The latter tendency is more dangerous, in fact, with regards to books because whereas acquisition in other areas is restrained due to my wariness about indulging overly in consumer capitalism, my compunctions about the environment, and, most obviously, budgetary constraints, buying books gets a sort of moral Wild Card. Hey, I'm supporting writers, no? How can that be a bad thing? These days of online shopping, particularly, a review of a book in the weekend paper can mean an instant download to my Kobo. If I see a book mentioned on a blog somewhere, I Pin it to my Want to Read board and before long I'm placing an order at Chapters/Indigo (our Canadian alternative to Amazon),
Often, I must admit, I've ordered books knowing I was unlikely to have time to read them, but storing them away against the day when I would. No question it would have been wiser simply to keep a list and buy only as I had time to read, revising the list as interests shifted, abandoning those titles that no longer tugged at me so urgently. Instead, I accumulated piles of books, some of which I started, got partway into, left on the hassock in front of my reading chair or on the dresser next to my bed or on my desk beside the computer or . . . well, you get the idea.
And in the last few weeks, as Retirement becomes increasingly manifest, as I finish the last tasks associated with work and begin bringing some order to the transition from campus to home office, from a rigorous schedule to a more creatively structured one, I'm trying to organize my reading to allow for a judicious clearing up of all the unread texts while still allowing room for some of the indulgence I crave as a reward (and a reassurance, yes!) for stepping off the Career Path.
You will have noticed that my reading has skewed toward the mystery genre lately, but I'm not sure I've conveyed the guilt-wrestling that precedes each dip into the murky lives of these criminal characters and those who pursue them. I'm not sure I'd be capable of a steady diet of crime novels, no matter how well written, but I try to stave off the possibility by balancing such reading with literary titles, with mysteries at least written in French (yes, I'm aware of the circuitous justification going on here!), and with non-fiction.
Right now, my guilt has been directing me to finish some of those books in some of those piles, and I've been working through the ones that have bookmarks already marking my progress through them. Some of these, honestly, failed to engage me much, so the reading feels an obligation rather than a delight. Others are quite wonderful, but they deserve an attention I haven't been ready to give or they simply want to be savoured, and I've been deliberately stretching them out.
Fitting into the former category (as I finally come 'round to working a book title into this post!) is David Downie's Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James. Despite having a number of still-unfinished books on travel and life in, or history and culture of, France, I ordered this as soon as I read about it somewhere online. Not only did this concern travel and/in Paris, but it apparently recounted weeks spent walking a French portion of the Camino de Santiago, something I hope we'll tackle someday. Because of my interest in the topic and because I'd read and enjoyed Downie's essay on the Luxembourg Gardens in his Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light, I began Paris to the Pyrenees as soon as it showed up in my mailbox. I should have remembered that although I'd enjoyed that earlier essay -- even quoted from it way back in this post -- I'd actually not finished that earlier book.
And, indeed, although I was keen enough on following Downie and his wife from Notre Dame Cathedral straight out of Paris along Rue St. Jacques, approving their decision to do a bit of cheating at the outset and begin instead by taking the train to begin in Vézelay, I wasn't too far down the road with them when I began growing restless, even irritated. Instead of being eager to sit down with a chapter or two when I got a few minutes free, I found myself beginning and finishing books from other piles. I crept so slowly through Downie's tale of skeptical pilgrimage that when I picked it up after a long stint away, I'd forgotten much of what I'd read and often had to reread preceding paragraphs to convince myself that the bookmark was in the right place. Not so surprising that I'd shift mystery novels higher in the pile, but I actually began and finished all 500+ pages of Alistair Horne's Seven Ages of Paris while not reading Downie's memoir (and yes, Horne's was another book I'd bought a few years ago and not got 'round to -- Sue reminded me of it several months ago, mentioning in a comment somewhere that she'd just finished it).
