Several months ago I took the decision to start tackling my book habit by finally reading all those books I bought for idealistic reasons; the books that defined the smart version of me, the well-read one, the one who had diverse and varied interests: in other words the ‘ideal reader‘. In May I made a list of all those books that I could clearly identify fell into that category and resolved not to buy or borrow any books until I’d read them all. There were 104 in total, more if you count the multiple volumes contained in some of those books (We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order To Live & The Story of the Stone comprising 12 volumes between them, but I’ve counted them as 2). For the old me, 104 books would more than 1 year’s reading, less than 2, but now I’ve slowed my reading, and coupled with the rather challenging nature of some of the books, I suspect it will take rather longer than 2 years to complete my mission.
So far I’m up to book 14 from my list. It’s not excellent progress but what I’ve found since I started is that the idea of ‘progress’ has melted away. In addition to the 104 books on the list I also have something like 100-150 other books which I haven’t read and aren’t on the list and I’ve been reading from both sections of my library over the course of the past several months. I have books, I am reading books. There is no pressure except that which I place upon myself.
So far my list of books read is as follows:
- The Undiscovered Self by C.G. Jung
- The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
- The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen
- Bushido: the Soul of Japan by Nitobe Inazo
- The Three-Cornered World by Natsume Soseki
- The Book of Lieh-Tsu
- Zen and the Birds of Appetite by Thomas Merton
- Wabi Sabi: the Art of Impermanence by Andrew Juniper
- The Story of the Stone by Cao Xuequin
- Shobogenzo by Dogen (unfinished)
- Cartesian Sonata by William H Gass (unfinished)
- Germinal by Emile Zola
- The Leopard by Lampedusa
- The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (in progress)
I say ‘read’ but as you’ll see not all of the books are finished. The Shobogenzo is a huge volume of buddhist writing, not something to be downed in a single gulp, and I’ve been dipping into and out of it over the past several months, sometimes going back over something which I found particularly meaningful. Cartesian Sonata is a collection of 4 novellas; Gass is an interesting but extremely challenging writer, and I’ve found it difficult to read it continually but after I finish a book if I feel I can handle it I have been going back to it and reading a single novella. I have two left. I’ve just started the Cherry-Garrard; it felt like an appropriate read for the season as we enter these days of darkness.
Neither have I reviewed all of the books I’ve read. My intention when embarking on this challenge was to experience the reading and that’s what I’ve been doing. Some of the books have left me little to say, others too much. I am increasingly coming to recognise that my desire to write about what I’ve read isn’t connected to the pleasure of reading itself, in some ways it detracts from it. Perhaps it is the increasing toxicity of the virtual world having an effect on me, but I’m not sure shouting out into the void is really meaningful…though here I am, still shouting.
I have been slightly disappointed to notice that my list involves books predominantly by white men. I wondered for a while if that reflected a deep held bias that equivocated white men with more challenging reads, but when I looked at the books I had already read I realised it was something else. I had already read most of the books by women and people of colour. Maybe it is still a form of bias, just not the one I’d imagined.
I have also cheated, a little. I’ve borrowed 3 books from the library, all in the past two weeks. And that’s okay. I’ve managed 7 months without borrowing a book and I know, now, that I can manage 7 more and another 7 more without difficulty. One of the books was Cal Newport’s Deep Work, something which has helped me to refocus both in reading and in my life. The other two are books of poetry by Tomas Transtromer. I recently encountered his work and find it beautiful, and I’m not wholly sure that books of poetry can ever be off my borrowing list. I haven’t bought any books, except for other people. With Christmas approaching I have found my desire to acquire new books resurfacing; it seems to ebb and flow in waves. There have been some fascinating books released this year: Crudo by Olivia Laing, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, Some Trick by Helen DeWitt, Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss – all these have tempted me, and perhaps it would be okay to buy them, they are only four after all, but I haven’t. I can wait. I am learning to wait.
I’m not sure I’m learning anything except to be satisfied, patient and settled. It is not easy. Sometimes I find it incredibly difficult to select a book to read, though I have literally hundreds to choose from. And I wonder if my book buying desire has simply been converted to something else: I have spent a lot of time making things – chutneys, wines, kombucha, batch cooking. Maybe my restlessness is manifesting differently, but I’m not sure. There’s a settledness in me that I haven’t experienced before. I am beginning to feel I have nothing to prove, that maybe just being is enough.
I am not sure how much I will be blogging into 2019, but I don’t think it matters either. I will write as the spirit takes me. The world will go on. I have books to read.
Happy reading. Love books. Live life. Be kind.