The Habit of Living Indoors: Are Narcissists the Best Writers?

Do you have to be a narcissist to be a good writer? Or a bad writer, for that matter.

For many years I eked out a living as a freelance writer. I scribbled book reviews, features, and PR at a rapid rate. I bubbled over with thousands of words a week, enjoying writing frivolous, fun pieces.  Alas, most of the articles were ephemera, and  I have hung on mostly to the reviews and pieces about writers.  But reviews are not lucrative:   I had to fund my habit of living indoors.

Books were my life and still are, but I have never written seriously about books. If only I’d been prettier, more charming, more political, perhaps I’d have been more successful…but I suppose I would not have liked that prettier, more charming, more political person. In that respect, I am narcissistic.   I often felt like Jo in Little Women, enjoying my blood-and-thunder stories but haunted by money worries and patriarchal disapproval–Jo/Kat’s not a serious writer! I stopped writing in my free time.   All I really wanted to do was read.

When I was 18 or 19 I was sure I’d write a novel someday–when I felt like it!  The first novelist I met, outside of a fiction writing class, was a friend’s handsome, pretentious boyfriend. I was awed that he had  finished a novel, and eagerly started to read his manuscript. He was very smart… but his prose was bombastic and unpublishable.   One sentence has stayed with me: “Even the crack of dawn made him horny.”

At that age, I had more talent than I have now.  Words unselfconsciously flowed from my pen in my free time, between classes, work, and a late dinner with my boyfriend.   One evening, when a friend and I were studying for an exam for a core psychology class we’d rarely attended and bought lecture notes for at the Union, she took time off from reading about lab rats to riffle through my desk drawers.  Why didn’t I finish my brilliant novel? she demanded after half an hour.  (There wasn’t much there.)   “Well, it’s not a novel,” I tried to explain. Fiction was not my forte.  If it was, I’d have written it.  I specialized in short ephemeral articles, and now in a blog that is really just a journal of my reading!

I did write one novellla, at a rapid pace. To show how little writers know themselves,  I was not aware of the kind of book it was till I finished.   I had aimed for literary fiction, but it turned out to be women’s fiction.  One day I may go back and revise, tighten the plot, lengthen the book, and make the characters more likable.   But the project doesn’t interest me that much.  I would rather read…

 I have recently mused about the writer characters in Pamela Hansford Johnson’s superb novels.   In her books, writers are divided between the sane and sensible camp and the narcissists.   In The Last Resort (which I wrote about here), the lovely narrator, Christine, is a successful novelist, a happy wife and mother.  At weekends spent writing at a hotel, she sees a friend made very unhappy by an affair with a married man.  And after the man’s wife dies, he marries someone else.  It is a shattering scene.

And in Johnson’s brilliant Helena trilogy, her masterpiece, which I last wrote about here, the narrator, Claud Pickering, is a writer and an art historian with a deep understanding of his dysfunctional family, especially of his narcissistic stepmother, Helena.  He is one of the sanest and most responsible of characters, a cross between Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Nick Jenkins in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time.  Claud is the kind of guy you want to spend time with.

But in Johnson’s hilarious Dorothy Merlin trilogy, which I chortled over last weekend, the writers are all ridiculously narcissistic. In the first book in the trilogy, The Unspeakable Skipton, we learn that the hero Daniel Skipton believes he is the best writer of his generation. He hustles a bare living in Bruges by  exploiting tourists with various scams, but his life is writing his new novel, his masterpiece, in an attic in a mouldering house.  Unfortunately, he libels so many people that the book is unpublishable.  And he has so little sense that he even satirizes his publisher, who kindly sends advances money on books they both know Daniel will never write.

But, narcissistic and malicious as Daniel is, he genuinely loves writing.  Johnson describes his touching enjoyment of the routine.

Having had his lunch and rinsed out a pair of socks (he had only two pairs and always kept one in the wash), he took his manuscript from the table drawer, ranged before him his three pens, one with black ink, one with green and one with red, and sat down to the hypnotic delight of polishing. The first draft of this book had been completed a year ago. Since then he had worked upon it every day, using the black pen for the correction of simple verbal or grammatical slips, the green pen for the burnishing style, the red for the marginal comment and suggestions for additional matter….  It was not only a great book, it was the greatest book in the English language, it would make his reputation all over the world and keep him in comfort, more than comfort, for the rest of his life.

