Lost Books

On Lost Books Alexandria

I’m not big on nostalgia, but “books I once owned” is a class of memories guaranteed to induce misty-eyed reverie, if not outright pangs of regret. My eyes slide along the shelf of English language novels, L-P, then skip back to M… Mantel. Hang on.

Where is Black Books? Did I lend it out and never get it back? Or DID I THROW IT INTO A RECYCLING BIN?! (Please, hear me out / have mercy.)

Call it careless, call it idiocy, but in my time I’ve suffered a couple of episodes of large scale Book Loss. “Suffered” as in “allowed to happen”.

The first tragic book abandonment was the result of a break-up. In the heat of moving out, it seemed there were more important things to deal with (well, you live and learn). As a result, I’m not entirely sure what I read in the 90’s and early 00’s. Most of the Most Important Books went with me, as well as ones likely to be referenced this lifetime, but the losses included a number of valued gifts (A Confederacy of Dunces) and excellent reads – including Richard Flanagan’s bonkers Gould’s Book of Fish, which I would give my right carp to revisit.

The second, more traumatic bookocalypse occurred during our move from Amsterdam to Stockholm. [*AVERT EYES NOW IF SENSITIVE TO SCENES OF SENSELESS BOOK WASTAGE*] Trying to keep the shipping manageable, I talked myself into doing away with the cubic yards of scrappy second-, third-, and ninth-hand Penguin Classics I’d accumulated. Once the boxes shipped, I took the Reluctant Discards to the recycling station pile… only to find that buried underneath the Ovids and Nietsches were a couple of stacks of Keepers.

Is this where Black Books met its end? Hard to say, since, understandably, I’ve since undergone extensive hypnotherapy to wipe all memory of the incident.

In addition to these two acts of bibliographical recklessness, there have been the other, slower library erosions. Nothing wrong with books given away, especially those titles that didn’t make their mark on me and would have been more appreciated in the hands of another reader.

Then there are those unreturned lendings. Honestly, I’m not irate about those. Not at all. Honest. In fact, the only reason I can list the authors, titles, name of the lendees, and venue in which the lending took place is because I have a photographic memory or something. Must be that. *PENCIL SNAPS*

To Replace or Not To Replace? The urge is strong to binge order new copies of those most missed. It’s lunacy to do that when there are new books to be read. Right? But I *have* been meaning to do more re-reading of favourite books. Though what if the edition I knew and loved is out of print, will a different edition feel like an imposter?? Could wait to pick them up second hand, though that could take decades…

Because these lost books are the only record of my development as a reader. The humour and horror of my teens, the drama of my student years, the hardboiled crime of my twenties.

On some level, I still believe these books are still hidden somewhere on our shelves, Phantom Tomes whose spines are almost visible in peripheral vision, whose covers pass before my eyes every time their titles come to mind.

Did you hear that creak of aging paperback spine? Maybe I’ll take another look. They’re here somewhere, I know it…


Goldfinch, Schmoldfinch


On the opposite wall, graffiti: smiley face and arrows, Warning Radioactive, stencilled lightning bolt with the word Shazam, dripping horror movie letters, keep it nice!

The Goldfinch circles around Amsterdam. The final third of the book is set there. And the quote above was perhaps my favourite moment of that sludgy, long, and repetitious last part. Weirdly, I know the guys who painted that piece, and who used these tags all over the city (and beyond – in Barcelona, we had to stop one of them from tagging a moving street cleaning van). So reading this, I finally knew that Donna Tartt had actually spent time in Amsterdam, a fact that had been repeatedly underlined in the hype around the book.

Because something I found baffling about The Goldfinch – probably THE fiction event of 2013/14, let’s not forget – was how incredibly sloppy it was with details.


Theo’s Amsterdam hotel is on the Singel canal, but after a trip to meet his pal Boris, the hotel has moved to Herengracht. Their drive from the airport to Singel takes in Nieuwemarkt, which is a nonsensical route: A to C via F. And before they leave for Amsterdam, Boris warns Theo to stock up on Duty Free liquor, because “booze only available in the state controlled shops”. In the Netherlands, of all places? Uh, nope. Was Tartt thinking of Sweden, maybe?

Since I lived in Amsterdam, it was in this section that they most leapt out at me, but the entire book is riddled with cheap errors. There are at least a couple of references to the drinking age in the US (New York/Nevada) being 18. How does an American author get something like that wrong? Especially when they’ve spent a decade working on the book…

This leaves me scratching my head when a reviewer praises Tartt’s “Dutch master’s attention to detail” (Ron Charles, The Washington Post). James Wood, in a New Yorker review more argued with than read (well, it is behind a paywall) famously criticised Tartt’s novel, arguing that the novel’s “tone, language, and story belong to children’s literature”. This of course spurred fans of the book to furious rebuttals.

But that’s not an axe I’m grinding. I found the prose tended towards the beautiful, the book’s pages littered with arresting images:

Floodlit window. Mortuary glow from the cold case. Beyond the fog-condensed glass, trickling with water, winged sprays of orchids quivered in the fan’s draft: ghost-white, lunar, angelic.

