Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

On Books, Mortality, Time, and Space

ImageLately I’ve been intrigued by studies saying that things – material things – cause a great deal of anxiety. Simply put, people in the Western world own too much stuff, and that stuff doesn’t make us happy. Quite the opposite, in fact. There’s too much choice; our brains get just as cluttered as our houses. I once read an article that said (in a very approximate translation from Finnish) something to the effect of, ‘Every thing you have lying about is a call to action.’ Badminton racquets in the cupboard remind us that we really should get round to playing badminton one day. Knitting needles on the side table are a constant reminder that we should be learning to knit socks, but so far we haven’t knit even half a sock. A dress in the wardrobe speaks of all the times it has not been worn.

Nothing is quite as persistent at this as unread books. They’re practically screaming at us. Or at least, mine scream at me.

Too many such calls to action and we start to feel anxious. Not to mention the impracticality of having more books than there’s room on the bookshelves: when you’re stepping over stacks of unread books to get to your bed, you know you’ve got a problem.

But it’s one thing to acknowledge you’ve got a problem; it’s another thing entirely to be able to do something about it. To me, giving up on books not only means admitting failure; it means coming to terms with my own mortality. Sounds dramatic, I know, so let me explain. As a child, one of my biggest fears – besides the death of my grandfather and the possibility of an imminent environmental disaster – was that one day I would run out of books to read. Well, my grandfather died and imminent environmental disasters loom in the horizon as we speak, but the fear regarding books has turned on its head. I’m no longer afraid of running out of books to read: now, one of my biggest fears is running out of time to read them. Some women’s biological clock relates to babies, but mine is covered with book-dust.

Because of this, I find myself constantly anxious about my reading material. On the one hand, I’d like to spend my remaining time on this earth reading something edifying – and that opens a new can of worms, for how does one decide what is edifying enough? And once you draft a list of sufficiently ‘edifying’ books, how do you decide what to read first? Or, for that matter, second? Out of a hundred randomly selected books written about the history of 20th-century economy, which one do you choose? Do you read one, two, three, or all of them? If you read all of them, does that mean you have no time left to read about war history or the history of environmentalism?

This is making my head hurt.

On the other hand, I find myself sinking into an ever deeper abyss of nostalgia. I want to forget the world exists while I’m reading. I want reading to give me the joy it gave me as a child. In fact, not only as a child, but only a few years ago, before I started getting stressed out by my reading choices – I can name more than a dozen recent books that have held me in thrall. I don’t believe this is an age-related thing at all. Thank God for The Hunger Games: it restored my faith in my own ability to get totally engrossed in a fictional universe.

In other words, I want edifying but engrossing escapism that makes me a better person and a well-informed citizen. I want to learn how computers work. I want to learn to knit socks. I want to learn about the privatisation of the world’s water resources. I want all this, and I also want to disappear into an 18th-century world and forget that the modern world is such a horrid little place.

All of these books exist – in the library, in the bookshop, many of them already on my shelves. So how do I decide what to read first – how, how, how? How does one optimise one’s literary life? We’re back to mortality again: at this rate of reading, I won’t get the chance to learn anything much at all before I die. I’ll be able to quote Jane Austen by heart on my deathbed, but is that all? Is that enough?

This sense of anxiety leads to frantic book-hopping – one page on physics, one chapter on digital photography, half a book about Mediaeval history, and then it’s time for a bit of Augustan poetry. This, in turn, leads to a vicious circle. One of my stress symptoms is not enjoying reading very much, and being unable to concentrate. When I’m unable to concentrate and not enjoying reading very much, it stresses me out to be like that. When I’m like that, I pick the wrong books to read. When I pick the wrong books to read, I get even more stressed because. . .

Well, here we get to the heart of the problem – admitting defeat. All my life, I’ve clung to an absolutely stupid principle: once you start a book, you finish it. By God, you finish it, or else. I’ve broken this vow only a few times in my life, and even those have only been quietly added to the list of ‘books I might continue with one day’. I’ve suffered through hundreds of pages of mediocrity, tedium, not-my-cup-of-tea, I-don’t-understand-a-word-of-this, and oh-God-will-this-book-never-end, all in the name of finishing what I’ve started. For a long time now I’ve wondered why exactly should I finish what I’ve started, but my subconscious won’t let go of this. It’s one of my core beliefs, after all; dating back to the time when I seriously thought I would run out of books to read.