Not that the journey Downie traces isn't an interesting enough one. It is, and there is potential in the "device" he uses, enlivening details about the route itself with somewhat amusing sketches of his marital interactions and conversations. After a few chapters, though, the device seemed laboured to me, and I grew very weary of Downie's sardonic tone. The insistence on the couple's repeated awareness, in almost every place they paused, to the previous travels of Caesar and Vercingetorix, is initially entertaining, but again, the trope becomes laboured. So does Downie's condescending attitude to the French "passéisme" -- obsession with the past -- and the distance he purports to hold from the other pilgrams and, somehow, from spirituality in general, while he nonetheless seems disappointed at the flatness he feels.
Certainly, he delivers a wealth of historical and geographical information, and perhaps I'm being nostalgic or idealistic or simply naive in craving a more engaged and engaging account of the French culture Downie and his wife meet along the way. Perhaps I've just come to the book at the wrong time, and if I'd stumbled across it without the feeling I had to read it, I might have enjoyed it more. Perhaps it simply suffers in comparison to another book about walking pilgrimages that I've been dragging out for many, many months, but savouring every word, every image, every meditation: Robert MacFarlane's The Old Ways. But that's the topic of another post, coming soon, as I've just shifted that book to the "finished" pile . . .
Meanwhile, I'll stick to French/Paris memoirs and mention one more title I recently finished, Jeremy Mercer's Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. This was much easier to romp through quickly, with its colourful evocation of the idealistic chaos at George Whitman's famous left-bank English bookstore. Mercer's well-honed journalistic skills are deftly deployed here, and he sketches an engaging picture of the eccentric characters who staff and live at the store. Readers can't help but be entertained by the ongoing parade of mainly young, hopeful writers who took advantage of Whitman's communist principles to take "room and board" at the store in exchange for some bookstore work and a commitment to read a book a day. Mercer also takes us outside into the surrounding Paris of the early years of this century to wander through its streets and parks, sit in its pubs, cadge meals in its brasseries and cafés, and picnic by the Seine at nightfall.
He also traces the bookstore's history, beginning with its earlier, iconic incarnation at a nearby location under the ownership of Sylvia Beach. He outlines its history as Whitman catches the baton, drawing on many hours of conversation with the then 86-year-old during Mercer's extended sojourn in the shop. In gratitude for Whitman's hospitality, Mercer combs the shop's archives hoping to find a solution to the financial threats hanging over the business, particularly in the context of Whitman's age. The glimpses he offers readers of these archives are tantalizing indeed, not only those letters and other documents that trace Whitman's move from the U.S. to France, but also the many that record Shakespeare & Company's significance in the lives of so many renowned writers throughout the years.
Time Was Soft There works well not only for its sketch of the bookstore, but as a memoir. Mercer's honesty and self-reflexivity engage the reader, and his narrative frame offers a compelling enough hook: he's quit his job, given up his apartment, and left friends and family in urban Canada after being convincingly threatened by a career criminal he'd exposed in his writing. Given that, in doing so, he'd betrayed a commitment he'd made to this source, readers will not be surprised to learn later in the narrative that Mercer betrays some immaturity at a number of points throughout. He's unflinchingly honest about this immaturity and gradually discloses a pattern of foolish choices from adolescence onward; his honesty and willingness to take responsibility for his actions redeems the callowness somewhat for me. I'd recommend his memoir if only for a glimpse inside that fascinating shop at that particular transitional time.
This post has turned into something much longer than I'd intended, and before it becomes yet another self-imposed obligation that I'm struggling to finish, let me end it here. Have you read either of these travel memoirs? Do you enjoy the genre? And if so, have you read any great memoirs lately (and they don't need to be about France) that you'd care to recommend? And a few last questions about reading in general: do you struggle sometimes with a sense of obligation to finish books you've lost interest in? or have you given yourself permission to let them go? do you try to impose some rigour on your reading or to prefer to be driven simply by pleasure? No wrong answers, of course, I'm just curious about our reading habits.