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Read, read, read

If you have never said ‘Excuse me’ to a parking meter or bashed your shins on a fireplug, you are probably wasting too much valuable reading time.
– Sherri Chasin Calvo

Are you regularly bashing your shins and talking to fire hydrants? I wish I was. Jacinda Woodhead’s recent Meanland post about not having enough time to read everything she aspires to struck a chord. For me, though, it relates most potently to novels. When I first got hooked on Estelle Tang’s blog, 3000 books, I experienced a moment of panic. She has estimated that with 60 reading years left (based on the average age of death) if she reads a book a week she’ll fit in 3000 books. Does 3000 sound like a lot to you? It doesn’t to me. And I don’t always find the time to read a novel a week on top of everything else I’m reading. Plus I’m more than a decade older, so my ‘quota’ is much lower. It made me think about how I need to choose judiciously, and somehow cram more in.

Bedside pile of booksOn my bedside table I have an ever-changing pile of novels jostling to be read. Then there’s a secondary selection waiting patiently in the long queue that is my ‘to-read’ bookshelf, and an additional list in my head. This is what is currently competing for my immediate attention. Some of them are recent releases, many are books I’ve been wanting to read for years. I still haven’t got to War and Peace (a terrible confession), even though Anna Karenina is a favourite of mine. (As an aside, check out the impressive collection of spines on the bedside table of LiteraryMinded’s Angela Meyer.)

Anne Tyler trailAnd then I get distracted by author trails (do you do this?). I read a book that captivates me and then I hunt out the author’s entire oeuvre. For example, recently a friend gave me Anne Tyler’s Digging to America and it’s such a beautifully observed novel that it prompted me to rifle out my old laminated high school copy of The Accidental Tourist (complete with pencilled notes in the margins which I alternately avoided and read with amusement). I enjoyed that book so much that I found myself in a second-hand bookshop buying The Amateur Marriage, Ladder of Years and A Patchwork Planet. I devoured them one after the other, and then I stopped. Tyler has written 17 books and I’m sure I’ll want to read others, but that pile is still looming.

Sonya Hartnett's, ButterflyAnd what about rereading books. The announcement of the Miles Franklin Award has made me want to return to Sonya Hartnett’s Butterfly. Such an exquisite and authentic book, it captures the transition of adolescence with painful clarity. And I want to read it again, but …

And then occasionally I’m so transported by a novel that I want to stretch it out, stay inside its world for as long as possible. So I ration myself to small daily doses. I can’t start reading another novel simultaneously because nothing will measure up. So of course that means my quota drops further.

When I talk about this ‘quota’ I don’t want it to sound like reading has become a joyless task, that I’m somehow fervently processing books. Quite the opposite. I read with what Marcel Proust described as ‘a sort of greedy enjoyment’. But I do relate to Jacinda’s experience of ‘reading anxiety’, a feeling that strikes when doing something frivolous (like watching So You Think You Can Dance) or mundane (like washing up). I could be plunging into War and Peace instead of a sink full of suds, damn it.

And then there’s everything else I want to read. Journals, magazines, non-fiction books, blogs, newspapers … On top of which, there’s all that editing and writing to be done. There’s just simply not enough time.

Books to the ceiling,
Books to the sky.
My pile of books
Are a mile high.
How I love them!
How I need them!
I’ll have a long beard
By the time I read them.

– Arnold Lobel

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Irma Gold is an award-winning writer and editor. Her short fiction has been widely published in Australian journals and her debut collection of short fiction, Two Steps Forward, was released in September 2011 (Affirm Press). She is also the author of two children’s books and is currently working on her first novel. You can follow her on Facebook.

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  1. I just moved my own pile-so-big-it’s-about-to-tip-over of Books I’m Reading Next from the lounge room into the study. I spend less time in the study. They can’t taunt me as often, all the words I’m yet to read, calling out, “hey, over here, I’m what you’re missing, and I’m exactly what you want.” Noisy little buggers they are.

  2. Piles, piles. Just saying the word makes book reading sound like a haemmorhoids infection. Just pick at whim from the bookshelf, say I.

    • But what if your whim is in a bad mood that day? Or has taken a demented detour? You may wind up with an incompatible or spineless [excuse the pun] book.

      I try to avoid placing unread books on my shelves because I like to make active choices about reading and writing. The ‘stacks’, of which I have many, work better for me. I favour themed stacks.