Daniel Skipton is not the only narcissist in the trade. His rival, Dorothy Merlin, a poet/playwright who visits Bruges with her husband, Cosmo Hines, and two friends, has an inflated opinion of her own drama in verse about wombs and motherhood, which was staged as a multi-media production in London.  When she informs Daniel that her plays have to be read “on two levels,”  he is very annoyed, because he believes his own work is deeper and  should be read on seven levels!  She says,”You see, the womb in my verse is not just my womb.  It is the womb of everyone.”  And she compares herself to the Flemish painters who add scenes of domestic life behind the Madonna.

This is the kind of narcissism we love to laugh about.  Are  writers like this in real life?  Well, perhaps I’ve  met one or two, but the majority are very kind and generous.  Writers are no more alike than, say, lion tamers or Wal-Mart cashiers. Yes, they tame the lions or punch the cash register keys, but it is their bookishness that unites them at any party in a room full of geeks scanning bookshelves.

Writers Living Cheaply: Pamela Hansford Johnson’s “The Unspeakable Skipton”

I spent the weekend in bed with a bad cold. You know the kind of thing:  there is much coughing and dizziness, you feel you might faint in line at the store,  and the cold/flu/whatever hangs on forever. (After two weeks, go to the doctor.)  It is the kind of cold which, I assure you, will be exacerbated by a cheerless masterpiece by Dostoevsky.  No, you must turn to light reading.

The eclectic English writer Pamela Hansford Johnson did not specialize in light novels, but her Dorothy Merlin trilogy is hilarious.  The first of these satires of the writing life, The Unspeakable Skipton, focuses on a narcissistic novelist/con man; the second, Night and Silence Who Is Here, is an academic satire; and the third and best, Cork Street, Next to the Hatter’s, features Dorothy Merlin, a pretentious poet/playwright, holding court in her husband Cosmo’s bookshop, along with other artistic Londoners.  By the way, these can  be read as stand-alones.

The Unspeakable Skipton is potentially a cult classic–if anyone knew about it. I chortled over this short, witty, very weird novel about the vanity of a novelist/huxter hero, Daniel Skipton, who does nefarious odd jobs to afford a cheap garret in Bruges, “in one of “the last of the patrician houses,” as he says.   He has fallen in love with the beauty of Bruges.

Yes, he thought, this was the place for him and none other: he would die here.  He had come to live in Bruges for cheapness at the end of the 1920s:  had muddled through and out of the war by means of ill-health and broadcasting in Flemish for the BBC, and had come back not for cheapness, since the country was bloated with money and everything was dear, but because he could not bear to live anywhere else.  And, so long as Flabby Anne kept up her payments, he could just about get along.

Skipton believes he is the greatest writer of his time, but his tiny output of 250 words a day, many of them libellous, belies his opinion.  He is a paradoxical mix of personal priggishness and con artist: he wears socks with individually knitted toes because he thinks it’s obscene for toes to touch, but is not at all fastidious about finance.  He  hustles advances from his publisher for imaginary projects and cadges money from a cousin he’s never met, whom he calls Flabby Anne. He also procures fake antiques for a dealer and organizes voyeuristic parties to view obscene skits in mime.

At the center of the book is Skipton’s chance meeting with a group of literary tourists and his attempts to dub them out of money: Dorothy Merlin, a poet/playwright, her husband, Cosmo, a bookseller, Duncan, a photographer, and Matthew, a mysterious aristocrat. He’s equally matched here, however, and underrates his opponents, particularly Dorothy’s husband.

Skipton despises Dorothy, who writes poetry about her fecund womb–she has had seven children–but she cares nothing for his opinion,  and the contretemps between the conceited pair is hilarious.

“I am alien to you,” said Daniel, “utterly so.  I do not sing in chorus.  I do not rattle out, in a half-baked fashion, the Freudian claptrap which has been so successful because any dirty-minded dunce can understand it. Not that I am accusing you, Miss Merlin, of being dirty-minded. Where no mind exists, it is impossible for there to be either dirt or cleanliness.”

She said with dreadful charity, “I don’t think you can be well.  Do let us help you.  I’m not in the least offended with you, I–“

Very, very funny, and I look forward to rereading the other two shortly.  This is very short, only 192 pages.  Just enough of Skipton!  A little of him goes a long way.  I prefer Dorothy:  she’s a snob but not a scam artist!

Pamela Hansford Johnson & a New Biography

The brilliant 20th-century writer Pamela Hansford Johnson has fallen out of fashion.  Her books are out-of-print in the U.S.

