Shelf Life

I have more books than my bookshelves can accommodate. Some of those books, I am sure, I will never read again. Yet I keep buying more of them. It’s become inconvenient. So, although I dislike disposing of my papery acquisitions, needs must, and I have decided that the rule for 2023 is that, for every book which I decide is a ‘keeper’, two other books will be given to the charity shop. Thus shall my stacks slowly diminish while my bookwormy appetites remain fed.

But in doing this, I thought, why not make a little noise about the ‘keeper’ books? There is so much good writing out there that is insufficiently appreciated by literary gatekeepers — often because it doesn’t fit the mould in some way. Yet many of us prefer books that don’t fit the mould — well-written, naturally, but also clever, quirky, unique, original, sui generis. Books, in short, which bring life to the shelf. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to dig up literary gems from the great mounds of published soil that are heaped up higher each day . . . but that means that when we do find a Keeper, we should talk about it. It’s a public service. Here, then, is my list of Keepers, with a few notes — deliberately not a review or rating — on each. I hope that this page (irregularly updated!) will result in at least some of the Keepers finding new readers. They deserve each other.

Note: I won’t list all my Keepers; I don’t have the time! For the avoidance of doubt: if a book is not listed here, it does not mean that it is not a Keeper.


Keeper 1: The Inconceivable Idea of the Sun, by Anil Menon (Hachette)

For my first keeper, I am cheating, as (i) I bought it in 2022, not 2023; and (ii) I only have it in digital form, so I can’t really complain about its shelf footprint. However, I don’t like reading in Kindle, which meant that I took a long time to get through the book, and only finished it in 2023; and I will get a hard copy as soon as I can. So I think I can justify its inclusion in this list. (Full disclosure: Anil has helped me tremendously with my own writing, so naturally I am well-disposed towards him; that said, I don’t think my comments below were significantly swayed by gratitude. But what should be disclosed must be disclosed, and now it has been).

What it is:

A collection of sixteen stories, mostly with a speculative / SF bent and an Indian / desi flavour. For the latter reason, those unfamiliar with the subcontinent or its diasporic manifestations may occasionally miss some of the allusions or be tripped up by wordplay — jombie for zombie, for example, in the accent of one character. The book also provides an entertaining preface and some notes on sources and contexts per story (I love it when authors give us this kind of supplementary discourse; it makes the book feel more complete). In a typically clever and individualistic flourish, Menon provides the table of contents as a poem. (And if the sixteen stories’ titles make a poem, then say, O reader, how much poetry is contained in each story?)

Quotes & notes:

“The man embraced his self, his subtlest story, his separation from all, and reminded it that stories are forged as gates, not walls. Open. There is nothing to fear.”

The author’s style is elegant and deceptively simple. You often forget you are reading, which is the effect that all authors (should) aim for, but few achieve. To read Menon, I think, is to feel that you are sitting with an old friend, cradling a G&T while he good-naturedly burbles away at you – and then, suddenly, to realise that you are down to the ice and lime and his polymathic burbling has raised questions for which there are no answers. Anyway, it was great to read intelligent spec fic that has a natural (unforced) subcontinental ‘feel’. If you only read one of these unique stories, choose ‘Into the Night’. Impossible not to be touched; impossible, perhaps, not to gently rage at the good night into which we all must go. Or weep, at least, at the paths some of us must take to go there.


Keeper 2. The Book of Devices, by Ihsan Oktay Anar; translator: Gregory Key (Imprint)

I’d been contemplating this purchase for months; having had a run of disappointing literary acquisitions, I hemmed and hawed longer than I should have, but finally clicked on the Buy button. And I’m glad I did.

What it is:

A short novel (call it a novella if you like), comprised of three sections (call them novelettes if you like) set in Ottoman Turkey. The sections describe the attempts of three individuals to invent and construct extraordinary devices – not least, a perpetual motion machine – and the eventual fates of said individuals.

Quotes & notes:

“On the authority of Basri Effendi the Cymbalist of the notables of the Tatavla lunatic league, it is reported that Yafes Chelebi, wandering destitute in and about Kasimpasa, Galata, and Tophane, after his expulsion from the school of engineering, did not remain idle during this second dark period of his life, but filled two or three scraps of paper with drawings of a dabbaba, and once again began to entertain outrageous fantasies.”

