My Shelf: a challenge

Reading The Shelf by Phyllis Rose inevitably made me wonder how I could turn it into a personal reading challenge. I’m not usually a big fan of those that involve a specific list of titles – the moment I write them down, they lose their appeal. And picking a shelf at random from the library definitely didn’t appeal; reading about the experiment was fascinating, but I don’t want to be stuck reading piles of arbitrary books.

Annabel has come up with a great challenge – which you can read all about. That’s another fab idea, but one that won’t work for me. I’ll leave you to go over to Annabel’s blog to see all the details, but it won’t work brilliantly if your books are split between two counties.

So – I have simply picked one of my own shelves in Oxford. This also felt like a non-starter originally, because I didn’t want to end up reading many books by the same author. I also have old and new books on different bookcases. But then I remembered my shelf of small paperbacks, mostly Penguins, which had a nice variety across authors, periods, and fiction/non-fiction.

It’s nowhere near as random as Rose’s project, nor with as much scope as Annabel’s, but I’m still pretty excited about it. And I’m setting myself the vague target of having read them all (there are around 35, I think) before the end of 2016. The shelf includes five books I’ve already read (which are starred), so those may be missed off.

And what is on this shelf? Here is the list…

My Shelf

  • Take a Girl Like You – Kingsley Amis
  • Fair Stood the Wind for France – H.E. Bates
  • The Green Lacquer Pavilion – Helen Beauclerk
  • Zuleika Dobson – Max Beerbohm
  • Dandelion Wine – Ray Bradbury
  • The Napoleon of Notting Hill – G.K. Chesterton
  • The Other One – Colette
  • Memoirs of a Midget – Walter de la Mare
  • *One Pair of Hands – Monica Dickens
  • Joy and Josephine – Monica Dickens
  • The Millstone – Margaret Drabble
  • Maurice – E.M. Forster
  • The Snow Goose / The Small Miracle – Paul Gallico
  • Go She Must – David Garnett
  • Stately as a Galleon – Joyce Grenfell
  • The Bird of Night – Susan Hill
  • St Mawr / The Virgin and the Gypsy – D.H. Lawrence
  • The Spy Who Came in From the Cold – John Le Carre
  • Theatre – W. Somerset Maugham
  • *The Enchanted Places – Christopher Milne
  • Hons and Rebels – Jessica Mitford
  • Noblesse Oblige – ed. Nancy Mitford
  • Here Lies – Dorothy Parker
  • Owls and Satyrs – David Pryce-Jones
  • *Seducers in Ecuador – Vita Sackville-West
  • Tales From Tchehov – trans. Constance Garnett
  • The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Stealthy Terror – John Ferguson
  • Moominsummer Madness – Tove Jansson
  • Free Air – Sinclair Lewis
  • Poor Relations – Compton Mackenzie
  • Speedy Death – Gladys Mitchell
  • *The Borrowers – Mary Norton
  • The Small Room – May Sarton
  • The Circus is Coming – Noel Streatfeild
  • *Mary Poppins – P.L. Travers

I shan’t be reading them in order, but over the coming months I’ll tag some posts as ‘My Shelf’, and you’ll see how my project is going. Any recommendations for the first off the shelf?


34 thoughts on “My Shelf: a challenge

  • May 6, 2015 at 7:49 pm

    Excellent challenge idea, and lots of good stuff on your shelf. I think you might like “Hons and Rebels”; Jessica Mitford is very funny, particularly about her very eccentric family, and comes across as a likeable and interesting character. “Noblesse Oblige” is funny in bits, as I remember, but really quite offputtingly snobbish.

    • May 7, 2015 at 1:25 pm

      Yes, my first reaction too. What? Not read Hons and Rebels?

      • May 7, 2015 at 7:21 pm

        I know! After reading the letters between the six sisters – more or less my first Mitford book – Jessica left a nasty taste in my mouth, so I didn’t read this. But I should definitely give her a fair go.

