Firstly I should point out that I love end of the year blogs, year in review blogs and all those summaries and sharings of the great books people have read during the course of the year. I love that there are so many readers out there, sharing the joy. I love reading other people’s impressions on what has stirred them and what hasn’t and I love reading about reading ambitions and plans and the books people wished they had read and all of that. Aside from the Caboodle hidden books game, it really is the highlight of the year. And I have written many such blogs myself in the past, listing all the books I’ve read, commenting on those I’ve particularly enjoyed, selecting favourites and minimising duds. I’ve had great pleasure writing them, it is always fun going back over well-loved books, reminding myself of the joys and pleasures tinged with sadness at how few of them I’d ever get to re-read. But this year I’m not writing a list. Why is that? Well, let me explain…
I’ve mentioned before that I plan to read less, more slowly, in an attempt to take more of it in. My plan is to read no more than one book a week. Neither am I planning to buy any books (I have broken this already, it’s all so tempting, having bought 4 books since I last resolved not to buy any) and this is going to be a challenge. What I need to do is get to the root of the temptation, what it is that makes me want to read more, buy more. Part of this is an acquisitive aspect to my nature. I imagine everyone is acquisitive in some ways: people buy lots of clothes, shoes, handbags, people buy lots of gadgets and movies, they buy furniture and soft furnishings and watches and jewellery and those kinds of things. The digital explosion has made this worse, I think. We can carry around 5,000 books in a smaller than a book sized package. Movies and music are available on demand all of the time. The concept of denial, of restriction, of discerning choice is becoming obsolete. And perhaps it’s not just digital things. Why spend time cooking a meal when Tesco have already made it for you? Why bother making clothes when Primark have all the t-shirts you could ever want for just £1? The idea of spending time is too associated with wasted time, but perhaps that’s a fair criticism when time is so easily spent on virtually nothing (yes, I mean you social media).
I am acquisitive about books. I buy more books than I can possibly read and then feel guilty about having left them on the shelves for aeons without ever getting around to reading them whilst buying more in spite of the guilt. I was thinking about this phenomena on the train, which is where I do both my reading and thinking, my mind turned to the problem having read a few blogs in which one of the core themes was the books people hadn’t got around to but wished they had. I totally related. I feel like that too, all the time in fact. There is always another book to read and there’s this sense that time is limited and running out which of course it is. I realised that, for me, end of the year lists are part of that pressure. It creates a false sense of urgency, the sensation that the sand has run out of the glass and there is no more time, no more opportunity, that what you’ve read is all you’ve read and the starkness of it, the ‘taking stock’ – as though books are units of product in our mental warehouse (which they are) – makes it obvious what has been done and, more importantly, what hasn’t. It’s that eternal challenge: if you spend all your time enumerating what you haven’t got then you don’t have time to appreciate what you do have.
Time is running out, this is an eternal truth. We never know how much time we have, what the last book we will read will be and all the books we’ll have missed because we’ve never got around to them. That doesn’t even take into account the books that are written after we die, an incalculable number. But it’s also true that time doesn’t run out on 31st December, that we don’t have to stop and start all over again. Time is a continuous thread: one year rolls into the next as one month rolls into the next as one week rolls into the next and one day rolls into the next as one minute rolls into the next. Taking stock at the end of the year and starting that clean sheet at the beginning of the next one can be a valuable structure, it can make us feel refreshed and it can remind us of all that we’ve achieved. But it can also make us feel desperate, and perhaps this is part of the experience I need to break. I know time is limited, but perhaps, like Robert Frost famously said, it is better to play tennis with the net up. If time is limited, perhaps I need to choose what I read more carefully and perhaps I ought to make more of an effort to value what I have read. Just because it’s Christmas doesn’t mean that guzzling is obligatory.
There is only the book in front of me. The next book I will choose when I’ve finished this one. I will read and absorb. I will no longer ‘take stock’. Books can be things to be consumed, but that’s not what I want them to be. Not writing an end of the year list is, perhaps, only a tiny piece of the puzzle, but whilst it feels kind of weird not to do it it also feels pretty good. I don’t need to pick over the bones of the year or set detailed plans for the next one (which, let’s face it, I’ll never stick to). I only need to think about what I’m reading today, and tomorrow…well, I’m strangely content for that to remain a mystery.