Tuesday, February 07, 2012

ON UNREAD BOOKS AND GROWING OLD

The bookshelf in my bedroom has been intimidating me for long enough, so I’ve decided that it’s time to do something about it.

Here’s the thing: the bedroom bookshelf seems to be the place to which new books gravitate, specifically the ones that I’ve bought for myself with the full and certain intention of reading them in the near future, if not immediately. Unfortunately, like most readers, I’m also something of a compulsive book buyer, and so I inevitably end up buying books at a faster pace than I can read them.

The bedroom bookshelf is now full, and I’ve started doubling up on books, which can only mean that the obscured books are destined to be forgotten unless I introduce some form of rotation system, which smacks both of obsessive-compulsive behaviour and the final, desperate days of Rafael Benitez at Liverpool football club.

The bedroom bookshelf problem is compounded by the fact that there are also bookshelves in the hall, the dining room, outside the living room (three), in the guest bedroom (two, both doubled up to the max), and in my office, which is where the advance copies of books sent to me by authors and publishers tend to end up on the grounds that I’m less likely to forget about them if they’re in front of me every day.

Unfortunately, this approach has backfired because of the associations of the bedroom bookshelf with books that are to be read soonest. It would make more sense to put the advance copies on the bedroom bookshelf so that they, too, become sprinkled with immediacy dust, but then where would I put the books that I’ve bought for myself? They can’t go in the hall, the dining room, or outside the living room because those shelves are full. Even if I could put them in the guest bedroom I wouldn’t because, with the best will in the world, those poor books are NEVER going to be read. The guest bedroom is a literary gulag. It is where unread books go to die.

No, the current system, imperfect though it may be, has to continue, but the least I can do is attempt to make some serious inroads into the books in the bedroom. So, for the past month, I’ve been knocking books out of the park, so to speak, as far as the bedroom is concerned, alternating fiction and non-fiction, aided by the fact that I didn’t buy any books at all in January, since nothing came out that I wanted to read. (Actually, I tell a lie: I did, but I left them in another country so they don’t count.)

You know, there is a great satisfaction in reading rapidly, and with serious intent, and clearing one’s shelves along the way. I long ago got over any sentimentality about holding on to books. Unless they’re signed, or have some kind of association with someone I know and like, they go in the charity box once they’re read. I make exceptions for the occasional non-fiction book, and music books that might prove useful for my radio show. Otherwise, once I finish the last page, it’s bye-bye book.

(And, no, I don’t want to hear about how an e-reader might be useful in my case because a) I don’t like using them; b) I prefer reading printed books; and c) you don’t own an e-book (you’re just licensed to access its content), and I like owning books, whatever I may ultimately decide to do with them. End of lesson.)

Anyway, yesterday I finished Len Deighton’s SS-GB, a book recommended to me by my good friend Steve Stilwell, a gentleman with whom I may disagree on many things – generally because he’s wrong and I’m right - but with whom I agree on most. The great thing about SS-GB was that it was a fast read: I began it on Sunday night, and read the last page in bed on Monday night. My previous book – Peter Bart’s INFAMOUS PLAYERS – took me two days, but that was because I was distracted by the weekend’s newspapers. The book before that, which was John Sandford’s BURIED PREY, also took two days, although it shouldn’t really have because I was tearing through the pages. That’s three books in less than a week and, on top of what I’ve already read this month (including TREASURE ISLAND, which I’d somehow neglected to read until now, and A FEAST OF CROW by George RR Martin, which took a while because it’s 1000 pages long, give or take), represents a considerable inroad into the bedroom bookshelf stockpile.

One thing I have noticed, though, is my reluctance to read books that are very thick, or that might take me an unduly long time to get through. A FEAST FOR CROWS represented nearly a week’s reading, and that’s simply not good enough if I’m going to clear some space on the shelf. It’s one of the reasons why I haven’t yet managed to pick up Stephen King’s latest, 11/22/63, as that’s quite a chunk of book change and I don’t want to mess with my momentum. On the other hand, reading 11/22/63 would leave a decent sized hole on the shelf, but it would still only be one book. Then again, TREASURE ISLAND, though dense, was comparatively short, and while I felt a sense of satisfaction in adding another book to the ‘completed’ pile – and a classic, no less – its absence from the shelf didn’t free up much room.

Oh well: I never claimed this was a perfect science, and in my darker moments I acknowledge that I am engaged in a Sisyphean labour. There are still more books in the house than I’m ever going to read, and there are new books on the horizon. As February dawned, books started appearing that I might want to add to the bedroom bookshelf, and last week, in a moment of weakness, I ordered one of them. It was Marcus Berkmann’s A SHED OF ONE’S OWN, which deals with the trials of male middle age and therefore seems somehow appropriate in the context of my current obsession with de-cluttering my bookshelves. Perhaps it’s just one facet of a larger desire to simplify my life as I get older. Having too many unread books on one’s shelves, too many unlistened to records, too many unwatched films, starts to rankle, and becomes an uncomfortable reminder of one’s own imminent mortality. I have to read these books! I’m going to die one day! Maybe soon!