        • May 8, 2015 at 1:32 pm

          Yes, do. Reading those letters I found a great deal of hypocrisy going on between the other sisters re Decca. Debo was sisterly in her letters to her, but could be nasty when discussing her with the others. I got the impression they saw her as a kind of race and class traitor. Of course, Decca herself was prickly and often thoughtless, but I think she was worth the rest put together.

    • May 7, 2015 at 7:20 pm

      Thanks! I adore all things Mitford, so I’m sure I’ll find lots to love in those books – even without wanting to follow their life advice particularly closely…

  • May 6, 2015 at 8:02 pm

    Oo sounds like a great challenge: the only ones of those I’ve read are The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (cannot believe you haven’t read this children’s classic!), Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson (one of my favourite Moomin books, but that’s partly because we had a frayed old copy that rode in the car with us for years so I have read it c.1 million times), and The Borrowers by Mary Norton (which I’ve not so much read as listened to as an audiobook during Christmas sleepovers with my cousins.) I’ve just arranged my new bookshelves by colour – for the first itme ever, how frivolous! – so maybe a good task for me too…

    • May 7, 2015 at 7:23 pm

      I feel like I should post another blog post about The Secret Garden, as so many people are appalled! Truth be told, I don’t remember whether or not I read it in my childhood… I definitely watched the film over and over.

      And, oo, the very frivolity! What would Bobby say?

  • May 6, 2015 at 8:06 pm

    How many books do you own and is the bookcase from ARGOS–£40?

    • May 7, 2015 at 7:23 pm

      About 2500, and the bookcase is from Argos – although I don’t remember how much it was!

      • May 8, 2015 at 3:01 pm

        Many Thanks Simon.My cases are all from Argos too—they are currently £44.99

  • May 6, 2015 at 8:14 pm

    Oooh, what a nice selection of books! And a Moomin one! Colette or Gladys Mitchell are good – very different of course, but I’d happily read either book if I was choosing! :)

    • May 7, 2015 at 7:23 pm

      There is a really nice variety of types of book on the shelf – as illustrated by that disparate three!

  • May 6, 2015 at 9:34 pm

    This is a lovely idea for a challenge, and that’s a lovely shelf of books to peruse. You must read The Secret Garden – I can’t quite believe that you haven’t – and I think – I hope – you’ll love Fair Stood the Wind for France.

    • May 7, 2015 at 7:24 pm

      I’m not sure I haven’t either! But I’m also not sure I have.

      Lyn, of I Prefer Reading, put me onto Fair Stood the Wind for France – and I’m sure I’ll love it, based on both your recommendations.

  • May 7, 2015 at 7:13 am

    I suggest you start with “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold”; masterly writing (and a pretty good film too!).

    • May 7, 2015 at 7:25 pm

      That was one Dad gave me years ago – he’ll be pleased that it’s worked its way up the pile.

      • May 8, 2015 at 11:31 pm

        I agree. John le Carre is gripping and the early ones are the best. Your dad has excellent taste!

  • May 7, 2015 at 8:44 am

    Thanks for the link – and how exciting too! I shall second suggestions for Fair Stood the Wind for France (which is also on my shelves – and could be my ‘B’ book, although I did read it many moons ago). Also The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (which I’d be interested to see how you get on with, as I don’t see it as a ‘Simon-type book’ Ha-ha. :)

    • May 7, 2015 at 7:26 pm

      I love the sort of book that sparks off ideas like this :)
      I am getting mixed messages on Le Carre – I will report back in due course!

  • May 7, 2015 at 10:52 am

    What delights! Might I echo the call for you to read The Secret Garden, my childhood favourite. And to re live my young adult years with Margaret Drabble. Moving along to my grandmother status, join my young grandson in giving yourself over to Moominsommer Madness. Inspirational intention Simon!

