Where do the bad books go?

Debriefing: Collected Stories
By Susan Sontag
320 pp. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $27.

If you tend to buy books before reading them, as I do (as opposed to borrowing them from a friend or a library), do you keep them if you end up not liking them, or do you put them in a stack somewhere, to give away or trade in the next time you visit a used bookstore?

There is something nice about keeping a book, even the bad books, simply to keep a sort of physical record of what you’ve read (perhaps this is sheer vanity). On the other hand, there’s also something nice about having a library that consists only of the books you’ve read and really liked and the books you haven’t read yet but plan to eventually get around to.

I find myself pondering this having now finished this collection of short stories by Susan Sontag.

Sontag is one of those authors who has long been on my to-read list, but I understand now that it’s primarily her nonfiction that made her name.

I wish I had known that before.

There are a couple of alright stories here. The first, “Pilgrimage,” is about, we presume, the teenage Sontag who, along with a friend, is given an invitation to have tea at the LA home of the great German author, Thomas Mann. That’s a a pleasant enough story, but things go downhill from there.

“Unguided Tour” is pretty meh, redeemed only by the excellent line, “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” “The Dummy” reads like second rate Kafka or Hans Christian Andersen, and is about a man who makes a copy of himself that then wants a copy of itself, and, yeah, that’s about all that was worth remembering about this collection, most of which isn’t fiction at all but vague memories and snippets of conversation that Sontag, for whatever reason, felt was worthy of putting out in the world.

I’ve placed “Debriefing” on the stack of books to be discarded, but not before removing the bookmark, which I got when visiting the Frick Collection in NYC last November, a memory I don’t intend to donate along with this book.

Yes, the author’s name looks good on the shelf, but why, my thinking goes, keep a book one didn’t enjoy?

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