But I am an ardent fan.  One winter day in 2009, while browsing at a university library, I found a copy of her novel,  An Impossible Marriage. I admit, I’d confused her with Pamela Frankau, but the error was serendipitous.  I scrawled later in my book journal:

I started reading Johnson’s An Impossible Marriage in the car and continued to read it till bedtime. Fascinating Virago-like material, the story of a strong-willed, intelligent young woman who knows enough to dump a young man with whom she is sexually compatible but not emotionally;  but then makes the same mistake with a beautiful man 14 years older than herself. That whole experience of falling in love at first sight: can that ever turn out well? The horror: it usually involves falling for someone one believes  superior to oneself (and groveling ). Johnson describes the affair with compassion and insight.

Since then, I have read 19 of her 27 novels.  I especially love the superb Helena trilogy (which I blogged about here), Too Dear for My Possessing, An Avenue of Stone, and A Summer to Decide.  In these witty, elegant, addictive novels, the narrator,  Claud Pickering, an art historian and writer, describes his fraught relationship with his histrionic stepmother, Helena, from boyhood through middle age. The cast of characters is so vivid that one day I absent-mindedly chatted about them at the dinner table, as if they were my friends.

And, lo and behold!  I was reading a book by Johnson when on Nov. 3 the TLS ran a review of Deirdre David’s new biography, Pamela Hansford Johnson:  A Writing Life.  (And that’s why it’s dangerous to read the TLS: too many fascinating books.)

Miranda Seymour writes,

Despite the fact that Pamela Hansford Johnson is now the subject of three biographies – of which Deirdre David’s is by far the most insightful – this once celebrated writer remains an intriguingly neglected figure. Most admirers of This Bed Thy Centre (the debut novel with which Johnson sparked a sensation in 1935, at the age of twenty-three) and The Unspeakable Skipton (1959; a maliciously witty account of literary skulduggery and lofty pretensions, set in Johnson’s beloved Bruges) might struggle to recall the titles of others of her novels. It comes as a surprise to learn that there are twenty-seven of them. Most are out-of-print.

My copy of the biography arrived in the mail today.  I haven’t shrieked so much since I found the huge Liddell and Scott Greek dictionary in a musty used bookstore.

I do hope it’s worth it!

More later.

The 1947 Club: Pamela Hansford Johnson’s An Avenue of Stone

1947-club-pinkKaren of Kaggsysbookishramblings is a voracious reader, a sociable blogger, and an indefatigable co-organizer of “The 1947 Club.” What is the 1947 Club? Bloggers and other readers agree whimsically to read and post on books published in 1947–any and all books published in 1947!

It is not so much that I’m unsociable as absent-minded, so I was pleasantly surprised this year when I managed to read a couple of Viragos for Virago month and two books for Women in Translation Month. “So, Go for it, Kat!  You can read a book from 1947,” I told myself.  So It’s  halfway through the 1947 week, and I was about to embark on a book published the wrong year. Yup.  I have this thing:  dyslexia with numbers.

Now that I’m on the right year, I would like to recommend one of my favorite books of 1947 (and of all time), An Avenue of Stone by Pamela Hansford Johnson.

If you don’t know Pamela Hansford Johnson’s stunning novels, you are missing out.  Best known as Dylan Thomas’s girlfriend and C. P. Snow’s wife, she had enough talent and merciless observations to put those two boys in the shade.  A few years ago  I interviewed her biographer Wendy Pollard here.  I appreciated Pollard’s serious work and hope it revived interest in Johnson.  And it is a very good sign that Bello Pan has reissued Johnson’s books in paperback and as e-books.  (Unfortunately the e-books aren’t available in the U.S.)

avenue-of-stone-johnson-my-picture-img_0067-copyingAnd now I am going to cheat a bit by posting old notes on An Avenue of Stone from 2009.

Pamela Hansford Johnson’s Helena trilogy, of which An Avenue of Stone is the brilliant centerpiece, shows Johnson at the height of her powers.  The first book in the trilogy, Too Dear for My Possessing (1940), is a coming-of-age novel:  Claud, the narrator, bickers with and competes against his beautiful, controlling, often wicked stepmother Helena.  After his father’s death, his life is inextricably intertwined with Helen’s, for better or worse.

an-avenue-of-stone-johnson-ebook-9781447215578an-avenue-of-stone-400x0x0To read the second novel first, An Avenue of Stone (1947), is both an advantage and a liability.  Each novel is self-contained, so the order doesn’t matter.  And I loved An Avenue of Stone so much that I went on to read the other two. Johnson says in the introductions to the American reprints that she was learning her craft when she wrote the first book, Too Dear for My Possessing (1940).  The second and the third novels, An Avenue of Stone and A Summer to Decide, published in 1947 and 1948 respectively: “So, between books 1 and 2, I had seven years of learning to write…

She continues in the intro to Avenue, “I was no longer giving way to a too-easy romanticism; I was able to give the book a rather more solid structure.”

