At any given time, I am a ball of anxieties. Like a tangle of yarn, I clump and loop, circling back to where I started and then knotting around again. I worry about the people I love, global warming, refugees in cages, if people like me, work, racism, cancer, the uncrossable gulfs between people, why my dog loves some creatures and wants to tear into others. Messy, unmanageable, impossible to untangle.
I love books. I love them as much as anything else in my life. Which is why it stresses me out that not only will I never be able to read all the wonderful books in the world, I would never even be able to re-read all the excellent books I’ve already read! Nick Hornby expounds on this conundrum in his first collection of Believer columns, The Polysyllabic Spree:
Books are, let’s face it, better than everything else. If we played Cultural Fantasy Boxing League, and made books go fifteen rounds in the ring against the best that any other art form had to offer, then books would win pretty much every time. Go on, try it.”The Magic Flute” vs. Middlemarch? Middlemarch in six. “The Last Supper” vs. Crime and Punishment? Fyodor on points. See? I mean, I don’t know how scientific this is, but it feels like the novels are walking it. You may get the occasional exception—”Blonde on Blonde” might mash up The Old Curiosity Shop, say, and I wouldn’t give much for Pale Fire‘s chances against Citizen Kane. And every now and again you’d get a shock, because that happens in sport, so Back to the Future III might land a lucky punch on Rabbit, Run; but I’m still backing literature twenty-nine times out of thirty. Even if you love movies and music as much as you do books, it’s still, in any given four-week period, way, way more likely you’ll find a great book you haven’t read than a great movie you haven’t seen, or a great album you haven’t heard: the assiduous consumer will eventually exhaust movies and music. Sure, there will always be gaps and blind spots, but I’ve been watching and listening for a long time, and I’ll never again have the feeling everyone has with literature: that we can’t get through the good novels published in the last six months, let alone those published since publishing began.
Because books are so good, my TBR (“to-be-read”) list only gets longer. Every time I listen to a bookish or cultural podcast, peek at a news outlet, read a blog, browse a bookshop, or talk to a friend, I could add another title to the list. The Sisyphean nature of the reading life thus gets added to the list of things that incite anxiety.
This photo shows my current TBR shelf. When tomes began tumbling off it, I vowed to my significant other that I would get no more books from the library until I had finished these or removed them from the shelf for tackling at a later date. The astute reader will know that I’ve already intaken a few of these, most obviously The Apology and Normal People. This photo, however, does not include the book I couldn’t help snagging when I decided to casually visit J. Michael’s Books last weekend (a new history of the ancient British Isles). It’s a vicious cycle!
Lit Hub conveniently created a formula to project “How Many Books Will You Read Before You Die?” And that’s really the crux of the bookish conundrum, isn’t it? The reason none of us will ever read all the good books we might want to is because life is finite and death will end the reading abilities of us all. For me, the functionally infinite amount of reading material feels of a piece with global warming and the safety of my loved ones, which is to say out of my control.
I struggle with how to complete this post because I don’t want to wrap up with some easy metaphor about embracing the present or some such. But when it comes to reading at least, the only approach to handling the anxiety is to embrace the finitude of human life. But precisely because time is short and one will never be able to read all the good books, it makes sense to have a couple of strategies to maximize the time that you do have.
1. Don’t read books you’re not into
Sometimes a book isn’t for you. Sometimes a book isn’t for you at that time. No galactic judge keeps track of the books you do or do not finish so resist the urge to slog through (or stall your reading altogether) by continuing with a book you’re not getting something out of. Consider this if you’re still on the fence: you could die in the middle of Infinite Jest and there’s no coming back from that.
2. Read good books
If you, like me, read not only for entertainment but because books can teach you things, broaden your perspective, increase your understanding of self and others, and reshape your brain then don’t waste your precious, ever-diminishing reading minutes on rubbish books.
3. Memento mori. Xoxo