One half my life is not reading books

I like to consider May instead of January as the beginning of the new year because of Philip Larkin’s “Trees”:

The trees are coming into leaf

Like something almost being said;

The recent buds relax and spread,

Their greenness is a kind of grief…

…Yet still the unresting castles thresh

In fullgrown thickness every May.

Last year is dead, they seem to say,

Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

It seems especially fitting this year since I’ve reached a turning point of sorts in my treatment this month, and in addition to that we moved to a house in which the view from my bedroom window is green and leafy.

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The new year is a good time to take stock of things that are important to you, which is why it seemed like a nice idea to write about the state of my reading habits c. 2013 (I find writing things down is a good way of taking stock). If you’re bored by now and don’t plan to read further I’ll summarise it for you here: it’s a total mess.

When I was young and books were treasured objects, I read every book I could get my hands on. By which I mean I finished every book I could get my hands on. As I got older and realized that for every book I read there were millions of others that weren’t being read, I started to abandon books that didn’t absorb me quickly enough for fear of losing out on something better. Then, once I discovered the internet allowed me to read several publications whose print versions I didn’t have access to, every book I owned not only had to compete with other books for my attention but also with blogs, ‘longreads’ from said publications, and more recently Twitter, where I get to read all the above accompanied by the criticism and commentary of journalists, academics and writers I admire.

Which is why this struck a chord with me (and thousands of others like me, it seems):

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I saw this on Twitter but the original link is apparently from Reddit. The word and its definition without the illustration appears to be from a blog called ‘Otherwordly’.

I therefore decided to catalogue a few items from my bookshelf that have fallen a victim to tsundoku as well as the likelihood of my finishing them this year on a scale of 0 to 10 (there are many, many more, this is only a representative sample):

The Rest Is Noise-Listening To The Twentieth Century by Alex Ross

Status: I bought this in 2009 and read the first chapter. I read the first chapter again in early 2013. I read nothing of it in the intervening years.

Likelihood of finishing it this year: 5. My source of motivation is a desire to learn about jazz so I can challenge people who claim to know about jazz.

The Last Life by Claire Messud

Status: I bought this because I loved The Emperor’s Children, and it must have been in 2011. There’s a bookmark in the middle of chapter 3.

Likelihood of finishing it this year: 0. I found myself caring very little about the fortunes of languid, unhappy French people. I’ll probably donate it to Oxfam.

The Argumentative Indian-Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity by Amartya Sen

Status: I’ve had this book since 2006. I know I’ve read the first 12 pages because I’ve underlined passages in them (e.g. “…if we go back all the way to ancient India, some of the most celebrated dialogues have involved women, with the sharpest questionings often coming from women interlocutors.” I was a feminist before I knew it.) Then the underlining stops abruptly and is never resumed.

Likelihood of finishing it this year: 6. I need to finish this so I can sound really knowledgeable and make new friends easily.

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings-A 21st Century Bestiary by Caspar Henderson

Status: I bought this in December 2012. It is unread. I just can’t find a time of the day suited to reading about Barrel Sponges and the Phylogenetic Tree of Life. The reason I bought this book, really, is because it is one of the most beautiful arrangements of cardboard, ink, glue and paper I’ve ever seen.

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Gilded lettering!

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Illustrations!

I love looking at this book but haven’t been able to summon enough interest in what it has to say. It is my trophy book.

Likelihood of finishing it this year: 0. I could at least try reading a chapter every couple of months, though.

How To Read And Why by Harold Bloom

Status: Well this is ironic. I’ve had this since 2011. I remember reading a critical analysis of Turgenev’s Sketches from a Hunter’s Album in the first chapter and realizing the stupidity of doing that without ever having read Turgenev, so I stopped.

Likelihood of finishing it this year: 0, but this book isn’t meant to be finished in one go anyway. I could use it as a guide to great literature for the rest of my life, provided I don’t keep putting off reading great literature.

You’ll notice that this list contains a disproportionate number of non-fiction entries. This isn’t because I procrastinate more when it comes to non-fiction than fiction but because my reading habits started to skew heavily towards non-fiction as I got older. I think there are two reasons for this. Firstly, there is a utilitarian benefit you get from reading works of history and culture, while the benefits of reading fiction are not so tangible. Fiction is read above all for pleasure, and doing things for pleasure alone increasingly seems like a decadence I can’t afford when there’s so much to do and to accomplish right now.

The second, less obvious, reason is that fiction is a lot more work. You’d think it would be the opposite, that worthy tomes full of facts and figures require more brainpower than a novel, but facts and figures offer the reader a sense of comfort and security-a sense of being in control-that literature does not. Literature demands patience and a quiet acceptance of the fact that full clarity is elusive and hard-won, and I find that my adult brain is terrified of existing in a state of half-comprehension for long periods of time. Not understanding things right away feels like failure, so I’d rather avoid those things altogether. This never used to bother me when I was younger-I read Doctor Zhivago at thirteen in an idyllic haze of not-knowingness, whereas if I pick it up now I’m sure I’ll start to worry right away about whether my interpretation of the book is the correct interpretation and whether I need to know more about Russian history before truly being able to ‘get’ the book and so on.

So my reading resolution for the new year is to slowly and methodically tackle my burgeoning collection of tsundoku-ed non-fiction and try and regain that sense of blissful abandon while reading fiction, which is the whole point of reading it in the first place. Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

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6 Responses to One half my life is not reading books

  1. wild iris says:

    Love this! Such a good piece, as expected 😀
    The poem is pretty, as is the view. I must pick up more Larkin (and poetry) from time to time…
    Happy new year!

  2. SC says:

    Thanks, and to you 🙂 (also, this is a truncated version of the poem, you can read the whole thing on the Poetry Archive’s website.) Larkin is pretty easy to get into. Contemporary poetry on the other hand…

  3. indernik says:

    Good to see that there are more people like me who buy books and keep them in pending list. Last year I thought about achieving the goal of reading 100 books but I was able to read only 50 books or 60 maybe. As I am growing up it’s becoming difficult to do so as I don’t get much time.

    I read an article written by a girl who wrote that she studies only on Sunday and completes 3 or 4 books in a day. She wakes up at 5 and starts reading books till 3 or 4. Woop that’s called dedication.

  4. Leigh says:

    I just found your blog after a mention in the NYT.
    You are a beautiful writer!

  5. C.C. says:

    I used to feel guilty about all the stacks and shelves of as yet unread books until I began to think of them as like my kitchen pantry ~ full of different kinds of nourishing (and as yet uneaten) food waiting to be taken off the shelf when I am hungry and ready for that meal. Now it just feels like another abundance for which I am grateful.
    And, again, I will have to agree with the previous poster ~ you are most definitely a beautiful writer and I am grateful to have found you. I’m thinking of the hundredth monkey effect now and guessing that you will have so many more readers very soon that you will wear yourself out even trying to briefly thank each one for their appreciation. I will speak for the rest of them and say that it is thanks enough when you grace us with more of your intelligent, beautiful writing.

    For myself, I would eventually love to see this blog published in book form…I’m just sayin’
    Goodnight and thank you, SC.
    CC

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