Do you ever do this? You are getting ready to leave on a trip or participate in an event, and you feel compelled to have a certain book. You might check the library, but when they don't carry it or it's checked out, you just haul off and order it or stop by your local bookseller, and you move forward all excited about your purchase because you really, really wanted this book for this experience? And then you read it, and you realize this was a book you don't actually wish to own. Book-Buyer's Remorse: it doesn't happen often, but when it does, you feel so deflated.
It should come as no surprise that I love books. I don't have an e-reader because I prefer to own my books - completely. I write in them, refer to them, return to them years later. But, several years ago, I made a conscious decision to only own those books that really matter in a fairly significant way. I went through my shelves and did some culling: if it is a book I want my kids to "stumble upon" as teens, or something I know I will return to, then it stayed. If it was mere entertainment with no notable notetaking or if I didn't even really enjoy the book, it was pulled. I try not to buy a book unless I already know I will want to keep it. The risk there lies in borrowing a book from the library and realizing that you really need to own it. There you are, trying to keep track of interesting passages and quotes and ideas - all without writing in the book. Not an easy task, I tell you.
So, when I bought - in my Paris in July excitement - the Styron memoir previously commented on and this one, A. J. Liebling's Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris, I did so in full knowledge of my infraction. I was swept up in the idea, and though the Styron was a decent bet, I had no idea what to expect from the Liebling. A classic food writer. Paris. The New Yorker. All things I trust, but still a risk. And as it turned out, it was a risk I wish I had not taken.
Now, don't get me wrong. The book was not horrendous, it did not offend (too much anyway), I did not despair ever having read it. But it equally was not superb, it did not enlighten, I did not want to ever read it again. Now I am left with Book-Buyer's Remorse. Alas.
Liebling was a young man in Paris in the 1920s, and his experiences there were unique. His voice is forceful and funny at times, but I simply could not get on board. I am not a fan of boxing (something Liebling loved and often uses for analogies or descriptions), and though I do consider myself something of a food person, I am not the most adventurous of eaters, and I do not cotton to Liebling's brand of gluttony. And for a supposed food memoir, I did not finish the book feeling like it was overwhelmingly about food. He wrote more about quantity than quality - or when he referred to quality, he merely said it was or wasn't quality. Being unfamiliar with many of the dishes, I could not immediately appreciate the truth of what he was asserting, and he did nothing to incite or inspire or tantalize the reader to appreciate the dishes. He just ate and drank and occasionally told us what he ate or drank. Or sometimes he talked about boxing or about prostitutes or money or his family. But there was no continuity of narrative (understandable because they began as separate articles), no enduring characterization, no real embrace even of the city itself. In fact, I take real issue with James Salter's comment in the introduction (also excerpted on the back cover):
Though not a novel, it has a novel's grip - there is dialogue, character, description, and the unmistakable signature of a real writer: an entire book thrown away on nearly every page. (xv)
Perhaps that last statement reveals the problem. Perhaps Liebling could have produced something amazing, but instead of working at it like a novelist must, he merely threw away his novel on every page. Working under the constraints of journalistic timelines and being more concerned with his next meal than with what happened between meals, perhaps Liebling could not devote that kind of passionate energy to his writing. That passion was reserved for the food and wine.
So, to counter the Book-Buyer's Remorse, I am giving away my copy of Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris. If you would like it (despite my less than glowing review), comment below. Tell me about your experiences with BB Remorse, if you have had any. I'll pull a name out of the hat and let you know who gets it. And if no one wants it, I'll take it to my used bookseller and try to learn my lesson next time.