The Ideal Reader

When I started out book blogging I was super-excited about the prospect of reading lots of books, reviewing lots of books, maybe getting my hands on some free review copies and adding, exponentially, to the groaning weight of paper on my bookshelves. And for a time, that’s exactly what it was like. I read lots, reviewed lots, I met lots of amazing book bloggers (still the best thing about blogging is the amazing community of fellow bloggers) and it was wonderful. And then it began to feel like a burden, or perhaps not a burden perhaps more of a machine that began driving itself and I, its hapless passenger, was just being carried along. Not an operator, but something being operated. Meanwhile my shelves groaned all the more, the weight of words became crushing and I began to notice that even when I’d really enjoyed a book very little of it stuck with me after 3-6 months and the prospect of re-reading it, that deeper reading experience, seemed an impossibly distant dream. Reading has always been a pleasure to me, something of a daily necessity, but I began to wonder what this relentless reading was doing to me. I knew I had to slow down and so I embarked on my year of slow reading which helped to rebalance the way I felt about my books.

Still, slow reading was only the door opening a crack. I needed to push more to find my way out.

In slower reading I managed to find a kind of equilibrium with book buying. I stopped acquiring so many books and started to read the ones I had, but I still felt that urge of desire, the relentless pull of the new, and so I borrowed lots of books from my library and I read lots of books and neglected the ones gathering dust on my shelves. There were two underlying causes of my ignorance – one, of course, is the lure of the new, the idea about which I was interested and excited at that moment in time which made it easy to read the book that satisfied that particular need. The other one is a cause I’ve been relunctant to admit to. I would look at the books on my shelves and think they were too difficult, too challenging, my head was not in the right space for it. I wanted to glide over the surface of my reading without effort, because I was still largely reading for escapism, pleasure and relaxation. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all. Reading has often been a vehicle towards calm for me and I’m never going to give that up. But on my shelves were a hoarde of books that I had bought for idealistic reasons – because I wanted to read philosophy (it has fascinated me for some time, though my experience of reading books of philosophy has been like trying to kayak upstream with a broken paddle on a windy day when the tide is against you), because it was a ‘classic’, because it was innovative or clever, because it was chunky or ‘important’, because I was suddenly interested in a particular thing (read: books on exploration, travel, nature, neuroscience and mathematics) – and then been too afraid, lazy or caught up in something else to read them. Reading this passage (from a book I’d borrowed from the library) really brought it home to me:

“The stuff I wanted the ideal version of myself to use was everything I had once bought in hopes that it would somehow make my life or myself better. There were books I thought smart Cait should read, clothes I thought professional Cait would wear, projects I thought creative Cait could tackle. Classic novels, little black dresses, scrapbook materials and more. At one point I’d put thousands of dollars on my credit cards for this stuff – stuff I purchased with every intention of using but only because I told myself it would somehow help. I wasn’t good enough, but this stuff would make me better. Having these items in my home proved it was possible. I would do it one day, and become a better person one day. This time, one day never came.” [From The Year of Less by Cait Flanders]

In the case of Cait Flanders she took a long, hard and unforgiving look at her life and realised she had to just get rid of all those things she’d bought in the hopes of becoming that idealised version of herself. She adopted a minimalist lifestyle. Minimalism has become something which I’ve been investigating in more depth over the past couple of years, a symptom, perhaps, of the overwhelm I’ve felt in all parts of my life, including my reading experience. I’m not really a minimalist (I own many unnecessary things) but a lot of the ideals that minimalism draws on have great appeal to me. Getting rid of things you don’t use is one of the key tenets of the philisophy, because stuff is burdensome and stuff you don’t use is draining, rather than life affirming. I feel that. I looked at all those books I’d bought in an idealistic frame of mind and considered the relief in donating them all, reducing the books on my shelves to those which I thought it likely I would read, or those I love that I might read again. I would no longer be burdened with those choices I had made either thoughtlessly or aspirationally. I wouldn’t have to face being a lesser reader than I felt I could be. So what if I didn’t ever read those philosophy books, or if my copy of War and Peace found its way to the secondhand bookshop in pristine condition? It doesn’t matter to anyone but me. I could feel the burden lightening just thinking about it. I started pulling books off the shelf.

Then I thought: no. What if I just read them instead?

Because once upon a time I felt enthusiastic about all of those books. I believed I wanted to read them and I believed I was capable of doing it. Once upon a time, those books were the ‘new’ I was drawn to and only the act of acquisition – acquisition without immediately following through – dulled that desire. As I passed the books through my hands I began to think about what had drawn me to them in the first place, and whether I was really willing to let that pass by without even attempting to read them. I thought about why I hadn’t read them and knew deep down the reasons were pathetic. Fear, laziness, the excitement of other things. The unknown. Was that really who I wanted to be? Or did I want to be the ideal reader I once believed I could be?

