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.
On 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.)
And 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.
And 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