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Assembling My Atheneum: A.S. Byatt

September 20, 2010

Last month, while musing about my home library, I suddenly had an idea for a series. Since I would ideally build my home library by buying the complete works of an author after I read and loved one of her books, why not do some posts about who those authors would be? And I decided to title it Assembling My Atheneum, since I’m kind of a fan of alliteration, I was born in Athens, and it speaks to my classics student nerdiness. Also, ‘atheneum’ can mean not only ‘a place where materials are available for reading’ but also ‘an association for the promotion of learning.’ Since I read for education as much as pleasure, it felt appropriate!

Of course, since then, I’ve been a bit paralysed with indecision…what author should I kick things off with? Should I go with one of my very favourites, even though none of them are precisely obscure? Or should I mainly feature lesser-known authors? In the end, I decided to begin with an author who I can always depend on: A.S. Byatt.

Official Website

I first read Byatt during the summer break after my first year of college, when I was 18. I was on a short story kick at the time, so I got her collection Little Black Book of Stories (then just-published) out from the library. I can remember how lovely the book was; a rich hardback, with an attached ribbon bookmark and the most sumptuous feeling cover. And then I read the stories, and I fell in love. I can remember the details of all of them now, some six years later, but I especially remember “Body Art,” with its unforgettable imagery related to pregnancies and abortions and fetuses and “The Stone Woman,” a lovely fairy tale about a woman who actually begins to turn to stone. The writing was as rich and delicious as the cover, and I was hooked!

Since then, I’ve been working my way through her backlist, and I have yet to be disappointed. Of her five published short story collections, in addition to Little Black Book I’ve read Elementals, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, and The Matisse Stories. That means I only have her earliest collection, Sugar and Other Stories, left. On the novel front, I’ve read The Children’s Book, A Biographer’s Tale, Angels & Insects, and Possession (twice), which leaves her two earliest stand-alones, The Shadow of the Sun and The Game. She also has a quartet of novels, of which I’ve only read the first one: The Virgin in the Garden. That leaves (in order) Still Life, Babel Tower, and Whistling Woman. I have yet to try any of her nonfiction, which includes literary criticism and essay collections. She’s definitely got a nice full bibliography, which makes sense since she’s been publishing for over 40 years.

For being one of my favourites, I don’t actually own much of her work: I only have hard copies of The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, The Virgin in the Garden, and Whistling Woman (which I picked up a thrift store last month, but which I obviously won’t be reading for awhile). So I’m far from my ideal of a complete Byatt collection!

If you haven’t tried Byatt but would like to, you can of course begin with her most famous novel, Possession. But that’s a pretty big commitment, so if it has you nervous I’d recommend starting with The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye. It’s a collection of several short stories, all told in a fairy-tale style, and the title novella, which must be one of my very favourite pieces of her writing. Angels & Insects is a collection of two novellas, both set in Victorian England, so if you’re a Victoriana enthusiast, you could begin there instead. Or if you prefer your prose to be less baroque, The Virgin in the Garden is quite straight-forward, and a fascinating look at a girl studying at Oxford in the 50s, when that was still unusual. That’s the one I’d suggest first to fans of books like those Persephone Press publishes. I recognise that Byatt isn’t for everyone, but for me she’s one of those authors I instantly click with. Opening up one of her books is like receiving a decadent box of chocolate truffles: I savour every moment.

A.S. Byatt titles I’ve talked about on my blog: The Virgin in the Garden | The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye | Angels & Insects | Elementals

I’m still playing around with the best format for this feature, so do give me feedback! I haven’t included any biographical details, because frankly I’m the kind of reader who avoids learning about authors’ lives; I prefer to know them solely through their writing. But if there’s anything non-biographical that you think would enrich these kinds of posts, let me know. :) I do know the button isn’t precisely book related, but I can’t make my ideal button until I’ve moved and set up my reading room, so I just grabbed a photo off my harddrive. Think of this is an interim one!

ETA: I thought I’d pop back by and say that if my new feature inspires you to do a similar post/series of posts on your own blog, that’s wonderful! I’m all for spreading book and author love. :) Since I don’t want to host anything coordinated (i.e.: a meme) though, I would ask that you come up with your own title/image. That way it’ll keep an informal/unofficial feel!