Time to go. I have books to read…


This week John read

SS-GB by LEN DEIGHTON
INFAMOUS PLAYERS by PETER BART
BURIED PREY by JOHN SANDFORD
EMPIRE OF SILVER by CONN IGGULDEN


and listened to

LE VOYAGE DANS LE LUNE by AIR
D&B TOGETHER by DELANEY AND BONNIE
OLD IDEAS by LEONARD COHEN

19 comments:

Josh Schrank said...

John, might I suggest a Kindle? :D

Spanish Inquisitor said...

John

I know the feeling. I've done the math, based on averages. I've counted the number of unread books I own, divided them by the rough average of books I can read in a year, and compared the result to my anticipated remaining life expectancy, and have concluded that it is physically and practically impossible to read all the books I presently own, much less the ones I know I will be acquiring in the future, yet unwritten. And this calculation presumes that my health (read: vision and mental accuity) holds out for the duration.

So my process is to do one of two thing, which I alternate: 1. prioritize and ruefully conclude that certain books will never be read, or 2. stare at the books and do nothing, frozen by the inability to choose. As you might expect, this slows me down.

There should be a classification in the DSM-IV for this particular mental illness.

John Purcell

PaolaClara said...

How I see myself in your words...
I cannot stop myself from buying books even if I know I have no time to read all. And I also like to write, and I have a regular job - 10 hours a day out home - so I started to read two books in the same time (one is at the lunch table in the lab, one in my bedroom)
I have no suggestions, I'm getting old too...

Lethe said...

My approach is one book by the computer to read when having a break from the computer, one book in the kitchen to read when I'm eating (I can't eat without reading.) and one book to read in the bedroom before going to sleep. The books are usually not similar, so I don't get too confused, except for the time when the b/f swapped one and I read two pages of the swapped book thinking the plot had gone really strange. He said this proved I took nothing in by reading fast. It's not true!

Mich said...

At least you can comfortably donate the books you've read. Add hoarding to the compulsive book-buying and before you know it the books are spilling out of all the bedroom bookcases (5, + a 3-foot-high "to be read soonest" pile), the living room bookcases (3), and the office bookcase (1); and they're popping up in the dining room and in the kitchen and under the bed. I swear they're mating and multiplying when I'm not paying attention...

Good luck with your bookcases! You read even faster than I do, which is quite impressive. ;)

xoxo

victoria said...

That bookshelf in your room, do the books whisper to each other?
Sorry, I just finished Book of Lost Things this morning and do not look at shelves the same way...

Ian S. Bolton said...

Hi John,

My sympathies lie with you. I once worked out that I would need to live to the ripe old age of 173 and three quarters in order to read all the books on my shelves.

Since then, as decades and relationships and modern science have come and gone, I have mellowed with my book-buying. There is, of course, the Stephen King Collection bookcase, and, of course, that 'Charlie Parker' Fella's Collection bookcase (mmm... that lovely goat-skinned 'Book of Lost Things' and 'Requiem for the Damned' and all the others), straining under the weight of the authors' prodigious output.

But, God-damnit, the rest of the bookcases are healthily turning over. I will keep the Henning Mankell Wallanders and the Sjowall/Wahloo Martin Becks, but that's because of my personal project involving them. Otherwise the local bookshop does very well out of me and the Mrs.

Now a confession. Kindle. Yes, I've got one (and so has she). I've also bought them for other people, too - the Mother-in-law and my Mrs's boss to name just two. I'm so sorry John. But I am reading (and paying leases for books) far more than I did in printed form. I'm also experimenting far more with new authors, too. And I don't need a suitcase of books when I go on holiday or on business trips.

So, it's sorta handy. And the shelves don't creek too much. What's that you say? Another John Connolly book?

Rachel said...

I have similar problems, especially after working in a bookstore for 5 years. It's amazing what kind of collection you can accumulate with an employee discount and access to all the new books before anyone else.

I do have an ereader, but I barely use it. One big thing I have against it is that I can't SEE the books. When a book is in one of my many TBRs, or on my "urgent" shelf, or even just lying around the house, there's a good chance I'll eventually pick it up and start reading. When it's just a bit of memory stuck inside a device? No chance I'm going to just "happen" across it one day and be reminded that I wanted to read it.

Anyway. Good luck to us all. It's a good thing your books automatically bypass all my TBR piles...

leah said...

Totally agree on taking books to Charity shops once read as I rarely read a book more than once. There are so many great books to read-one of my few exceptions to this rule is The book of lost things which I have read three times now and I am looking forward to the next time. Its an incredible book and for anyone who hasnt yet read it-you are in for a treat.