    • May 7, 2015 at 7:27 pm

      Thanks Ana!
      My only experience with Drabble so far was a massive disappointment, but I thought I should give her another go. Moominsummer Madness is definitely more tempting!

  • May 7, 2015 at 11:31 am

    I love seen pictures of other people’s bookshelves, and hearing about their TBR stacks. I think this sounds like a fun challenge! I’m also a little surprised that you haven’t read The Secret Garden yet, so I’m putting my vote in for that. A lot of your titles are new to me, & I look forward to hearing more about them!

    • May 7, 2015 at 7:28 pm

      I think I might have done, but I’m not sure!
      There’s a nice lot of quite unusual titles there, so I’m excited about reading the familiar and unfamiliar. Thanks for your encouragement :)

  • May 7, 2015 at 1:24 pm

    Well, it’s an interesting challenge. Of course, reading a full shelf from the local libary would be either a lot on one topic or a lot by one author. And we shelve our own books by author or topic or genre or geography or era. Etc. I guess this is where those who shelve by colour really come into their own.

    I think Annabel’s approach may bring the most variety. In my house, my shelf of memoirs and bios would have the most variety, but would still be mostly 20th century women. (except the SUB-genre shelf of Home Front memoirs and bios)

    Another approach at the local library might be to pick up the first book on one end (either end) of the Returned Books To Be Reshelved Cart each time you go.

    • May 7, 2015 at 7:29 pm

      It is definitely rather less random than many other approaches to this challenge – but still gives a nice variety, which I might not find on any of my other shelves. Your library plan sounds great – although I’m not sure the sort of books I really love are those being taken out by library patrons! The answer is clearly shelving by colour…

  • May 7, 2015 at 2:55 pm

    Must say I’m surprised with the others that you haven’t gotten around to The Secret Garden. Moominsummer Madness is a little different than some of the other Moomin Tales, but in a fun way. I read Dandelion Wine a year or so ago (and am now reading Something Wicked This Way Comes by Bradbury), and what struck me about both is how much he “overdecorates” his sentences. Since it is spring, I’d start with the Secret Garden. And I have to agree with Annabel, about The Spy.. it doesn’t strike me as one that you would enjoy. :) Happy Reading!

    • May 7, 2015 at 7:30 pm

      I might have read it, I can’t remember!
      Dandelion Wine was a recommendation from a good friend when I was doing my DPhil, but I have never got quite as far as reading it. But The Secret Garden is probably more likely to be a comforting read – once the cholera is out the way!

  • May 7, 2015 at 6:13 pm

    I can’t believe you have “Memoirs of a Midget.”
    I found an old hard copy edition at one of the local used-books stores and bought it on spec.
    I got several chapters in, and my interest dwindled.
    I still have it on a shelf, the bookmark where I left off. And when I finish one novel and before I start another, I take it off the shelf, read a chapter or two, and put it back until the next “intermission.” I’ve been reading it that way for a long time.
    Hey, maybe that should be my shelf challenge. Read the first chapter in every book on a shelf, then read the second chapter in every book on that shelf, then the third ….

    • May 7, 2015 at 7:31 pm

      An excellent challenge!

      And I have had a similar experience with Memoirs of a Midget – I read a few chapters and reshelved it. Hoping for some more luck this time.

  • May 11, 2015 at 5:59 pm

    This is an excellent challenge. This is the only way I am ever going to get through my books – though I am not sure any of my book shelves have half an interesting collection as the one that you have selected

  • May 13, 2015 at 8:32 am

    Wonderful challenge, Simon. Thanks for passing it along.
    And thank you for switching over to a friendlier-to-comments site.

  • May 18, 2015 at 3:17 pm

    I’ve read 13 of those … and I think you should read Zuleika Dobson first, because HOW have you not read that?

    • May 18, 2015 at 9:40 pm

      Wow, 13! Impressive. And I was tempted by ZD first… for that very reason. I did pull Dandelion Wine off the shelf, but put it back shortly afterwards…

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