I have had a soft spot for cunning devices, not least for perpetual motion machines, ever since my boyhood, when I myself invented a perpetual motion device. (It involved a series of buckets, if I remember correctly, and was based on the premise that although water usually flows downhill, it might be encouraged uphill — in an eternal, closed-system flow — by means of a clever arrangement of tubing and close attention to some of Escher’s diagrams. I really should dig out the plan and patent it – I’d make a fortune). So that was partly why the book caught my eye, and for once my eye was happy to be captured, for a lovely little book it is. Anar appears to be something of a Renaissance man – not only can he write, but I’m guessing that the design of the devices in the book, and their illustrations, are also his. I like it when authors give readers something more than words. Also, it was wonderful to get glimpses of a time and culture of which I know very little. I don’t know how the writing feels in the original Turkish, but Key’s translation gives us rolling, sophisticated English sentences that are a pleasure to read. I will definitely seek out more of this author, hopefully via the same translator. I suspect and hope that Anar’s other work will be more immersive and ‘novel-like’ than this little trilogy; this is not to criticise ‘The Book of Devices’ — I love it just as it is — just that I suspect Anar has deeper stories and styles to give us, and I look forward to finding out if I’m right.


Keeper 3: ‘Awareness’, by Anthony de Mello (Fount Paperbacks)

Originally, ‘Shelf Life’ was going to focus on fiction, primarily new fiction. But I make the rules for this exercise, and I’ve decided there’s no rule that says ‘Fiction Only’.  So I am including this non-fiction book, by the Indian Jesuit priest and psychotherapist Anthony de Mello. It was lent to me by my neighbour (thanks, Steve!), and I enjoyed it enough to want to buy it, at which point Steve just gave me the copy I’d borrowed.

What it is:

A collection of talks by de Mello on ‘spiritual’ / psychological themes, written in a chatty, jokey style that I presume reflects the way they were delivered in person.

Quotes and notes:

“Who’s living in you? It’s pretty horrifying when you come to know that. You think you are free, but there probably isn’t a gesture, a thought, an emotion, an attitude, a belief in you that isn’t coming from someone else. . . And you don’t know it. Talk about a mechanical life that was stamped into you.”

The book encourages some self-reflection, which is always healthy. Well, often healthy. Well, sometimes healthy . . . depends what kind of reflection looks back at you, I suppose . . .


Confessions of an English Opium Eater’, and other writings, by Thomas de Quincey, Oxford World’s Classics, OUP; editor Robert Morrison.

Another non-fiction Keeper. I’ve been intending to read this for decades; finally got round to it. This edition, with an introduction and set of notes by Robert Morrison, includes not only the ‘Confessions’  (1821) but also ‘Suspiria de Profundis’ (1845) and ‘The English Mail Coach’ (1849). Of these, I preferred the ‘Confessions’; the later works sometimes slip into overblown, florid Victorian sentimentality. But I’d keep them all: apart from the charms of their unique subject matter, they give interesting insights into late eighteenth / early nineteenth century English (and Welsh) life.

What it is:

‘Confessions’ is a description of the genesis and consequences of the author’s opium addiction, including some descriptions of the narcotic / hallucinogenic effects of the drug, in nineteenth century London.

Quotes and notes:

[on “the utter feebleness of the main herd of modern economists”]:  “. . . these were generally the very dregs and rinsings of the human intellect . . . any man of sound head, and practiced in wielding logic with a scholastic adroitness, might take up the whole academy of modern economists, and throttle them between heaven and earth with his finger and thumb, or bray their fungus heads to powder with a lady’s fan.”

[describing an opium-induced vision]: “I ran into pagodas and was fixed, for centuries, at the summit, or in secret rooms; I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed. I fled from the wrath of Brama through all the forests of Asia; Vishnu hated me; Shiva laid wait for me. I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris; I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and the crocodile trembled at. I was buried, for a thousand years, in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles, and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.”

They don’t make them like de Quincey any more.