Too many books spoil the reading

It is probably not much of a surprise that I have too many books. I imagine that anyone who is running a book blog, whether for personal enjoyment or employment, suffers from an excess of books. I have lots of books. My house is full of them. About a year ago, maybe a little longer, we converted our dining room into a library and massively expanded the book storage space. It is already full. Books are stacked on the side and underneath the shelves. On top of that, I have a running list of at least four library books. Once I finish one or two, I reserve a couple more. Sometimes they’re reserved by someone else which means I need to prioritise those, otherwise I might renew them once or twice before getting around to reading them. At the moment I’m doing well with library books, but I haven’t read a book I own for a few weeks now. I don’t segregate my read and unread books, but a quick and honest squint at the shelves reveals that there are more unread than read. Still I reserve library books, I pick up books in secondhand shops and I watch out for interesting looking new books that will satisfy my reading appetite (like Ali Smith’s Autumn, or Zadie Smith’s Swing Time both of which I’m likely to buy).

A little while ago I branched out from my exclusive reading of fiction into non-fiction. I carved out a section of shelving for my growing collection. I have discovered that I enjoy non-fiction; it’s a diverse and interesting category of book all lumped together despite the massive disparity in subject matter and approach. I enjoy travelogues and nature books, books about neuroscience and psychology. I enjoy history. I like memoirs. Most non-fiction, the really successful stuff, is just another way of telling a story. Both fiction and non-fiction aim to reveal a kind of truth to us, it’s just that non-fiction is a little more direct. I probably read more non-fiction than fiction now, and my non-fiction space is full and could use some expansion room.

I am happy with my book collection. I am happy for it to expand (albeit at a slower rate than currently) and I love having a whole room devoted to bookish things. That being said, there’s a certain pressure that comes from all these books. Sometimes the desire to get through them outweighs the enjoyment. I am reading one book and thinking about the next one and the one after that, organising my reading in my mind. I would like to read all the books by Sarah Moss, for example, including her non-fiction. In preparation for this exercise (how awful that makes it sound) I bought a copy of her book The Frozen Ship – a non-fiction book about polar exploration – and placed it on the shelf amongst all the other books I have about polar exploration and it occurred to me that now might be a good time to read all those books about polar exploration, immerse myself in it. It is, after all, something I find quite fascinating. From polar exploration I could move onto books about deserts, or islands as I have a few books about those things too. In fact, I have enough of those kinds of books to gainfully occupy a winter’s reading in quite pleasant fashion.

Except it is me. Where I desire to, and try to, read in a leisurely fashion I am, to pinch a metaphor from somebody else, like a dog eating whilst someone is trying to take the bowl away. I wolf books down. This is not commensurate to enjoyment. Sometimes it is, but mostly it isn’t. I miss things. I push past the point where I’m taking things in. I spoil the reading for myself.

There are books which warrant a close, careful, slow reading. I avoid those books. I know I can’t, won’t, give them the attention they need. I realise that this is like avoiding the gourmet meal so I can have a McDonald’s later. I shouldn’t avoid them. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about philosophy. I have read philosophy in the past and I have enjoyed it, but it can be a painstaking way of reading. It is not conducive to my gulping, ravenous style.

I feel I need to organise myself, to put a structure around my reading which will force me to slow down. I’ve tried this before by reading massive books. It worked, of a fashion. By itself it will not be enough. The blogging both helps and doesn’t. On the one hand there is some pressure to keep the blog going; I know that pressure comes from me, no one else expects anything. On the other hand, blogging helps me wrap my mind around what I think about a book, it is a great tool for reflection and consolidation. For example, I know that I only fully appreciated the depth of brilliance of Ali Smith’s How To Be Both by writing about it. I knew it was excellent, but writing about it brought an extra dimension to it, it placed the book under a microscope and I could then see the shimmering brilliance from within. Blogging has become such a part of my reading experience that it becomes thin without it. It is rare that I read a book now and don’t blog about it.