An Avenue of Stone is an unforgettable masterpiece. In this brilliant novel, set at the end of World War II, the narrator, Major Claud Pickering, an art historian and writer, describes the volatile relationships of his stepmother, Helena, amidst the deprivations of rationing and the disintegrating class boundaries of the postwar society.

The novel begins with Helena’s ramblings about class.

“As a class,” Helena said, “we are doomed…”

avenue-of-stone-johnson-american-4616293Helena, a former chorus girl who married into the upper class and has established herself as a glittering hostess, loves to talk about the rebellion of the proles. As the novel begins, the sixty-something Helena is entertaining guests with outrageous complaints about the collapse of society, illustrated by exaggerated anecdotes about rude bus conductors and insolent shop girls. After her second husband, Lord Archer, dies, leaving the majority of his money to Helena’s daughter, Charmian, and, shockingly, to his former lovers, Helena can no longer live on the grand scale to which she is accustomed. She is persuaded to let her hunky chauffeur go and move into an apartment with Claud and Charmian. Helena, unused to living without admiration, becomes vulnerable to a kind of asexual love affair with Johnny Field, an irritatingly self-denigrating young man, whom Claud introduces into the household, assuring her that Johnny needs rest and “does nothing but read.”

At first she uses Johnny as a lackey to pass appetizers at parties and install linoleum at her cottage , but later she is fascinated by him and insists that she can’t live without him. Claud and Charmian can’t bear the situation and move out. Johnny the unlikely gigolo, is, surprisingly, a magnet to older women. One of Lord Archer’s former lovers, Mrs. Olney, a lamp shade maker, also tries to lure him to live with her.

Claud’s observations of this unlikely triangle are the center of the novel. But his wry observations keep him in the forefront, and it is for his voice that we read. This very slightly reminds me of Anthony Powell’s novels.

Women Writing Well About Sex: Pamela Hansford Johnson’s This Bed Thy Centre

This Bed thy Centre Pamela Hansford Johnson imagePamela Hansford Johnson (1912-1981), a critically-acclaimed novelist of the mid-twentieth century, is the author of several neglected classics. My favorite is the Helena trilogy, Too Dear for My Possessing, An Avenue of Stone, and A Summer to Decide.

I just read This Bed Thy Centre, published in 1935, her energetic, poignant first novel, organized around a small group of characters who live in the same South London neighborhood.  Although I am a Johnson fan, I expected little of this book, possibly because of the title.  I was thrilled to find it stylishly written and bold, the first of many brilliant novels.  It belongs to a genre described by D. J. Taylor in The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England Since 1918, which I wrote about here, as a “panorama of capital life,” i.e, a novel set in a single London neighborhood or at a single address. Johnson’s book fits well with the “panoramas” he mentions, such as J. B. Priestley’s Angel Pavement, Patrick Hamilton’s trilogy, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, and Norman Collins’s London Belongs to Me.

in This Bed Thy Centre, Johnson portrays characters of a wide range of classes and intelligence, most of them women.  Her explicitness about women’s sexual desires caused an uproar when the book was published.  In the preface of the 1961 edition, Johnson, who wrote the book in two months when she was 22, explains she did not mean it to be controversial.

Johnson writes,

Times have changed since, and it would be quite a feat today, to provoke such a succès de scandale as I did, without trying, in 1935.  Words like “outspoken,” “fearless,” “frank” (dirty words, the lot of them), flashed out of my headlines.  I was shocked and terrified.  That wasn’t what I had meant, at all.  Living in isolation from literary people, I shrank beneath the reactions of some of my kin, and some older acquaintances less than kind.  I was given to understand that I had disgraced myself and the entire area of Clapham Common.

this bed thy center johnson 077 At the center is a teenage girl, Elsie Cotton, who, in the beginning, has a crush on her art teacher, Leda, partly because she does not even know what sexual intercourse is.  “How are the facts of life?”  a friend asks cruelly the day after Elsie asks her how babies are made. But soon Elsie drops out of school and falls in love with a self-centered young man, Roly, who two-times her with a girl from the library with no twinge of conscience until he is found out.  Elsie tells her widowed mother, Mrs. Cotton, how much she wants sex with Roly, but she is also terrified of getting pregnant.  Mrs. Cotton chides her for talking so candidly, and Elsie asks if she didn’t feel the same way.  Mrs. Cotton cannot remember if she ever wanted sex much.