Rich K said...

I have almost the same problem. My home would probably mirror yours as I also buy books faster than I can read them. My wife pretty much cracks the whip every year to make me clean out the books read and I either donate them to a niece or the Salvation Army.But no matter how well I do (I average about 60 books per year) I still manage to have at any given time, 40 books I have not yet started. But I would love to have bookshelves all over my house. I am limited to my den/computer room.
Oh, and start King's latest. You will be so caught up in it I bet you read it in three days.

John said...

It's lovely to know that I'm not alone in this. Rachel makes a good point about one of the differences between an e-reader and a bookshelf being that an e-reader doesn't display the books it stores in quite such an obvious way. It's one of the reasons why I still buy CDs, even if I do copy them to my iPod: I still like the act of browsing a shelf and I just haven't adjusted - and, more to the point, don't really want to adjust -to flicking through lists on a screen.

jalcar said...

My husband recently got me a bigger bedroom bookcase. Wonderful! But, as a non-reader, he didn't understand that was the green light to amass more books, not tidy up the ones I already owned. My books have multipied, gravitating to the floor space under the bookshelf which, I maintain, is technically a shelf even if it does have a carpet bottom. As for the 'Kindle or not to Kindle' question, personally, I don't (I like the feel, smell, owning etc etc) but my daughter, to whom the covers of books remain largely locked by dyslexia has found her newly acquired Kindle the key that gives her the access she has longed for. With enlarged print, words displayed on grey rather than the dazzling and disorienting white, she is reading Jane Eyre for the first time and, three weeks on and twelve chapters in, she couldn't be more thrilled. Unless she wasn't saddled with dyslexia.

Josh Schrank said...

luddites... the whole lot of you.

John said...

Luddite? I'm not advocating breaking everyone's e-readers, although I might make an exception for Josh, above.
It's great to hear that the Kindle has worked for your daughter. Whatever makes reading more accessible for her.
As for places to put books, if it's flat and horizontal, it's a potential bookshelf. In that sense, floors represent vast amounts of shelving space.

Terry said...

I have been reliably informed that you can't die until you've read all your books. Which means I won't die until I'm at least 513, and that's if I never buy another book.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

TomH said...

To those persons not given to reading, a person compulsively buying and storing books (while reading only some of them right off the bat) might seem on the level of a squirrel gathering acorns for the long winter.

The Kindle Fire I purchased for my wife this past Christmas was a ‘new and improved’ version of a Kindle she already owned but no longer wanted (the former received as a present from her employer).

And so the 'old' Kindle was passed down to me.

Understand, the gesture was not entirely loving or even humanitarian (given that I’ve been purchasing and reading and storing books my entire life). The move was more an attempt at stemming the flow of those book-bound flesh and blood creatures fashioned from recycled batches of bleached pulp, and covered by characters formed using actual black ink.

O yeah, the Kindle.

I hate the damned thing.

First you have to adjust the font (for your easier reading experience). Then you decide on reading horizontal or vertical. Then you begin building your library (which I did by purchasing and downloading several crime novels and a couple or so non-fiction).

Can't say the experience was total disaster, but near to it. First thing was I began losing interest in what I was reading. Then, after feeling like a creature cloned for the sole purpose of processing and storing digital pseudo-print information, I began awkwardly and clumsily tapping page buttons both forward and backward.

Okay, if it hasn’t already been thought of or said, I will say it.

Who among us inveterate readers realizes the feelings of a creature being confined beneath the surface of checkout counter—face up and staring through a plastic scan-screen while encountering endless streams of bar code?

Truth is the damned Kindle isn’t even sturdy enough or stout enough to serve as doorstop.

So—at least my grandson is having fun…

Celine said...

I think it's good to have a lot of books unread that means your life is full and you have no time for them, but when you take some time for reading them, it becomes a special moment, you only think about the moment you will keep going the reading and being back in an intimate cosy bubble; I'm glad to buy books and have plenty of them unread, I can check my shelves as if I was in a library, pick one of them according to my mood :)
Sometimes I live my own books and sometimes I live through my books, I don't feel ashamed to have some of them sleeping on my shelves.

Celine said...

I think it's good to have a lot of books unread that means your life is full and you have no time for them, but when you take some time for reading them, it becomes a special moment, you only think about the moment you will keep going the reading and being back in an intimate cosy bubble; I'm glad to buy books and have plenty of them unread, I can check my shelves as if I was in a library, pick one of them according to my mood :)
Sometimes I live my own books and sometimes I live through my books, I don't feel ashamed to have some of them sleeping on my shelves.

Mich said...

I can't wait to see you next week on the Atria bus tour! It's always a delight to see you in person. :) Hope the tour is going well so far!