I have considered creating piles of books on different themes and sticking to it. One pile will be my library books – this, if any, is likely to be the impulsive selection. Another would be non-fiction books by women in translation; non-fiction by women writers is rare enough, but non-fiction by women in translation is like unobtainium – encountered in passing, not truly to be believed in. But when you do find it, oh it is worth it. Another would be classics I haven’t got around to reading. Another would be general non-fiction. I realise as I pick through the list that I would need many piles and, perhaps, I should just stick to picking books off my shelf.

I love reading, and I love books. I don’t think I could stop being an avid consumer of them. But finding a way to calm it down a little, that would be a good thing. Finding a way to slip in those more meaningful books without having one eye on something a little easier to read could massively enrich my reading experience. I’d like it to be a little more enriching. Reading is not just about enjoyment, it’s also a learning experience. Through reading we experience aspects of the world we wouldn’t otherwise touch, but we also expand and challenge our way of thinking. The challenge, that’s something I think I’m missing. The books I read are good, but now and again I need to read something which is both good and difficult. Only by constantly challenging myself will I continue to learn and grow.

There’s no point to this. I just feel like I need to get the words out there, think through the problem. But if anyone has any suggestions on how to slow down, tell me please. I’m listening.

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About bookbii

I'm an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary place, and it is quietly wonderful
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16 Responses to Too many books spoil the reading

  1. Part of the ‘problem’ is the constant bombardment we readers are under via social media, newspapers (for those of us who still read them) and radio. We feel that we can never keep up and are constantly having temptation dangled in front of us. After years in the book trade you’d think I’d have found a way to deal with that but I haven’t. So no advice on how to slow down from me just some heartfelt empathy!

    • bookbii says:

      Oh you’re right, we’re constantly keeping up. Looks at all the books published every year. It’s wonderful, but challenging. And I’ll take all the empathy I can get (and give it back too!). Thanks!

  2. roughghosts says:

    Wish I had an answer but posts like this give me a great sense of comfort. My frustration of late is that the slower I seem to be with my reading, the more my book buying escalates which, I think, causes me to freeze with anxiety and read even more slowly!

    • bookbii says:

      Thanks 🙂 I know exactly what you mean, sometimes the slow reading just reminds us how much is building up behind it and it becomes all the more pressing day by day. Also, I’m pretty sure I have bought more books, or reserved more books at the library, when I’ve been reading something that’s taken a long time. I don’t think I’d noticed until you mentioned it. Thanks for your insightful comments. Hopefully one day we will both develop an equilibrium in our reading.

  3. Anne Hercock says:

    I have only had this problem since I allowed enriching Twitter and bookblogs into my reading in the last year or so!!! I’m not a blogger (though have been tempted) and have found a partial solution to multireading by reading my much loved natural world non fiction at bedtime, a slow read for a long coffee break and a fast paced novel /reading week/ group read in intense bursts. I recently had to pray that the library let me renew Badgerland by Patrick Barkham yet again… It was ok but I am determined to finish it in this loan period. I am depriving someone else of the book after all.Perhaps someone else who wants to read in excess of three books at once……

    • bookbii says:

      Thanks Anne 🙂 Twitter and the blogging world have massively expanded my library too. I’m not complaining (lots of good book recommendations) but it does add to the pressure. I can’t read at bedtime anymore. I manage about 10 minutes and exhaustion takes over. But reading nature books in the evening sounds nice and relaxing.

  4. heavenali says:

    This really resonates with me. I often find myself thinking about the next book or wishing I could read faster. The number of unread books I have has never been greater and I too feel that pressure. Many books I read do require that slow close reading your talk about – I love that kind of literature yet it really slows me down.

    • bookbii says:

      I agree Ali, it’s so rewarding reading (generally, I’m not sure I’m sold yet on Master & Margarita) those books that warrant a slow close reading. Like a long, relaxing meal with a friend as opposed to a takeaway. Perhaps winter will afford me more opportunity to sink into some really great books.