87 Comments leave one →
  1. September 20, 2010 7:19 am

    This is a great idea for a new feature. I love the idea of you featuring authors and their whole collections.

  2. September 20, 2010 7:23 am

    This is a great feature, Eva! I haven’t read anything by Byatt though I know a lot of you love her work. It’s definitely an interesting idea to explore though…which authors I’d like to collect completely!

    • September 23, 2010 5:42 pm

      I’d love to see which authors you want to collect!

  3. September 20, 2010 7:32 am

    This did make me want to pick up that rashly bought copy of The Childrens Book. Maybe she’s not so daunting after all.

    • September 23, 2010 5:42 pm

      I LOVED The Children’s Book, but it’s definitely dropping you into the deep end of Byatt! I know it took some readers a hundred pages to get into, so do give it a go. :)

  4. September 20, 2010 7:32 am

    In the ’90s, she was one of a few authors whose work I bought fresh, in hard cover. (How smitten I was with Possession!) But, lately, I’ve enjoyed her short stories more than her novels. I did finish the Frederica Quartet and bought a copy of The Children’s Book, but I’ve gotten a bit out of touch. Perhaps I should take another look…

    • September 23, 2010 5:43 pm

      Children’s Book reminded me a lot of Possession, so I think you’ll enjoy that one a lot! :)

  5. September 20, 2010 7:44 am

    Personally, I don’t think you should change a thing, Eva…I loved the way you started off this new feature, and I can’t think of anything it’s lacking.

    (I can relate that to that whole not wanting to know too much about authors personally thing–I tend to be the same. But Eva, I do hope you’ll make Sacks the exception–you know, before the whole marriage ceremony and all. ;) )

    • September 23, 2010 5:44 pm

      Thanks Debi! And lol….see, I accidently found out Sacks is single, and now I talk about him as my future husband. This is why I shouldn’t read personal stuff about authors! ;) Although, having read his memoir (Uncle Tungsten), I feel like I already know him well enough. lol

  6. September 20, 2010 8:42 am

    Love this idea, and you’re really giving me the uuumphf to try Byatt. I have Little Black Book on my stacks, and it sounds like the perfect place to start for me. She scares me for some reason, but I will get over it!

    • September 23, 2010 5:44 pm

      I think you’d love Little Black Book! It reminds me of Angela Carter, actually. :)

  7. September 20, 2010 8:57 am

    Great idea! I love the title! As for Byatt, she is one of my favorite authors I’ve never read. Meaning that even though I haven’t gotten around to reading her, I know I’ll love her works. I found a copy of Little Black Book at a library sale and need to read it. And Possession…seriously why haven’t I read this?

    • September 23, 2010 5:45 pm

      Thanks Amanda! lol @ how you categorise Byatt; I totally have authors I think of like that too. :) I hope you get to her sooner rather than later!

  8. September 20, 2010 9:05 am

    I love this. Continue to do this.

    ALSO, when I one day own a house and it has a library with shelves and one of those rolling ladders, I will refer to it as my atheneum.

    • September 23, 2010 5:45 pm

      Thanks Raych! And isn’t atheneum the most fun word? :)

  9. September 20, 2010 9:12 am

    I really love this feature :) I have yet to read anything by Byatt but I have Possession and The Children’s Book on my tbr shelf. Hopefully I will love her as much as you. The collection you started with sounds really great.

    • September 23, 2010 5:45 pm

      Thanks Amy! I know we don’t always have similar taste in fiction (unlike nonfiction!), but I hope you love her too. :D

      • September 23, 2010 5:53 pm

        Speaking of which, I am currently reading NO PLACE LEFT TO BURY THE DEAD, which I heard about from you :D

  10. September 20, 2010 9:16 am

    Byatt is definitely an author I’d like to read more of. I’ve only read Possession, and that was well over 10 years ago; I’ve since gotten myself a copy and intend to re-read it at some point… It seems like an autumnal novel to me, so maybe the time will soon be ripe for it!

    I’ve been really intrigued by Babel Tower but didn’t realize it was part of quartet… glad to know that! I’d hate to read it out of order!

    • September 23, 2010 5:46 pm

      Definitely an autumnal novel! And glad I saved you from reading Babel Tower first. :) I hate it when I accidently read books out of order.

