of just why I like to surround myself with physical books, something I didn’t expect when I first decided that I wanted my own bookplates. I guess rearranging my bookshelves might have fulfilled the same purpose of spending time with my books, but this was more fun.

What about you, which roles do your books fill?

 

Ex Libris

Book pile

When I first started out planning which books I would use my ex libris for, I assumed that it would more or less be a list of my favourite books. However, when I actually started to consider which of my books I really wanted my ex libris in, it became more complicated. Instead of asking myself if a particular text was a favourite of mine, I found myself thinking more about the physical book and whether or not I would want to hang on to that particular edition forever. Some of my favourite books are almost falling apart and will eventually have to be replaced so those hardly make sense to label. Others I have in more than one edition and deciding which edition to label is not trivial. Take the Narnia books for example, should I place my ex libris in the Swedish edition which I read again and again as a child but which is now brown or fragile, or in my quality English edition, which I have no personal history with, but which I most likely would choose for a reread?

For now I have deferred any difficult decisions and only placed them in books I plan to keep through good times and bad.

These were the first ten I selected:

Sommarboken (The Summer Book) by Tove Jansson

A favourite book by a favourite author, an easy choice.

Nordisk fjällflora (Field Guide to Nordic Mountain Flowers) by Örjan Nilsson

I’m not much of an amateur botanist but my grandmother was and this field guide is full of her notes on flowers she has seen. As I spend much time in the Swedish mountains I got it as a gift from her. The fact that it already contained her ex libris made it extra special.

Kastanjeallén by Dea Trier Mørch

My mother has selected a small book canon which all her children are getting, and out of those this one is probably my favourite. The way it describes life from a child’s point of view is not unlike Jansson’s The Summer Book.

Bröderna Lejonhjärta (Brothers Lionheart) by Astrid Lindgren

Death, courage and love. This is one of the bravest children’s book I know.

Visor och ballader by Dan Andersson

Poetry by Dan Andersson, one of my favourite poets.

The hunting of the snark by Lewis Carroll

I’m not sure why I love this nonsense poem so much but I do, especially the description of the sea chart without the least vestige of land. My edition has Tove Jansson’s illustrations in it which of course makes it particularly good.

Århundradets kärlekshistoria (Love story of a century) by Märta Tikkanen

Memoir of a dysfunctional marriage in lyrical form, this one is a classic.

Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh

I have read this one so many times that I had to replace my original softcover edition which was falling apart. Admittedly a slightly weird book for a teenage obsession but a perfect antidote to all the math hating protagonists in children’s and YA literature. (Why do authors keep using this trope? No wonder that children conclude that math ability is something you are born with rather than something you learn).

Antarktisboken ( The White Desert: The official account of the Norwegian–British–Swedish Antarctic Expedition) by John Giæver and others

I love the Arctic and the Antarctic but have always been more interested in the science part than in the patriotic flag-planting adventures. This account from a Norwegian-British-Swedish research expedition to Queen Maud Land in 1949-1952 is thus perfect.

How the universe got its spots

Well-written memoir/diary with interesting musings on cosmology. I got it as a gift from a friend at my dissertation which makes it extra special.

 

 

 

Rereadings

bookshelfI love rereading, the comfortable security in revisiting a book I know is good and the excitement of finding new details or perspectives in a favourite book, always mingled with the fear that what once was brilliant might magically have turned unreadable. In Rereadings  17 writers reread books they have read in childhood or youth and write personal essays around them. It is not reviews but rather personal reflections on the role a beloved book have had in their lives and how their relation to it have changed over time. The result are essays full of the love of books and reading and as a book-lover I found it a fascinating read. I especially enjoyed Barbara Sjoholm’s chapter on The Snow Queen and the one by Diana Kappel Smith on A Field Guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and North-Central North America.

The essays, which were originally published in The American Scholar, have been selected by Anne Fadiman who is also author of my favourite book about books, Ex Libris. Recommended!

