I love books, and I never imagined you could buy too many of them. Ha! You can buy too many books. ‘Too many’ is when the rate at which you buy them far exceeds the rate at which you can read them. I started to accumulate my too-many books as a rebellion against years of frugal living: I have spent most of my adult life as a student, working part-time, scraping a living while I studied, and when I finally started to work full-time I was utterly overwhelmed by the fact that I had money. I had never earned so much money before in my life. So I bought stuff. Anything. Everything. Mainly books. The penurious student in me still insisted on bargain hunting, so the volume of books I could afford was enormous.
And now, here I am, surrounded by unread books.
To give you an idea of how many new books I have: you know how some people keep their unread books in a nice pile on their bedside table? Well, I have dedicated a couple of bookshelves to mine. And there’s still the pile on the bedside table, and under the bedside table, and the couple of books in the kitchen, and the few at work…
I thought I would love having so many books. But so many unread books in my home makes books a little less pleasurable than they used to be. Being able to buy books with ease has meant I have become less discerning about what I buy and in fact, I often bring home books that I have absolutely no interest in actually reading. I have acquired this weird desire to own books for the sake of owning them. Just who exactly am I trying to impress with my discount copy of An Introduction to Syntax? The cats certainly aren’t interested, and I’m fairly confident I’m never going to read it. Yet there it sits, on my shelf … Every once in a while I will have a cull of books – they usually go to charity, and a few get released through BookCrossing (my dad believes that ‘setting your books free’ is nothing more than littering), but I still have about 40 works of fiction, and up to 15 non-fiction books in my un-read collection.
Getting back to my discernment (or lack thereof): a relatively recent trend of mine is that I will often not finish a book. Quelle horreur! Not finish a book I’d started? I am appalled at myself. The fact that I do now abandon books part-way through has led me into frequent introspection about myself, and my relationship with books. There are two conclusions I have come to about why I find books so unsatisfactory that I decide to stop reading:
a) I am a failure. I am clearly not ‘getting’ the book. I am entirely missing the author’s complex themes and motivations, and I am obviously lacking the intellect to appreciate a fine work of literature.
b) the book is a poorly written piece of nonsense.
Most of the time, I wallow in option a, above, but I suspect that’s not healthy. I am slowly realising that option b is probably far more likely. However, that brings into question my judgement – my ability to choose a good book. Of course there are a number of other reasons I consider a book worthy of abandonment, reasons that don’t call into question my intelligence or the author’s capability.
As I was pondering all of this, I came across an article by Sonya Chung that addressed this very question: what does it say about you that you quit reading a book? Does it represent your moral devolution, or is it simply a matter of context – the nature of your reading appetite at that time? In fact, Sonya’s article was pretty much the kind of article I wanted to write, but I’ll avoid being derivative, and will leave it to her to take you through it: It’s not you, it’s me: breaking up with books.
<<UPDATE>> I no longer own An Introduction to Syntax – it was donated to a reader of this blog. Good things come to those who read this blog.