Sometimes I’ve found myself reading uninteresting books ‘out of the way’ so that I’d be able to enjoy the good ones without any added stress. Unfortunately, reading uninteresting books just for the sake of reading them is a good way to make oneself less interested in reading – and that takes us back to the vicious circle of reading-related stress.

However, after once again knocking over those stacks of books beside my bed, I knew that things can’t go on like this. I took a deep breath and started dividing my books into new stacks. ‘Books I’m definitely not going to read’, ‘books I’m definitely going to read’. At first I tried to stick to two categories, but it was so incredibly difficult to add books to the ‘definitely not going to read’ stack that the hesitation bred new sub-categories: ‘books I might read when I’m sick with the flu’, ‘books that are so boring that they might be useful on sleepless nights’, ‘books that are so devoid of content they might make for a good speed-reading exercise’.

So far I’ve only managed to get rid of books that I intend to replace with better editions. What I do with, say, a modern translation of The Canterbury Tales? Why, nothing: I need the original text, so I’d better add that one on my wish list. What do I with a cheapo edition of Wuthering Heights with a terribly ugly cover? Why, I’ll surely buy a beautifully bound hardback edition one day. But isn’t this some kind of cheating? I’m not actually getting rid of excess books so much as replacing books with phantom desires.

Then I started feeling bad, and took the ugly little copy of Wuthering Heights out of the ‘get rid of’ stack. There is another dimension to books as physical objects, as mementoes – as old friends. My copy of Can You keep a Secret? by Sophie Kinsella is a good example of the sheer irrationality of this emotional attachment. I can’t remember when I read it. I can’t remember a single thing about its plot. I think it’s safe to say that, though I enjoy Kinsella’s writing, Can You Keep a Secret? probably isn’t one of my all-time favourite books. But the sight of it reminds me of something. I’m not even sure what: just something. And because of this, seeing it on the shelf makes me happy. I can’t cull a book that makes me happy just by looking at it.

The older the book and the memories it’s associated with, the harder it gets to part with. Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason is hardly an undying classic, but I can remember the exact circumstances of reading that very book: I was a teenager and on holiday in Jersey (Channel Islands, that is) with my mother. I bought the book at the airport. I can remember reading it on the beach. I can remember chuckling when I read it on the hotel bed, trying to dry my hair at the same time. I can even remember the duvet on the bed. How could I possibly get rid of this book? It would be tantamount to getting rid of my memories.

Newer, unread books are easier to get rid of than books I know I’ll never re-read, becauseImage there’s no emotional attachment (except in the case of books that were gifts; books that were bought in special circumstances; books I’ve grown fond of despite never reading them . . . need I go on?). Obviously it’s still not easy, considering the difficulty of admitting defeat. It’s especially galling to admit defeat without even trying.

But I decided to make it easier for myself and try the ‘literary agent’ approach. That is to say, instead of adding books to my ‘books I’m definitely not going to read’ stack, I’ll add them to my ‘books I’m going to sample before adding them to my “books I’m definitely not going to read” stack’ stack. I promised myself I’d read two chapters and decide, there and then, whether the book is worth reading or not. With this method I’ve found surprisingly many books to add to the ‘books I’m definitely not going to read’ stack, but the doubts and hesitations are killing me. What if the book doesn’t reveal its brilliance until the third chapter? Or the fourth? Or fifth? I didn’t realise that The Mill on the Floss was so good until I’d read more than two thirds of it. It rewarded me for my perseverance. What if such a gem is hidden in this stack?

Is this pig-headedness, or is it stupidity? Am I still, in my heart of hearts, thinking that I’ll be able to read everything? Am I subconsciously holding onto fantasies of literary omnipotence? I’ve always had the secret ambition to build the biggest private library in the world. Wouldn’t all these books be nice additions to that library? (Never mind that when I win the lottery and can finally afford to build that library, I might just be able to afford to buy new copies of those bloody books as well.)