I had to try. I have spent a lot of time reading to escape, reading to solve a particular problem or reading to relax. As I said earlier, I’m still going to do those things. But how do I know those books I was willing to discard won’t, equally, entertain and divert me as well as challenging my thinking, my understanding of the world, taking me out of my tiny mind into the minds of others? I won’t know until I read them. I felt a little ashamed that I was willing to discard them without giving myself a chance to discover what those books have to offer. I was throwing them away purely on the expectation of what I thought they might be (which is exactly why I bought them, by the way. I’m not sure resolving the issue in the exact manner in which it was created exactly constitutes addressing the problem).

[interlude: it’s important to state here that I judge no one for deciding to give up their books, to donate them unread and move along to something else. Buying 100 more books to replace the ones they got rid of? Fine. Whatever makes you happy. If I had decided to give up my books I would have got myself comfortable with it, and I would be writing a slightly different story here but I think, somehow, it would be just as difficult. Each of us is an individual who has individual desires and needs, makes choices based on those things and faces our challenges in our own way. I was inspired by Flanders. Because she inspired me, forced me to confront myself, I chose this path. I could have chosen a different one. Someone else will choose something different. Maybe even give up books entirely. No judgement.]

I dug out all those books that I’d bought for those idealistic reasons and put them together in my bookcase. There are around 100 or so, slightly more I think because some of them comprise multiple volumes (e.g. The Story of the Stone) or contain multiple books (e.g. We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live). Then I made a few simple commitments:

  • I will attempt to read all of those books.
  • until I have read them all I cannot buy or, crucially, borrow any other books (I will accept gifts, however. It would be churlish not to!).
  •  I cannot give up on a book until I’m at least half way through. This is to prevent me from cheating and giving up easily, especially for the longer books which often take some time to get going.

But I can still read other books that I own and I’m not going to work to a particular timeline. It will take as long as it takes.

I intend to review at least some of the books I read on this blog, though I don’t intend to review all of them and my posting will, I think, continue to be patchy. One of the things I realised in my relentless reading cycle was that I was beginning to read in order to blog and that was entirely the wrong way around. The reading comes first. I’m learning to remember what that means.

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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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23 Responses to The Ideal Reader

  1. It’s very easy to get carried away with shiny new books (been there, done that, wore the t-shirt…) but I have pulled back a little too. If I read a review book it will be one I want to read, and I’m trying to let myself follow where the reading muse takes me. It’s definitely more fun…. You’re right – the reading has to come first!

    • bookbii says:

      It’s a difficult balance isn’t it? I love books, so it’s natural to want to read as many as possible but there’s a tipping point and I definitely passed it and lost the fun.

  2. JacquiWine says:

    A very thoughtful post, Belinda. I can recognise much of this, especially your comments about the act of blogging driving your reading. There was a time (maybe a year or so ago) when I was in danger of falling into a similar cycle myself. I’d start thinking ‘Oh, I haven’t written about anything in translation for a while – I’d better read a Simenon or a Marias. Stuff like that.

    The one thing I have found is that I’m more likely to remember the details of a book if I blog about it. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the very act of writing about something helps me to engage with it in a different way.

    Best of luck with your plans going forward – I hope thy work out for you!

    • bookbii says:

      Thanks Jacqui, I definitely relate to the experience of picking a good book for the blog rather than what I feel like reading. I also absorb the book better if I write about it, I think the reflection is an important way of absorbing the book. I will still write about the books for myself but not necessarily for the blog. Giving myself more time and space to really absorb what I’m reading feels important right now.

  3. This is so interesting. My approach to reading has changed somewhat since I started blogging years ago. I found myself buying more books and reading more quickly. I still have a tendency to do that, but for the most part I prefer slow reading, and posting less often, and only posting about books I’m enthusiastic about. Every reader and blogger finds their own ideal. I like your approach.

    • bookbii says:

      It’s strange how blogging can change how we approach books. I think for me I realised the drive was wrong when I became aware that while I was reading one book I was plotting the next one for the blog and also rushing to write about it to a timeline. It didn’t feel good. I’m glad you’ve been able to maintain the balance. You’re right, everyone has to find their own ideal. I genuinely admire those people who can post so eloquently 2 or 3 times a week, but recognise that pace is completely wrong for me.

  4. SimplyMe says:

    I think your decision to keep the books is a good one at this time and perhaps, indefinitely, although all things are subject to change. I base this on your statement when contemplating removing them, viz., “I wouldn’t have to face being a lesser reader than I felt I could be.” In my opinion, using minimalism to avoid is simply a variation on acquisition as a form of self-medicating.

    ” The reading comes first. I’m learning to remember what that means.” That observation, for me, is the golden key to a balance that mitigates against the two extremes I mentioned above.