I agree with many commenters that the novel was overlong. Some of those digressions on the meaning, history, and techniques of art felt repetitious. But that might not have been a problem if the plot had been stronger.

This is another frequently praised aspect of The Goldfinch that leaves me wondering. Lev Grossman contends that “the narrative thread is one you just can’t gather up fast enough” (review tucked away behind another paywall).

Conversely, I felt that I was left holding a number of plot threads that weren’t connected to any moving parts. Tartt is clearly more comfortable with the rarified, moneyed Upper East Side/Hamptons scene – but nothing of consequence happens here. When a threat to Theo does emerge from amongst the expensive antiques, it eventually evaporates in a cloud of convenience.

Boris, and his Eastern European cohorts, come off hackneyed, and it is from this cartoonish demi monde that the issue of the stolen painting is “resolved”. But through much of the action, the narrator Theo is a passive bystander, dragged into set-up after set-up with little understanding. The major events in the life of the painting itself happen off-screen, and/or entirely without Theo’s understanding. The major threat to Theo’s freedom – that his possession of the missing painting may be discovered – is a faint note, tediously unwavering and never truly credible.

Honestly, I wanted to love this book. Maybe it was the hype, the reclusive enigma of la Tartt herself. Maybe it was overinflating how much I’d enjoyed The Secret History, all those years ago. Whatever it was, it didn’t deliver. I was promised a literary firecracker, and instead I had to slog through 700-plus pages of a soggy fuse failing to light, culminating in a whimpering misfire.

A Round Table Is No Writing Desk


Lookit. Pushing backwards, fighting against the opposing curve of an ever-growing beer belly. Encouraging slouching. Neglecting proper support of the writing arms.

What do you write on? A dedicated desk? In your lap? Are you the kind of steel-stomached marvel that can write (*SHUDDER*) in the car?

For 7 years, in London and in Amsterdam, I made do with a round dining table that did double duty as a writing desk. And it was only in the last couple of years I realised what an absolute pain in the tuches it was to write there, how bad it was for posture and therefore for lengthy periods of scribbling. We moved in together, I ditched the round table, and enjoyed eighteen months writing at a much more cooperative rectangular dining table.

Now, in Sweden, it’s back to the round. I can feel the familiar slouch kicking in, the moulding of my torso around the curve. To be fair, it’s better than the round table I had before, with had varnished, rounded edges – you just felt yourself crumpling around it.

There’s a fix. Started taking myself off to the Stadsbibliotek, where the combination of perfectly straight desk edges, other people working silently, and no interweb connection* seems to make me about 103% more productive. Funny, that.


* They have WiFi, it’s not a library in the 18th Century. You just need a library card to connect, and while waiting on residency registration I am librarycardless.

Things to Be Done: Ajax

Having compiled a list of Things to Be Done in Amsterdam Before We Leave, it turned out that one of the top priorities was going to see Ajax play at the Amsterdam ArenA (sic). So we sprang into action and nagged some friends to get us all tickets to a game: Ajax v PEC Zwolle (the early season’s surprising table toppers).

Ajax were resting key players before their Champions League fixture with Barcelona, and the first half didn’t deliver on the goals front, despite being end-to-end-stuff. The ArenA is a decent stadium, and seemed to have good acoustics for the singing fans – even for the small contingent of away fans corralled into one small corner of the upper tiers. (Dutch supporters can be pretty fractious – some games won’t permit ANY away fans, and a few games in the past few years have had to be played behind closed doors.)

Teams trudge off, 0-0 at half-time

There were plenty of airings of an Ajax song our ticket-buying friend had told us about before the game:

“Aj-, Aj-, Ajax zijn de superjoden!”
(Aj-, Aj-, Ajax are the superjews!)

In the club’s early years, a large number of its players were Jewish, hence the pride in that heritage. This explains the Israeli flags you see flying from merchandise stalls outside the ground. And that Ajax chant, being as it is celebratory (super jews!). But of course anything a club’s supporters take pride in is bound to be inverted by its opposition.

In the UK, Spurs are the team with the most obvious Semitic connection. Their fans proudly proclaim themselves the “yid army” – and as an Arsenal fan, I cringe when ‘our’ supporters use that designation as an insult. Given that the first part of that phrase, no matter how much the supporters revel in it, is generally taken to be an offensive term, Tottenham Hotspur are apparently due to review whether the chant should be dropped from the fans’ repertoire. Hmm. Good luck with that one. Football chants don’t seem to be an easy, ahem, form of expression to control. What will Arsenal fans do then, deride Spurs supporters for their self-censoring ways?

But so, Ajax. In the 70th minute, a few of the resting stars came on, and the game suddenly grew teeth. After going close a few times, Ajax finally took the lead courtesy of Serero pinging in a badly-cleared ball, then they doubled it through an hilarious own goal (all own goals being funny at root). Zwolle pulled one back at the death, too late to get themselves back into the game.
Serero mobbed after breaking the deadlock