  5. Familiar problem. I think I already have books for a decade of blogging. My only advice is prioritise what you read. In the eternal struggle of quality over quantity, quality wins in the long run. It’s better to post less frequently, but about the books you really care about, the books which help you grow as a reader, which require careful reading. Otherwise you’ll never get down to reading those books.

    • bookbii says:

      I think that’s great advice, and I agree I have been feeling that there’s a need to prioritise and really focus on the books that are worth that slow effort, rather than just keep ploughing through the numbers.

  6. Lisa Hill says:

    I too built a library thinking that it would answer the storage problem, but it took very little time before it was bursting at the seams and there are still books all over the house. I do have a lot of books, and yes, there are many that I haven’t read. But I don’t think I have too many. Each year I tidy the shelves, and this process over many years has resulted in a cull of anything that I bought on impulse or because I fell victim to hype and so I know that what’s left is what I want to read. Like you, I choose at whim, and I usually have two or three on the go, a non-fiction for over breakfast, and something to mull over as well as a lighter read for bedtime.
    I don’t worry about the TBR. Reading is my greatest pleasure and my TBR is a source of reassurance that I will always have something good to read.

    • bookbii says:

      I don’t cull, perhaps that’s what I’m missing? I try to keep hold of a book until I’ve read it and then I’ll decide whether it’s a keeper or not. Most of them are, but re-reading is another hobbyhorse I’m probably best staying off! Who has time to re-read? I love the idea of a breakfast read, a daytime read and an evening read. Perhaps I’ll give that a try, thanks.
      Great to hear such a positive message, too, on the TBR pile. Maybe if I just stop thinking about it as an oppressor and think of it more as a pleasure to get around to I’ll instantly feel better. Thanks 🙂

  7. JacquiWine says:

    A little like Anne, my TBR pile has grown exponentially in the last 4 or 5 years as a direct consequence of the recommendations I’ve picked up from various bloggers and bookish types on Twitter. I wish I had some answers too, but it’s hard to find the right balance…

    You might want to consider the Classics Club as a way of getting around to the classics you’ve been meaning to read. I joined last year and it seems to be working for me. In a way, you’re already doing something along these lines with Howards End and The Master & Margarita. Just a thought.

    • bookbii says:

      Yes, blogging is both a blessing and a curse but I wouldn’t have it any other way! The Classics Club sounds like a great idea, I’m just a little nervous of committing to anything because that’s all part of the pressure. But I’ll look it up, thanks. I definitely have a crop of books I really ought to get around to reading. Perhaps this is all the fault of M&M; it’s messed with my mind!

  8. SimplyMe says:

    Bi, I’m definitely the odd one out in this discussion. I’ve been pondering why it is that although I love to read, I don’t experience any sense of compulsion or fear of missing out with respect to other books that might be read or that are yet to be read. This personal reality doesn’t make me feel in any way superior to those who do because we all face different challenges in our lives, but what I was hoping for was an insight that might be helpful to you — particularly given yours is the only book blog I read. I read your blog because I am enriched by it and it would be lovely to give back to you, if I can.
    What strikes me as a possibility is that the challenge may not be about how many books to read or in what sequence or combination or how rapidly or slowly they are read. Those are all logistical solutions that I think would fall into place relatively easily once the root question has been discovered and addressed. To that end, I wonder if the root question is about trust, i.e. “Can I trust myself to begin a book and a chapter or so into it to tick the two subjective criteria/boxes I have identified – I am enjoying this; I am experiencing a sense of growth from this — and continue with a sense of ease, or if the two boxes are not both ticked, to simply stop reading that particular book and proceed to another. Nothing more than a suggestion sent with my deep appreciation and respect.

    • bookbii says:

      Thanks Jan. I think you make some very good points. I’m not very good at giving up on books, or just concentrating on enjoying the moment. Thanks for your carefully considered comments 🙂

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