The other women in the neighborhood seem to belong to a lower class than the Cottons.   Mrs. Maginnis, my favorite character, is a cheerful, brave widow, well-liked in the neighborhood,  but Elsie’s boyfriend Roly nastily refers to her as “the best unpaid whore in the neighborhood.” She has an unemployed lover, who comes to her for food and angry sex.  She is sensuous:  she admires her body after a bath.  When she discovers a lump in her breast, she refuses to see a doctor.

“I haven’t,” she answered,” and I’m not going to. I don’t like them.  My husband, Bert his name was, had the TB, so they packed him off to a ‘sanny,’ and it’s my belief that they froze him to death.   Draughts, not enough bedclothes, snow and rain blowing in on him…  I shall never forgive myself for not making them leave him at home with me.  I would have nursed him well again.”

This attitude can perhaps be seen as representing the lower middle class (actually, I’m not sure about British class at all),  but I know many middle-class women who still doubt the medical profession.

Mrs. Godhsill, a Bible-thumping religious fanatic who preaches in the park, dominates her sickly daughter, Ada Mary, who works to support the family, and secret drinker son Arthur.  Maisie, the owner of a bar called The Admiral, knows all the doings in the neighborhood, and is not astonished when Arthur comes to the Admiral, drunk and vomiting.  Like Maisie, Ma Ditch, the cats’ meat woman at the market,  knows the neighborhood  gossip. The only educated woman in the novel is Leda, the art teacher, who has a passing fancy for Elsie, but when her writer lover returns, she reverts to her obsession with him.  She is both sexually attracted and repulsed, realizing she will have to support him financially.

Pamela and Dylan Thomas

Pamela and Dylan Thomas

Hardly anybody writes as well as Johnson about women’s sexual desires, and the book seems very modern in that respect. Elsie is sensual but is also very anxious about sex:  perhaps she is a predecessor of Lena Dunham, writer and actress in the TV show “Girls” and author of the memoir, Not That Kind of Girl.  In Not That Kind of Girl (a very good depiction of a millennial woman), Lena is so ambivalent about sex that, rather than go to bed with men, she has sleepover dates.  Her mother thinks sleeping together without sex is more perverse than having sex.  (I agree.)

Johnson’s This Bed Thy Centre has many dark moments.  There are anxiety attacks.  There are suicides. Her boyfriend Dylan Thomas, her only literary friend then, came up with the title, from one of Donne’s sonnets.  (She wanted to call it Nursery Rhyme, which I think is better.)

Last year I read Wendy Pollard’s brilliant biography, Pamela Hansford Johnson: Her Life, Works and Times.  ( I interviewed her about it here.)  Her second husband was C. P. Snow, another neglected writer.  Many of Johnson’s books have been reissued as e-books by Bello.  I hope this means there is a revival of her work.

The Crush in Literature: Pamela Hansford Johnson’s The Philistines & Charlotte Bronte’s Villette

woman yawning at typewriter 1551_2

What would we have done without our crushes when we were young women? (And may those days never come again.)

In our thirties when we were freelance writers, we worked in our pajamas at home and did phone interviews between loads of laundry.  Charming editors persuaded us to write  stories that involved long bus rides, multiple interviews, and long days of writing. The fee probably worked out to $3 an hour:  less with typewriter ribbons.  Crush away: it motivated us, though it would not be profitable.

The crush is also significant in literature.

the philistines pamela hansford johnson 51Nrm0P8kwLIn Pamela Hansford Johnson’s The Philistines, a crush lifts the heroine, Gwen, an unhappy housewife, above the tedium of life in Branley (a kind of anti-Cranford) with her boyish banker husband, Clifford, his gloomy invalid mother, and irritable unmarried sister, Evelyn. Clifford  is a beefy, jovial conformist, proud of his “intellectual” wife.   During World War II when Clifford is away,  Gwen works at a hospital and flirts with Paul, a doctor. Her crush is so intense that she sends her son to boarding school so she will have time to have an affair.  The affair, of course, never happens.

