Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Our unread libraries

Yesterday, my friend Michelle posted this to her tumblr. If you don't feel like clicking through, the relevant bit is she admitted she'd never read any of Neil Gaiman's writing. Michelle happens to be a good enough friend that we can give each other shit, so I took to twitter to do so. (I feel like I should say that I do not lurk in dark corners of the internet with copies of Sandman and Coraline to press upon the unwary. But Michelle and I had literally just had an extended email discussion about Sandman, and she had neglected to mention that little fact, so some sort of commentary seemed necessary. Not the point. Anyway.) I also gave her a couple of "start here" recommendations. But in the process, a conversation sprang up among a bunch of us who are friends - @MichelleHodkin, @christieyant, and @LisMock, if you want to check the feeds - about the books we haven't read.

Here's the thing. There are a lot of books out there. Like, really a lot. A big number that probably has a really fancy name. Which means that there are going to be books that you haven't read. And of those unread books, there may be some - perhaps particularly if you are a writer, as are all of the women I was conversing with - that you feel you should have read. The classics. The big books in your field. The ones all the smart people have read. The ones your best friend loves. The ones that cute person you are trying to sleep with talks about all the time.

But the problem is, there are always new books to read. If you're like me, sometimes you have favorite books you need to reread. There are - so I've heard - things people do that aren't reading. Time is limited, and so those books on the "should" lists remain unread. Or more books get added to those lists. The To Be Read pile becomes enormous, and gains sentience. We become haunted by the books we're not reading.

We all have readerly blind spots. We all have gaps in our libraries. Having them doesn't make you less, doesn't make you a fraud. (Says the woman who got a PhD in Literature without ever having taken a course in American Lit, who is only just now reading Moby Dick because one of her friends organized an internet readalong of it and so it suddenly became less intimidating.) But still, there remains that sense of "should." 

I think "should" can be really problematic, when it comes to reading. In academia, of course, there is the canon. The problem with the canon is that these "important" books are reflections of the people who were deciding what was important, and so if you weren't a wealthy, educated, straight, white, Protestant male, well, good luck ever seeing your concerns reflected on a syllabus. And not that some of these books weren't good, weren't important, but they were presented in a way that suggested nothing else was, and that nothing else existed. I had shock in my classroom every year when I included women writers in medieval lit courses. Shock because "women didn't write then."

There are canons outside of academia as well - classic authors in the field that we are told we should know and read to really be part of that field. And if we don't like them, if they don't speak to us, well then clearly we don't belong in that field, either. Which is, of course, rubbish, but then, I can't stand Heinlein, and I'm not a huge fan of Asimov or Clarke, either, so then I would say that, wouldn't I?

And "you should really read this" comes with a different kind of pressure when it is a friend handing you the book, because especially if you are a bookish person, you recognize the evangelical glint in the recommender's eye: "This book changed my life." "I have parts of it tattooed on my body." "I read this 37 times growing up." In the face of that, how do you hand it back and say, "Yeah, that wasn't really my thing"?

(You say it. But you also allow that other person their enthusiasm. You enjoy it. We all have our loves. And sometimes you read a book not to know the book, but to know the person who gave it to you just a fraction more fully.)

A book is different, every time it is read. The text is not truly complete until it has been experienced by a reader, and each reader brings something new. And that something can change - I have books that I reread each year, and I read them as palimpsests, as layers of the person I was all the times I read them before. There are books that I loved as a child that I can no longer read, and books that I bounced off of and then came to love later. We see new things, both flaws and beauties, each time we read.

Come to peace with the fact that there are books and writers that may never be yours, even if they seem to be everyone else's. Even if they are important, whatever that means. There are so many books, and that is a glorious thing. Fill in your gaps if you feel they are gaps, if you feel there are places inside you that need those other books, for whatever reason. Otherwise, be your own rare bird, in your nest of unread pages.


  1. Love this post. Seriously. I have such a guilt complex about all the box that I haven't gotten to yet, and that compounds every time I read a book that I don't LOVE, as if that somehow takes away from the books I would love if I only had time to read them. The things we do to ourselves! And I hate, hate, hate feeling guilty because a "big" book doesn't speak to me.

  2. I used to work at Borders, back when that was a thing, and I recall a conversation with a fellow employee about customers who expected us to have read every single book in the store so that we could give them reviews. "Look at all these books," he said, "You couldn't read them in a lifetime." I remember that really bummed me out at the time. It wasn't until some time later that I realized I didn't *have* to read them all and I relaxed a bit.

  3. So, so, true.

    I am looking at two bookcases containing approximately 400 unread books. This is my "To Be Read" pile. This is not a humblebrag, this is a cry for help. Because more books have already been ordered and are on their way.

    I'll try to take your words to heart. They are good words.

    Sharing on Facebook.



  4. There's this huge bookstore I love. It's not only huge - it's a discovery place. Every time I go there I bump into something I had never imagined that could exist (appropriately it's called Leonardo Da Vinci, and one of my favorite poets loved the place too). So, in one of those visits, I was looking at the shelves and had my own moment of "you'll never be able to read all this - actually, nobody will". First as despair, then as epiphany.

    Still "I'm a human being, and I consider nothing that is human alien to me" like Terentius said (though I've never read Terentius). So the hunger never disappears. Which is a good thing too - knowing that to the end of my days there will always be something that's new to me.

    I think that, as much as filling the gaps, it's important to choose what are those gaps. And realising that they change over time - so many books that 20 years ago I thought I HAD to read are now almost meaningless to me. Just like sculpting a horse is removing from the stone everything that is not horse, growing as a person and a reader is choosing what you won't read.

  5. Great post! My "should read" list every year is longer than the list of books I finished, but I kind of like that--gives me something to look forward to next year. :)