On a different topic I am happy to find that I finally feel inspired to step outside of my reading comfort zone again, after months of primarily reading British Library Crime Classics and similar. I am currently reading Khirbet Khizah by S. Yizhar (so far I find it well-written, interesting, and deeply disturbing) and have three books in the Penguin European Writers series heading my way.

Spring reading and Ex libris

old oak tree

Spring is well on its way (although we did have an unexpected snowfall yesterday) and it’s once again time to look back on my reading. Overall this has been a rather disappointing spring for reading. I have been tired and overworked, and as a consequence have reverted back to safe and easy reads, such as the British Library Crime Classics. Many of these have been great fun but I miss having the energy and courage to explore new authors and literary traditions.

In total I have read 21 books by authors from seven countries, which sounds quite good but a closer look at the data reveals that all but one, The three-body problem by Cixin Liu, came from the Anglosphere or a Nordic country.

The best read so far has been Durrell’s My family and other animals but I also really liked Napier’s A late beginner, Cixin Liu’s The three-body problem and some of the British Library Crime Classics.

Reading challenges

Reading classics

So far I have read, but not reviewed, one novel from my Classics club reading list, Kallocain by Karin Boye. I have not yet reviewed any books for the Back to the classics reading challenge, although some of the books I have read could count toward the challenge.

Keep reading books by African, Asian and South American authors

Here too I am struggling, although The three-body problem gives me one author from China. Technically I could also count Gerald Durrell for India, as he was born there (I have found country of birth to be a somewhat less confusing way to organize the authors than nationality), but that feels like cheating.

Book buying

I decided not to limit the number of books I bought this year, as long as the total cost was no more than what I spent last year. So far that seems to have worked, I have spent slightly less than I did the first four months last year, finally a challenge I am managing!

Other bookish news: Bookplates

I come from a bookplate using family, both my parents and my grandmother have their own ex libris labels and I have long longed for one of my own. Frequent visits to second-hand book shops have however taught me that this is very far from the norm. Despite the fact that a substantial proportion of my books are bought second-hand, I don’t think I own any with a bookplate not from my own family. I have a suspicion that bookplates may have enjoyed a brief popularity thirty years ago, at the time when my parents got theirs, but have been out of fashion ever since.

Fortunately being out of fashion has never really bothered me, but it has made it hard to find a good-looking high-quality bookplate to use. In the end I found that Slightly Foxed had a small but beautiful selection and choose one of them, and now I am eagerly awaiting their arrival and contemplating which of my books that would benefit from an ex libris. I don’t plan to use it on all my books, just the ones closest to my heart which I expect to keep through any future moves or book culls. Right now I take great pleasure in considering which these books are.

How about you? How’s your spring reading going? Anyone else using bookplates or am I entirely out of fashion there?

 

 

Which British Library Crime Classics should I read during Easter?

HookEaster time is the time to read crime novels in Norway (påskekrim) and as I pretend to be a well-integrated foreigner I will of course join in. I’m really looking forward to it too as I have a major work-deadline right before Easter which is currently eating most of my reading and blogging time.

However, I need some help, I don’t know what to read. I love classic crime so I’m thinking a nice pile of 3-4 British Library Crime Classics or similar would be perfect but I don’t know which ones to choose. Anyone have any favourites to recommend? I like both the classic locked room mysteries and the more adventurous varieties. I would love to have some great cosy reads to look forward to while I work…

The dangerous temptations of literature

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I read The Little House in the Big Forest as a child and, although I have forgotten much of it, one scene in particular has stayed with me. I am of course thinking of the time they made candy out of maple syrup. As a child the thought of making candy in the snow was endlessly fascinating to me and I lamented the lack of sugar maples in Sweden.

However, it is said that it is never to late to have a happy childhood and I finally realized that I didn’t need a sugar maple, just ordinary maple syrup and the fresh new-fallen snow outside. Tonight I have finally fulfilled that particular childhood dream and although I may have eaten a bit too much I have no regrets. Thank you Laura Ingalls Wilder!