  11. September 20, 2010 9:16 am

    Possession is way up there on my list of all-time favorite books. I have read it at least twice. One caution – do NOT see the movie made from the book. It is awful. I must read more Byatt.

    • September 23, 2010 5:47 pm

      Thanks for the warning! I’ve been mildly curious about it, but I don’t want to ruin my experience of the book.

  12. September 20, 2010 9:33 am

    I like this as a new series on your blog! What a great idea :)

    I really thought A. S. Byatt would be right up my alley, partly on recommendation of a good friend with similar tastes, but when I read Possession a few years ago it just didn’t do much for me. I think I mildly enjoyed it, but I didn’t feel a strong urge to go read more by her, or wish that the book never ended, or anything like that. I keep thinking maybe I should give her a second chance, but there are so many choices of things to read that it is not high on my priority list.

    • September 23, 2010 5:47 pm

      Thanks Sarah! If you do give her a second chance, maybe go for Djinn in Nightingale’s Eye? Shorter for sure. :)

  13. September 20, 2010 9:36 am

    What. a cool. idea! Love it. And, having just discovered Possession, your choice of a first author to dive into here is personally useful to me, haha. Especially interested in what you say about The Virgin in the Garden, since, while I do like Victoriana, it’s also nice to know that Byatt’s range is larger than that. I imagine The Children’s Book will be next on my Byatt list, but you give me a lot to choose from here, Eva! Thanks for the post. :-)

    • September 23, 2010 5:48 pm

      Thank you Emily! The Children’s Book was great. :D And I’m glad Byatt plays around with different time periods as well; makes it more fun to read all those books. ;)

  14. September 20, 2010 9:50 am

    Great idea! I have read The Children’s Book. I liked it but Whew! it was a biggie. I still have Possession on my shelf.

    • September 23, 2010 5:48 pm

      If you liked Children’s Book, I bet you’ll like Possession too! :)

  15. September 20, 2010 10:07 am

    This is a great idea for a series, Eva. I look forward to reading your posts!

  16. September 20, 2010 10:07 am

    What a great name for a feature Eva and where you really truly born in Athens, how fascinating!!

    I myself have only read The Childrens Book by Ms Byatt and enjoyed it much more than I thought I was going to. Everyone says I should read Posession but I am slightly worried it will be too clever for me. Where would you suggest I start?

    • September 23, 2010 5:50 pm

      Yep: both of my parents were in the Air Force, and Athens was a place where a Russian linguist (my dad) and Arabic linguist (my mom) could be stationed together. :)

      I think if you enjoyed Children’s Book, you’ll be good with Possession too. :) But maybe take a break from her chunksters and try out The Virgin in the Garden?

  17. September 20, 2010 10:15 am

    What a fabulous post. I am looking forward to watching your ideal library grow. A.S.Byatt is an author I have yet to read, even though I do own a few of her books.

    • September 23, 2010 5:50 pm

      Thanks Vivienne! Do give Byatt a go: she’s great fun. :)

  18. Erin permalink
    September 20, 2010 10:19 am

    I think this is a wonderful idea for a feature and look forward to reading more about assembling your atheneum! I am also happy you chose to start with Byatt, because a coworker recently recommended her work to me so strongly that I was already considering picking something up. I’ve just added The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye to my list.

    I really liked how you set up this post. I love hearing how someone got into an author, what that author has meant to them, that sort of thing. I like having links to more information (such as a bio), but sometimes if it’s included in the actual post, it’s too much. I’m also a huge fan of how you recommended several of Byatt’s titles, depending on what the reader’s usual tastes are! That’s so helpful, especially if it’s a new-to-me author with an intimidatingly hefty backlist. I’m sorry not to be including lots of constructive suggestions, but I really enjoyed this post as it is!

    • September 23, 2010 5:51 pm

      Thanks Erin! I found your comment very constructive; I know now that I should just keep doing what I’m doing. :)

      And let me know how you find Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye!

  19. September 20, 2010 10:46 am

    I never heard of this author before. And I don’t mind missing bio details; I always like to hear more about the works themselves than the author’s lives. It sounds like such a fun way to plan building a library! Although, it’s very rare for me to fall in love with all of an author’s books; there are so many where I only like a few, or only one of many series, or even only one book! So I don’t think I’d ever attempt to buy all their books based on just the love of one…

    • September 23, 2010 5:52 pm

      Interesting! Sometimes, I end up only liking one book an author has written, but usually if I really, really LOVE one of their books, I at least enjoy the others. I wonder if that’s because I’m most drawn to writing style in a book, which usually stays pretty consistent?

