A Life of Reading

books.jpg“So many books, so little time” is an overused, but spot on, phrase (as the British might say). As a lover of books and reading, it will come as no surprise to anyone, least of all me, that I’m constantly behind in my reading. I’ve been thinking about wedging more reading time in my week so I can reduce these ever-growing reading piles. It’s not that I’m in a hurry, but there are so many volumes on my shelves, and I’ve only one life!

Today I took an inventory of how many books I have that I haven’t read. Now most of us who tend to hoard books do so for several reasons: intention to fully read the book (someday), see the book as potential or necessary reference, collect that subject/author/press, received the tome as a gift or inheritance and want to keep it for sentimental reasons, or simply can’t help ourselves. These and other reasons are why I periodically have to add more bookcases, or at least find clever places to stack more books. Still, it’s an improvement, since my book habit used to be much worse than my current 700+ library would hint at.

During the 90s decade I dabbled in online bookselling, amassing over 8,000 books, many of which I had, I’ll admit, a strong personal desire to keep rather than sell. It’s a bad habit for a bookseller to fall in love with the inventory, the very product you’re trying to sell to make a living. But it happens, and booksellers have several “interesting” ways to deal with this. Some simply put the book aside and never seem to get around to listing that particular book, thus avoiding a potential sale and the trauma of book and booklover separation. Others merely put an astronomical price on the book, assuming no sane person would pay such a ridiculous price, thus ensuring that the beloved book would stay on the shelf forever. That was my usual modus operandi, and to this day I regret three specific volumes that I sold to a few, obviously insane persons. So much for that theory.

Since I left bookselling and sold down my inventory, keeping only personal books and a handful of books that, um, were never listed, I’ve returned to the world of book collector and reader. It hasn’t been an easy transition, for once you develop a booksellers eye, it’s hard to abandon those instincts and opportunities. For months and months I’d keep running into great buys and dilemmas: “I could put this up on eBay…what’s a few listed books there going to hurt?” But bookselling is a disease of addiction, and like its cousins, you can’t “just” do a little. In time I’ve lost most of that “eye” and again see books for the singular pleasure they are, for the armchair traveling they offer freely, and for the varied magic of so many good writers.

Being a logical and process-oriented person, I sat down to calculate how long it would take me to read through my unread volumes. I’d love to report that I arrived at an answer, but when I factored in future books I’d buy, well, the whole thing became rather desperate! Assuming my current reading average of about four books a month, and assuming I never bought another book (ha!), I calculated a draw even in about the 9th year. Ah, but never buy another book? Blasphemy! Actually, I buy more books per month than I read, thus I’m doomed to an impossible task within my lifetime, barring some change that allows me to read all day, ever day. It seems I’ve perfected a perpetual machine of sorts that exudes no energy, only the joy of reading and the opulence of choice when I’m stumped on what to read next.

My conclusion to this little experiment of how many books in how much time is not that I discovered the break-even point, nor that I shouldn’t buy any more books (well, maybe it does show I should cut back, but I’m choosing to ignore that particular finding). The real essence is that it’s not about trying to read all of them. It’s about slowing down and enjoying the journey. It’s about reading each book with an open mind and an eager ear for what that specific writer brings to the craft. It’s about the opportunity to expand my thinking and learn something new with every book. But it should never be about how many I can read in a week, a month, or a whatever. All that matters is what happens in those moments when I’m engaged in those magical words on the page and the images they paint. Enjoying that makes for a wonderful life of reading.

If you’re curious about the books in the photo: stacked – Salmon Rushdie’s “The Moor’s Last Sigh,” Peter Matthiessen’s “Men’s Lives,” “The Book of Margery Kempe,” Garrison Keillor’s “Happy to be Here,” Ambrose Bierce’s “The Devil’s Dictionary;” standing – “Livingston’s Life Work,” Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” Richard Burton’s “A Secret Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina.” Both the bulldog and the book he’s resting on are a bronze. And yes, other than “The Devil’s Dictionary,” I haven’t read these…YET!

2 Responses

  1. Oooh, oooh, oooh! You *have* to read *The Book of Margery Kempe*: it’s wild, wonderful stuff! I had my Women’s Lit students read excerpts of it at the beginning of the term: MK was a wild lady. So few people have heard of her, but she led a wonderfully colorful life, wrote the first vernacular English autobiography, and *should* be someone people have heard of. Read it!

    I have a smaller (due to space constraints) collection than yours, so I typically have to get rid of/sell something if I want to buy something. There are ways, though, of making that a less painful process. One option is to give favorite books (ones you’ve read) to friends: “I read this; you’ll love it.” Something of a personal book club/referral circle!

    The other is to “free” books via sites like bookcrossing.com, where you label the book asking subsequent readers to post comments about the book to a website where you can track the book’s progress as it free-ranges from reader to reader. Although *I’ve* never tried this (yet), I know folks who have, and it can be weirdly fun to share lit with strangers in this way.

    In the end, though, we bookworms are just weird. And there’s no hope for the likes of us, I think… 😉

  2. Sigh. We have a book business (www.bookpile.com). Totally understand about not wanting to sell. But I was a business major and have steeled myself better than my partner to part with our stock. We currently have over 8k of books stocked with only a fraction on-line. Hmmm. Got to get busy…

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