I’ll keep trying, I promise. I won’t be discouraged, though thus far, the only thing I know is that I do want to read Jon Canter’s Seeds of Greatness, Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End, and Lisa Yee’s Millicent Min, Girl Genius.

I suppose that’s a start.

7 comments on “On Books, Mortality, Time, and Space

  1. Jackie
    June 22, 2013

    You are very brave, Leena, to post such a personal entry, especially when you feel that you’re exposing such flaws. I think it’s not just the books themselves, but that they are possibilities: you may possibly like it, you may possibly learn something, it’s possible to find time to read all of those books, yet do other things, etc. When you looks at them as proof of optimism, rather than clutter, they become easier to live with.
    I do think you ought to give yourself permission NOT to finish reading a book that you hate or are extremely bored by. It defeats the very purpose of why you read, which is as a comfort or of an enjoyment.And I fully understand the impulse, I had that very rule myself, up till a few years ago, when I realized that dreading or avoiding a book was the opposite of what I liked best about reading. Sure I felt guilty at first, but that wore off. And you’d be surprised at how few books you really don’t finish, it’s only a few per year, actually. You can even make a rule to read so many pages before giving up. Try it for a bit & see if it works for you, it would be better than becoming anxious.

  2. Moira
    June 23, 2013

    Oh my, but all this sounds horribly familiar. If it’s any consolation to you, I have a very similar relationship with books. I need to cull. I regularly start to cull, but then I find myself hanging onto books not because I particularly like them as books, or want to read them, or have enjoyed reading them, but because – exactly like you – I associate happy things with them – when and where and how I acquired them/read them. I also get guilt complexes about books sent to me for review that I haven’t managed to read. I do the ‘reading to get them out of the way’ thing too … I also constantly see books I think I would like, and have to physically restrain myself from buying them because of the amount I already have lying around all over the office, all over the bedroom and – in general – all over the house, much to my mother’s dismay …

    In fact – we weren’t separated at birth or anything were we?

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings
    June 23, 2013

    What a wonderful post – I *so* identify with all you say. As I get older I seriously do worry about whether I will have time to read everything I want to (that’s without re-reading my old loves). My TBR is currently a mountain which shows no sign of getting smaller as I discover more volumes I want to read. And the personal connection I feel with so many of them makes it impossible to consider getting rid of them. If we ever downsize our house I am in trouble…..

  4. Alison M.
    June 24, 2013

    Aaargh!! This is me! I even tried the charity bag approach. Put it in the bag &, if it’s still there in a month, off to charity. Fine until I decided to have a final check before the bag went off to the shop, I ended up keeping 10 and sending 2.

  5. Seamus Duggan
    June 27, 2013

    Schopenhauer said that when you’re buying books, you’re optimistically thinking you’re buying the time to read them. As a chronic second hand bookshop / charity shop addict with well more than a thousand unread books I know I will not read them all but I like having them and the choice every time when choosing a new book to read.
    I also fantasise about having an even bigger library to expand into.

  6. Erica
    June 27, 2013

    Thank you for this post. As with the other comments – you are not alone! I empathise with much that you say. As an English Lit academic I have turned reading into my job, and this has some unhappy consequences. Reading is ‘work’ – there are so many things I ‘ought’ to read, and they need to be read in a certain way – a studious, note-taking way. I would love to return to the abandoned, immersed reading of childhood, but it very rarely happens these days – it is rarely allowed to happen. Books, once a source of happiness, become a source of stress.

  7. Melrose
    June 27, 2013

    Might be worth adding another book to the library. Lyall Watson’s “The Nature of Things: The Secret Life of Inanimate Objects”, and whether we imbue inanimate objects with a life of their own. He’s a sort of mystical scientist. I think it might be in that book, also, where he talks of a gift from one person to another bringing an onus with it. He is an interesting writer.

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This entry was posted on June 22, 2013 by in Articles, Entries by Leena.



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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