    I love your blog. You have opened many doors to reading for me and I am grateful.

    • bookbii says:

      Thanks Jan, it did feel like the right decision and I feel settled about just focusing on these books and actually the temptation to borrow or buy has largely dissipated so I think it was the right choice for me at the time. Maybe in different circumstances I would choose differently.

  5. Wonderful blog that will have me thinking about my motivation to read all day long. Minimising is great, but it is important to have some things around you that you love, no matter the reason. Life is too short.

    • bookbii says:

      Oh I agree, there’s no way I’m ever going to have a minimal library. I mean I have a whole room devoted to books and it’s my favourite space in the house!

  6. I love the honesty and thoughtfulness of this. I’m blogging less than i did when I started, and at times feeling guilty (mainly if the ARCS are unreviewed) i think the challenge is the time it takes to write the kind of post i want to write. And sometimes that’s precisely the time I might have to read. So I start a new book, and the ones waiting to be reviewed stack up, and perhaps begin to slip away, a little, from me.

    Thank you for this reflective post

    • bookbii says:

      Review copies are a blessing and a curse aren’t they? I no longer seek them out and I think that was a good choice for me. You’re right, posting does take time especially when you want to do the book justice. That’s part of why I don’t intend to post so much, so I can focus on those books which have been particularly meaningful for me and write something decent about them.

  7. I am glad to read you again 🙂 I can recognise a similar struggle within myself. This year, in particular, I’ve reviewed far less books than I used to: somehow, whenever I have the time to write, I simply choose to sit and read a book instead. Actually, I want to change that – read less and write more, at least about the books I know I want to linger with, think through and, eventually, reread. I find that writing about books makes me have a deeper relationship with what I read. But I feel this drive to put off reviewing and just start another book – also, because I enjoy taking part in the events and readalongs going on in the blogging community. So, I guess I am yet to find a balance here 🙂

    • bookbii says:

      Thanks Juliana 🙂 I know what you mean about the balance between reading and writing. I too want to write more, but reading is just so much easier isn’t it? And often it is the end of the day when time becomes available which isn’t the most conducive time (for me anyway) to do something creative.

  8. I can definitely relate to this. My books started to feel out of control. I’m not a blogger who does book tours or gets ARCs or anything like that (I have great admiration for bloggers who are that organised!) and I think it would have been even worse if I’d gone down that route! I just had far too many unread books spilling off the shelves. I’m 6 months in to a year long book-buying ban (extreme measures work better for me than moderation, which I’m rubbish at) and its been psychologically very helpful 🙂 I hope your resolutions are going well too.

    • bookbii says:

      6 months into a book ban is quite an achievement, congratulations! I’m about 3 months in and I think it’s going to be well over a year before I finish, maybe 2. That being said, I also feel like it’s been psychologically helpful to deal with the excess of books, I’m glad I didn’t just bin them but it’s also refreshing to feel not just satisfied but replete with what I already have. I’ve also noticed a greater desire to revisit books I’ve already read largely, I think, because the pressure of getting around to the ‘new’ is not so pressing anymore.

  9. Being distracted by new books if something I think most of us can relate to. In the context of the post, I often feel like my TBR has exploded! A thing that helps me is keeping my TBR separated from my read pile, so I can see how out of control I get and track it. I hope your resolutions are working out!

    • bookbii says:

      I have whole bookshelves of TBR which, when I think about it, is pretty awesome. I have an abundance of books. I’ve managed to stop buying and borrowing books – I think it’s been 4 months now since I last bought a book and 2 months since I last borrowed one – and I’ve really begun to appreciate the books that I already own. I think I’m about 8 books in, which is slow progress (but some of them I’ve read twice) and about to embark on a five volume, 2400 page classic of Chinese literature which I’m sure I never would have got around to if I’d carried on in my own style. I feel settled, it’s nice. I’m still tempted by other books but I’m learning to appreciate from a distance.

      • I’m so glad to hear that! I think I’m about halfway to the point you’re at. Congrats about heading on to that 2400 page book! It’s quite the achievement 😀 I feel like that’s a great mindset to be in.

  10. lauratfrey says:

    Oof, I recognize myself in this. The library thing in particular. A lot of book blogs/BookTube are full of people who can’t stop BUYING books, and well, that’s not me. But I will put everything and anything on hold at the library, and when those holds come in, well, obviously I have to read those first.

    • bookbii says:

      I couldn’t stop buying or borrowing books, drastic action was definitely needed. It’s been almost 5 months now and I actually think I’ve cracked it, though I do want to go back to borrowing books at some point. I completely relate to reading those holds first. I mean, it would be rude not to right?

  11. Pingback: Travels with Myself and Another, Five Journeys from Hell by Martha Gellhorn | biisbooks

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