      • Lovely Jacinda, can active choices about reading and writing be swayed by mere whim, of whatever temperament? But it’s true: unread books may make it to the bookshelf, but they are rarely vertical and if they were vertical, may cause me to launch forward to disclaim ‘I haven’t actually read that’ to any bookshelf peruser – no wonder my friends think I’m odd.

        ha – recaptcha says ‘good definers’

      • Prior to moving in with A. I catalogued all my books on the shelf by authors last name, alphabetical order. Easy to find. A. prefers to stack the books in aesthetic rather than alphabetical order, which baffles me: I don’t know the aesthetic alphabet. Now whenever I have to find a book, I have to shuffle around the room going, ‘hmmm, is it in the beiges? How about the purply pinks? What about this cache of black-and-gold bound ones? No?’

        • Gee, individual referencing techniques and mutual bookshelves: that’s commitment. I’m impressed.

          Mine are arranged in themes and … dare I say it … sizes (except for the odd-ones-out because they’re also sorted by author within the theme and size). That’s if you could see behind the not-yet-filed/read stacks.

  3. Themed stacks? What an interesting idea…………….
    I suspect there’s a whole essay – at least – in how we choose books off our shelves and how we pick up some books and then put them down and pick up others etc. Perhaps whims are always weirder than they look. Scratch a whim and you might find a mad secret desire hiding away…’Don’t worry about me! I’m just a whim! Nothing to see here, keep moving’ etc.
    But actually, when I pick a book off out of my stacks (which I am off to theme right now) anything could happen.,,,

  4. what about stacks on shelves, obscuring themes – do they count?

    and Stephen, taking time to theme when you could be reading? next you’ll be distracting yourself from writing with a little blog-trawling, but no, sorry: that’s me!

    any time spent worrying is a bit of a worry, but worrying about reading is less worrying than worrying about missing a show on tv … right?

    i’d be very curious (and no doubt enlightened) to see a ‘what books Overland readers/bloggers are reading right now’ post (and how many are reading ‘real’ books and not those ‘fake’ electronic kind).

    in fact, make it the book right now, the one just read and which book next (that may shuffle a few piles)

    i’m generally a one-book-at-a-time sort of woman … but suddenly doubt myself: am i still practicing reader-monogamy if i reads a variety of non-fictions during a relationship with a novel?

    for all those who may be offended, apologies for the lack of capitals

  5. Having just counted my stacks Clare, I am currently reading about 20 books with about 30 on ice (being browsed/on hold til I follow up the thing they reminded me of etc). Plus about a dozen on a Kindle. I think that makes me biblio-polygamous. Theming was very exciting, as I got to surround myself with books, talk to them etc, a bit like Prince Charles with his plants.
    But right now, since you ask, I’m reading ‘The end of dissatisfaction?’ by Todd McGowan. But that’s an eBook, so may not count. Hard copy I’m about to jump back into
    The Poetics of Reverie’ by Gaston Bachelard, and probably Tove Jansson’s ‘Moominvalley in November’.
    Then I may theme some more. I never blog trawl. I’m not that kind of boy.

  6. ha, Stephen you make me laugh, theme away … though have I been branded some kind of blogslut? Hahahaha oh, I hope so, though really Overland is my only vice (and that a new one) and I am not naturally a blogo-polyandrist. I am happily familiar with the moomins. The end of dissatisfaction sounds attractive (though I’m not a fan of screen reading and too cheap to print everything out – I am far too old-school to want my books on A4). I believe I have spent all day in the poetics of reverie … any book that champions dreamers is okay by me (she says, as if she were some kind of censor ho ho ho)
    I love the image of surrounding oneself with books (and you don’t even have to water them) … my house is filling up. Pretty soon there won’t be room for the pets.

  7. I do the exact opposite to the author trail, Irma. I save books by authors that I like. Hence, I’m not allowed to read Marilynne Robinson’s Home until I’m 45. Which is of course not going to happen. I have a friend who just recently had his David Foster Wallace author trail experience…and he burned out in the middle of Infinite Jest. Occupational hazard.

    Having said that, the ‘reverse author trail’ doesn’t apply to YA books.

    I think we should form a ‘No, I still haven’t read The Tall Man‘ yet book club. I am beside myself that I haven’t read it yet.

  8. Holy ambiguity, Batman! What I meant is that I will probably cave in and read Home next week. I hope to live to beyond the average female age, and get an extra couple of years to read War and Peace (because that’s definitely not going to happen).

  9. I have a perhaps related problem. I am perpetually reading books for some specific reason: for review or to interview the author or for an event or for something like that. That means books increasingly seem a source of guilt rather than pleasure: the pile in the lounge does not say ‘Read me!’ so much as ‘Why haven’t you read me yet?’, which isn’t quite the same thing.

  10. You’re all far too organised for me! I’ve never contemplated all these possibilities (and may now lose more time as a result).

    Estelle, finally started The Tall Man! Hooray!

    And Jeff, I can totally relate. But we shouldn’t really complain since having to read for work is pretty damn good.

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