  20. September 20, 2010 12:02 pm

    what a great idea ,I ve not read many Byatts my self ,nut for me it be Anthony Burgess ,Gunter Grass ,Ben Okri i ve lot by all these but not every one ,all the best stu

    • September 23, 2010 5:53 pm

      The only one of those I’ve read is Burgess! I plan to read Okri this year, though. I don’t think there are many authors whose ENTIRE works I’ve read, but there are quite a few whose entire works I want to read. :) I like spacing it out, though, so I don’t run out of their writing too soon!

  21. September 20, 2010 1:53 pm

    A big yay, for the new feature! :) An excellent idea! I have a feeling I would love Byatt’s writing, but this far I have not read anything by her. I do own The Children’s Book, though.
    I just might borrow this idea & post something similar one of these days, as you so kindly encourage us to steale the idea! :)


    • September 23, 2010 5:54 pm

      Thanks Tiina! I do hope you post something similar: I’d love you to see your picks. :) And I think you’ll be a Byatt fan when you get around to her!

  22. September 20, 2010 3:05 pm

    Love the feature. Love the name. Love A.S. Byatt. Can’t wait for more of these posts.

    • September 23, 2010 5:54 pm

      Thank you Jessica! And yay for Byatt love. :D I was actually a bit nervous posting about her, since I remember quite a few kind of snarky posts on The Children’s Book. lol

  23. September 20, 2010 3:49 pm

    I love this feature! I love your first choice, too. I’ve only read Possession by Byatt to date, but I really enjoyed it. Thank you for the reminder of this author–I’m definitely going to have to add more of her works to my list. I had no idea she has so many titles to choose from.

    • September 23, 2010 5:54 pm

      Isn’t it exciting when you discover an author has way more works than you thought? :) Possession is such fun!

  24. September 20, 2010 4:31 pm

    Love this feature! Yes! More!

  25. September 20, 2010 5:51 pm

    I’ve only read Possession and The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye. I’m looking forward to reading more! Especially THE CHIDLREN’S BOOK.

    • September 23, 2010 5:55 pm

      I can definitely see you getting along with The Children’s Book!

  26. September 20, 2010 8:02 pm

    I’ve been thinking about doing something similar, so bravo to that.

    I’ve never read any Byatt, but The Children’s Book is high on my TBR list. When it came out and everyone was reviewing it, I knew I had to eventually get my hands on it. I added some of these other titles to the list as well!

    • September 23, 2010 5:55 pm

      Can’t wait to see what you’re planning on doing! :)

  27. September 21, 2010 2:27 am

    Brilliant idea! Thanks for the wonderful recommendations. Possession has been my only Byatt so far, but I know I’d love to read more by her. I know what you mean that there are some authors you just ‘click’ with.

    • September 23, 2010 5:56 pm

      I hope you enjoy reading more of her. :) And I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

  28. September 21, 2010 5:52 am

    You don’t find out anything biographical about authors you like? I am fascinated! I mean, I understand why not–it’s a total depressing letdown to find out that authors I love are jerks in real life–but I simply don’t have the self-control. Also I like reading author interviews because I always want to know why they wrote the sort of book they wrote, and what they were trying to accomplish.

    I like this feature! :)

    • September 23, 2010 5:58 pm

      Nope…I don’t even read Neil Gaiman’s blog! It’s not so much self-control for me…I honestly don’t much interest in learning about them outside of their books. LOL If a novel I’ve read includes an interview at the back, I’ll read it, but that’s it! If I knew an interview was JUST about an author’s books, I’d read it, but even then I kind of like discovering the book on my own terms. Writing this, I’m realising how self-absorbed I sound. ;)

  29. September 21, 2010 8:59 am

    This is a great idea for a feature! I haven’t read anything by A.S. Byatt yet, but I do have Possession on my shelves after having it recommended to me by several people. I have far too many books on my shelves that are highly recommended yet unread by me. I need more time to read (seems to be my mantra). :)

    • September 23, 2010 5:58 pm

      I have far too many of those TBR books too! :)

  30. September 21, 2010 11:00 am

    Add me to everyone else – this is a wonderful feature! It’s nice to not only know which authors are your favorites, but which books of theirs I might want to try for myself. I’ve read two of A.S. Byatt’s books, Possession and The Children’s Book, and I just about adored them both. I have Angels and Insects, but the rest of her stuff is just out there waiting for me to discover it – and I’m very much looking forward to that.

