The Tyranny of the To-Read Pile
Posted by: Keir Graff
It’s fun following the threads of a blog conversation through cyberspace, even when I have to do it backward. In the Wall Street Journal (“Still on the Shelf“), Book Lover Cynthia Crossen gave herself the following challenge: “to save money by reading a book that I own but have never read.” Sounds easy, doesn’t it?
As I scanned my shelves, I found I had convincing arguments why I shouldn’t read each one of the orphans — or convincing to me anyway. I rejected a book called “English, August,” by Upamanyu Chatterjee because it is, after all, November. No to “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” by Robert Tressell because the book jacket says it’s about “the desperate lives of working people.” No to “The Unconsoled” by Kazuo Ishiguro because I heard it wasn’t nearly as good as “Remains of the Day” or “Never Let Me Go.”
Try it yourself and see how many pitiful excuses you can find for not reading a book you own.
(I know from experience that this exercise can yield pleasant some surprises. I once found a Mars Bar behind a copy of Elizabeth Costello.) I’m sure this strategy won’t help the publishing industry, but it might boost the hospitality services industry with all the extra beer money you’ll have.
But former Bookninja assassination target Sam Jordison knows the dark side of exploring the to-read pile:
Bibliophiles everywhere will be only too well acquainted with the demons of guilt and shame that such explorations would conjure. The to-read pile is more than just a physical stack of books: it’s a tower of ambitions failed, hopes unrealised, good intentions unfulfilled. Worse still, it’s a cold hard reminder of mortality. Already, I have intentions to read more books than I can hope to manage in a normal lifetime. How will this pile of books taunt me when I’m 64?
I post my own to-read pile online, but those are books that I have been given to review and, barring catastrophe, I will indeed read all of them. My personal to-read pile is much more shameful, given that my schedule of assigned reading pretty much precludes any reading for fun. During a really good year, I might read six books on my own time. During a bad year, maybe two. (Every January, Bill Ott polls all Booklisters on their favorite for-fun reads on the Back Page.)
And yet I still buy and hoard books. I’ve joked–joked–that I’ll have to quit my job as a book reviewer in order to read books. But given that I won’t, I imagine I’ll spend my first months of retirement doing math, dividing the number of pages per day I can read into the number of years I think I have left–and weeding my thousands of books to read accordingly.
It’s a sickness, yes, but one I have no wish to cure.