The piles of books on our bedside tables got so high and precarious that we installed a shelf above the bed. That too now groans and, in my husband’s case, his side of the shelf has reached capacity so his bedside table sports a precarious stack again. This is the sum of our good intentions.
Libraries can help with this. They allow us to save some money and some shelf space. Audiobooks have a similar appeal, and those little files on the Kobo. But there is something to be said for thinking of a line from a book read twelve years ago and turning to find it on the shelf, flipping through the pages, somehow remembering the structure of the narrative after all that time. It’s a little bit like coming home, or greeting an old friend; a kind of knowing. The ownership of all those books, it can make one feel safe.
Then there are those books that lurk, unread, taunting one with their spines unbroken. Or perhaps they were purchased second-hand and their spines are well cracked already, but it’s been hard to find that lovely open space of time that some books request.
Literary festivals don’t help with this. In fact, they make it worse. Engaging in conversations about books and listening to all those wonderful writers talk about their craft, well, it just makes the pile on the bedside table bigger.
Taking part in any literary conversation can go either way. It’s so lovely when someone says “Have you read XYZ’s latest?” and the answer is yes. Then you can embark on a deeper reading experience together, a kind of joint remembering.
But what happens when the answer is no? For me, that’s an invitation to keep adding to the stack. I love receiving reading recommendations from friends and colleagues, so I have copious notes on my phone for all the books I’m supposed to look up, find and read.
But for some people, this can lead to a kind of literary FOMO, where everyone else seems to be reading the best and brightest, and we’re reading something else. Here’s what Helen Garner wrote about this phenomenon in One Day I’ll Remember:
“There’s stuff I should be reading, but I don’t know what it is, and so I read just anything and feel all the time that it’s the wrong stuff.”
But it doesn’t have to be like this. With 130 million books in the world (and those are the 2010 figures!), it’s not possible to read them all in one lifetime. It’s ok to find your own way and not worry about what anyone else says. Here’s a quote from the powerful author, Haruki Murakami, to set our anxiety straight:
“If you only ever read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”
When it comes to reading, I’m a wanderer, a rambler one might say. I don’t have an agenda for my reading but rather a trust that one book will lead to another, that the journey will unfold. It’s the one area of my life where I’m confident to follow my instincts and it’s rare for me to find myself in a space of doubt or confusion. Reading time is so precious to me and it’s never wasted. Even if a book doesn’t land with me, I never hold regret, I just move on to the next and the next, safe in the knowledge that I’m a reader, a dreamer, a connector and a collector, willing to step into the collective consciousness and absorb intrinsically.
For me, reading is the perfect way to just be.
This means that I can retain all of my good intentions, knowing that those stacks of books – read and unread, diverse, fashionable, current or old – they demonstrate what an optimist I am. May this lifetime be filled with reading, filled to bursting, and may this make me happy and also make me grow.