    • September 23, 2010 6:01 pm

      Thanks Megan! Angels & Insects is fun, and after that you’ll get to know her short stories. :)

  31. September 21, 2010 8:40 pm

    Eva, I think this feature would be one of my favorites in the blogosphere. And such a great name it has!
    I’m one of those who are scared to start Byatt. Nightingale and Virgin in the Garden sound right up my alley. Maybe I should start with those? Ideally though I would love to read Possession, as I always like to start with an author’s magnum opus, so in case I don’t like it I don’t have any more pressure to read what is claimed to be their best work.

    • September 23, 2010 6:03 pm

      Aww: thanks Mee! I think either Nightingale or Virgin would be good places to start. :D Shorter, and less pastiche. I love Possession, but I don’t think it’s Byatt’s magnum opus…I can understand not wanting to start there though!

  32. September 22, 2010 3:20 am

    I *love* the idea for a feature (as you know).

    I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t read anything by Byatt yet.

    • September 23, 2010 6:04 pm

      Thanks Iris! And don’t be ashamed: there are so many authors out there!

  33. September 22, 2010 6:39 pm

    This is a great idea and a fantastic post. I like hearing from readers who have read a lot of a particular authors’ work and thus are able to make recommendations for a good starting point with that author. I haven’t read anything by A.S. Byatt yet so your comments on her are quite useful.

    • September 23, 2010 6:04 pm

      I’m glad it helped you out Christy! And I hope it encourage you to give her a try. ;)

  34. September 23, 2010 3:53 am

    What a fantastic title – I love the tongue-in-cheek loftiness of it! If you ever compile your posts into a book it would be the perfect name for it.

    Good choice with Byatt – and near the start of the alpabet too, just in case any particularly orderly person is using your recommendations to assemble their own library. I’ve only read two Byatts but am reassured you find her so rreliably good.

    • September 23, 2010 6:08 pm

      Thanks! And I’m glad the tongue-in-cheek aspect comes through. :D Good point about the alphabet: I hadn’t thought of that!

  35. September 25, 2010 3:41 pm

    This is a great new feature for your already excellent blog! Makes me wish I had a Real Blog as well so I could copy… Byatt would definitely be (and actually is, in my personal library; I’ve been slowly amassing her books for years) top on my list. I’m convinced that Possession actually changed my life: I read it when I was 15 and was so enraptured by the exciting life of a literary research that I immediately dropped my scientific aspirations and became an english major. It was mostly the romance! and the swashbuckling library hunts! that got me back then, but I reread it on my birthday this year (best present to myself) and was stunned by her prose and the structure. It’s a perfect novel.

  36. September 25, 2010 6:24 pm

    Very clever, and a wonderful tribute to the work of A. S. Byatt.

    I, too, enjoy reading a backlist if I read something I enjoy, but am not diligent about collecting them all at once.

    How fun to be growing your home library this way!

  37. September 26, 2010 3:05 pm

    This is such a great feature! I can’t wait to see the authors you spotlight. I’ve heard bunches about A.S. Byatt’s work, but it’s nice to read one consolidated post about her.

  38. January 25, 2012 11:54 am

    Maybe I will think about a series like this for my own blog. Maybe “Rereading my Riches.” Well, not exactly the same.

  39. January 4, 2013 1:16 pm

    Liked your post very much, Eva! ‘Possession’ is one of my alltime favourite books! I want to read all of Byatt’s books someday. Hope you get to own all of Byatt’s books at some point of time. I loved the cover of ‘Little Black Book of Stories’ that you have posted – so beautiful!


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  11. Assembling My Atheneum: Neil Gaiman « A Striped Armchair
  12. Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt (thoughts) « A Striped Armchair
  13. The Disorderly Knights by Dorothy Dunnett (thoughts) « A Striped Armchair

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