But Gwen needs her crush.

One of their first conversations is about reading. The smug, domineering Paul

…interrogated her swiftly, searching, probing, and unsmiling.  “Villette?  Better than Jane Eyre?  But why?”

“She knew more, then.”

Gwen is right:   Charlotte Bronte did know more then. In Jane Eyre, she gives Jane the husband she wants, albeit he is crippled first.   In Villette, Charlotte Bronte’s masterpiece, the heroine, Lucy Snowe, does not get the man she wants:  she falls in love with Doctor Graham, who doesn’t really notice her and loves someone else. Paul, an unattractive,  misogynistic Belgian teacher falls in love with Lucy.

In The Philistines, Paul is a blend of Graham and Paul: like Bronte’s Graham,  he likes Gwen but doesn’t love her; and, like Bronte’s Paul, he interrogates her.

Branley is a cruel, gossipy town. Branley disapproves of Gwen’s best friend fortysomething Pamela’s engagement to a younger man, Gerry.  At the club, Clifford plays a prank that ruins Pamela’s life.   In a game of Blind Man’s Bluff, he leads a nubile 22-year-oldwoman, Phoebe, to the blindfolded Gerry Fenner, Pamela’s fiance, whose hands are all over Phoebe.  When the blindfold is removed, Gerry is stunned by her beauty. Shortly thereafter he breaks off his engagement to Pamela and marries Phoebe.  Pamela commits suicide.

Here is what you do not want to hear when you tell someone you’re in love with him.  Paul’s response to Gwen is:

My dear,” he said at last, in a tentative, kindly voice, “you and I are different people.  You;re a romantic:  I’m not. I can’t help feeling that all this, to you, hasn’t been much more than a peg on which to hang the idea of love.”

Gwen creates a new life for herself and her son with courage, intelligence, and grace.  Love has not been kind, but it might come again.

Pamela Hansford Johnson’s The Philistines & The Book-Buying Habits of Bloggers

Bernadette (Kathy Baker) reading "Emma" in "The Jane Austen Book Club"

Bernadette (Kathy Baker) reading “Emma” in “The Jane Austen Book Club”

Book bloggers are an intense bunch.  Think of all that writing with no reward except to share our avidity for reading.

I was thinking about the act of book-blogging because it is  National Readathon Day, a pro-literacy event sponsored by The National Book Foundation, Penguin Random House, Goodreads, and Mashable

I was busy during official readathon hours, but  I made up for it later.  I finished Pamela Hansford Johnson’s remarkable novel, The Philistines, an exploration of the psychology of an unhappy woman who marries a suburban banker after she realizes she has no talent for writing.  Her mother, an artistic widow, is appalled.

What else should I do?  I have no future.”

“There’ll be something…something.”

“Oh, something!” Gwen cried, with a bitterness that made her instantly ashamed.

the philistines pamela hansford johnson 51Nrm0P8kwLFrom the beginning, we understand that unconventional Gwen is headed for disaster.  She and Clifford live with his  mother and sister, and never move into their own place.. Motherhood does not fulfill her, and the social life at the club is monotonous.  She develops a crush on a doctor, and it is not returned. She fantasizes about him for years.. I was struck by the intensity of the crush, an emoition so common among women in their thirties, yet largely unwritten about in novels. Perhaps romance is more exciting, but how many women actually sustain themselves by fantasies ? More on this next week.

Johnson always breaks taboos by delving into forbidden psychological territory.

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There is a new trend among book bloggers:  we say at the beginning of every year we are going to read only from our shelves.

We are going to be like Susan Hill in Howards End Is on the Landing, a wonderful book about her reading  from her home bookshelves for a year.

That’s what I say I’ll do, and I do read from my shelves, but book-buying is where my materialism comes in.  And I recently made a very interesting discovery :   I can get very cheap used books if I settle for “good” instead of “very good” or “like new” condition.

At our house it is very like a ’60s sitcom when books arrive in the mail on weekends.  I wish I were like Samantha in “Bewitched” and could twitch my nose and make the books disappear.   Today my husband intercepted four packages.  “Is it your birthday?”

I have very good reasons for buying these books, as he  shortly learned.  I had to replace my copy of A Dance to the Music of Time, Second Movement, because it fell apart while I was addictively rereading  Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant.

I swore I couldn’t get it at the library.

And so now I am done buying books.  For the year.

We’ll see!