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.