They Spill from your Shelves, They Sprawl by your Bed: Worlds from the Word’s End by Joanna Walsh

I’ve been feeling so restless and scattered lately with my reading (and maybe my life?)  Nothing seems to hold my attention for very long.   After I finished Effi Briest, which book I loved, I ordered more Fontane and while I was waiting for those books to arrive in the mail, I started a few others (well, more than a few).  Since it is the centenary of the Russian Revolution in October, I pulled off of my shelves several books of Russian history and literature that I had every intention of reading this month.  I managed to get about 60 pages into Gulag Letters by Arsenii Formakov and 20 pages into China Mievelle’s book October.  I also set aside 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution and Russian Émigré Short Stories, which have yet to make it off of my coffee table.

But I was craving more fiction so I read two short books, The Year of the Drought by Roland Buti which I enjoyed, but didn’t take much time to read, and Annie Ernaux’s A Man’s Place which I thought was interesting but not fantastic.  (I’ve ordered a few more of her books to see if any other of her titles resonate more with me than this first one I read.)  After staring at the three stacks of books sitting on my coffee table, wandering into the book room and staring at my shelves, flipping through the books on my bedside table, and consulting literary Twitter, I thought Joanna Walsh’s new collection of short fiction might be just the thing for me.  And I was right, sort of…

Walsh’s second story in Worlds from the Word’s End entitled “Bookshelves” begins by describing a bibliophile’s collection of books.  I felt right at home in her story, among her books:

They spill from your shelves.  They sprawl by your bed, luxurious, splayed sometimes and discarded at an early page,  broken by your attentions.  On your shelf more books you would like to read are waiting, books you have ordered, their white bodies fat with potential.

But the author acknowledges that sometimes being surrounded by this number of books is overwhelming, one can’t possibly read all of them because “there are just so many to conquer.”  Walsh then asks us to open our minds and imagine, “Something you never thought might happen”:   A being who crawls out of your bookshelf who has read all of your neglected books!  Imagine stumbling upon this being sitting at your table, smoking a cigarette and drinking a cup of coffee.  This being has actually read all of your discarded, half-read books, anything that was sitting in a bag for the charity shop, including “ill-judged gifts from well-meaning relatives” and “gardening manuals” and even the  “memoirs of politicians.”  I began to feel better about the stacks of books sitting neglected on my own shelves and a little less guilty about the dozens of books I’ve sent to the charity shop.  I especially like the ending when the narrator realizes that this poor being has read some really lousy books and she feels grateful and even superior for her own literary discretion.

It is fitting that I didn’t actually finish all of the stories in Walsh’s collection, abandoning the book just before I made it through the last few stories.  My attention was diverted by the arrival of Thomas Bernhard’s Collected Poems and Music & Literature No. 8.   So I was hoping that one night, very late, when I can’t sleep that I will stumble into my kitchen and encounter one of my cats, sitting at the table, with a cigarette in one paw, a book in the other, and a glass of wine/whiskey in front of him, who will describe to me the rest of Walsh’s book.

Meanwhile, my other Fontane books arrived in the post and I’ve started Irretrievable.  So I guess I will stick with German Lit. for a while, but then again…

14 Comments

Filed under British Literature

14 responses to “They Spill from your Shelves, They Sprawl by your Bed: Worlds from the Word’s End by Joanna Walsh

  1. What a beautiful, thoughtful face your cat has! A bit like I imagine Behemoth to be in the Master and Margarita (but nicer). I might be diverted by Thomas Bernhard’s poetry as well…

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  2. I can relate–I can’t really focus on any sustained reading this month for some reason, but I’m buying (and browsing) like crazy! Almost laughed out loud at the what if scenario with your booze-happy cats, by the way. 🙂

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    • Sometimes I wonder if it’s a problem of too many choices because I haven’t stopped buying books. We have four cats, but Henry is the most likely to be found sitting at the table reading. 🙂

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  3. Such a good quote – I’m sure many of us can relate to that. And what a sweetie of a cat! Sadly, Mischief hasn’t developed into a lap cat, just a fidgety visit half an hour before feeding time. I’m hoping she’ll change as she gets older.

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  4. I *so* know where you’re coming from – I’ve been a bit lacking in focus myself lately. But I love that image of your cat with the whisky coming to your rescue – sometimes I think we need somebody to read the books for us!! 🙂

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  5. I have phases where I can’t decide what I want to read next, and wander about aimlessly looking at all the spines of the books I thought it would be a good idea to buy and read one day…very unsettling. Fortunately, I usually have a pile of magazines waiting and fill the time with these until the next book choice becomes clearer. And too many books: when I was younger and we had a larger house I loved having a large library; older now, I quite often feel oppressed by so many books. That’s NOT the same as deciding to get rid of them…

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  6. Wouldn’t it be nice if our cats read our books at night and then told us whether or not they are worth reading? I might be able to clear some space on my shelves.
    I really enjoyed this post!

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  7. Being serious for a moment – Thomas Bernhard’s Collected Poems (translation by James Reidel) is magnificent – and hopefully you will become infected in the most benevolent manner by his translations and also look up “Darkness Spoken” by the poet Ingeborg Bachmann (Translation by Peter Filkins). Sadly, the reading public has been subverted by all the faux praise showered on wanna-be poets like Maya Angelou, John Ashbery, Mary Oliver, Natasha Tredway, Allan Ginsberg (and others). But it is my humble belief (and hope for the future of meaningful art) that the judgement of time will uphold the true litany of poets (e.g. the T’ang Dynasty masters like Li Po, Tu Fu, Wang Wei, Li Ho as well as T. S. Eliot, Georg Trakl, P.B. Shelley, Tomas Transtromer and others – like Bachmann and Bernhard). In the long run, poetry will regain its pinnacle position among the arts that has been in some manner derailed-from its ascendancy in our present era by some of those misguided ‘pop-authors’ I noted earlier (whom will be relegate to occupy no more than pale footnotes of literary history much beyond 20 or 30 years from now). The quintessential arts matter to humanity. Thank you for your post. I assure you that you will not waste a single moment of a brief life soaking-in Reidel’s translations of Bernhard.

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