Friday, May 07, 2010

The unbearable lightness of not reading

by Rachel

I think most people who love literature have a to-read pile of books waiting for them, but Kirsty Logan takes it to a whole other level in her article for The Millions, where she proudly boasts owning 800 unread books. Yes, 800, unread—I don’t think 800 books could even fit inside my apartment!

I can understand Kirsty’s reasoning behind not reading a book because she knows she’ll end up loving it—though nonsensical, I do this all the time, too. I buy books knowing from reviews, word of mouth, or simply because of its author, that I’ll love reading it, and so I leave them on my shelves for months before I sit down with them. A reader’s comment on her article puts it perfectly: it’s like “savoring the thrill of the unopened present on Christmas morning,”—I get that. But, I do eventually read these books.

What I don’t understand is Kirsty not reading books because she simply worries they’re not the books she thinks they are. I think when it comes to reading, it’s good to have certain expectations, but choosing not to read books because we have expectations and fear disappointment, seems to me, to be a little drastic. Kirsty Logan’s article is titled "The Joy of Unread Books," but I see no joy in collecting shelves full of books and refusing to read them.

Do you side with Kirsty on this one? Have you ever not read a book simply because you thought your expectations were too high? And if so, what book was it?

26 comments:

  1. Okay, now, I'll freely admit that my To Read shelf is ridiculously huge--490 books and counting, now that I've started buying digital--but I almost always read everything I purchase. (Eventually: my record for longest time spent on my To Read shelf is nine years, so far.) There are exceptions, but they are rare. And if I DO ditch a book I've already purchased and haven't read, I will always take it to the used bookstore near my house and trade it in so I can get something else.

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  2. Wow - buying a book without reading it? I didn't know anyone really did that. My problem is I read too fast. It's torture when the husband says I have to make a book last several days (though I give it my best and only allow myself to read in like 20-minute increments from whatever book it might be, the most recent example being Cemetary Dance).

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  3. I can understand buying collectable books and letting them set. I used to collect Edgar Rice Burroughs first editions and there's no way I would read those. But a book is meant to be read. If you're not buying it to escape to another world, another time--why waste the money?

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  4. I admit to also having a rather immoderate TBR pile, but I don't believe I've never NOT read a book because I feared my expectations are too high. Maybe because I fear it will break my heart, but not that. Most of them do get read eventually, but sometimes it takes a very long time. I do understand the feeling of being surrounded by all that *potential* reading material. It's a good feeling, knowing those books are waiting for me to read them.

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  5. As an avid reader, finding and buying new books is so hard NOT to do. It's quite addictive, really. You want to have it so that when the time is right to read it, the book is at your fingertips. I agree with the idea that they are like presents waiting to be opened, whenever that time may come. There's a stack at my bedside now and I have every intention of reading them. I'm not so sure I identify with hesitating to read a book for fear of being disappointed. I usually can't wait for the adventure to begin!

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  7. I'm a self-professed 'book addict'. Like some people are with shoes or stamps or coins, I am with books. I have close to a thousand and have read probably a bit more than half. So I 100% see where Kirsty is coming from. I just love the way books look/feel/smell that I can't help myself! And finding some on clearance or FREE...get outta here!

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  8. If a book sits on my tbr shelf for too long, I find it loses its shine and I'm more inclined to pick something new up from the library, or the bookstore. This usually happens after about a year--that is, if I don't pick it up after 3 vacations (e.g. winter, summer, winter), I usually take it to the used book store for credit. I don't know why this happens...maybe the guilt of not reading it overpowers the initial interest in reading it. Or just that after that period of time my interests change enough that it doesn't fit my taste anymore. This is not to say that my taste won't cycle back around to it when I don't own it and see it again in a library or bookstore.

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  9. Anticipation is great, but no... This is nuts.

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  10. Hm, I must be behind the times, as I only have 98 books on my shelves that I have yet to read. Well, 98 fiction books. I also have 22 non-fiction books that I've collected (mostly from classes) that I have yet to read. Of course, many MANY of these are series that, if I don't like the first book, I will most likely trade-in the whole series. It's just a matter of finding time and motivation to delve into that particular trilogy/quartet/quintet/series. You know, the whole 'what do I feel like today?'

    Now, I don't think I would EVER let my collection get THAT large. And none of these are books that I don't think I'll like. So, I'd say Kirsty is a bit crazy, and needs to find a school or organization to donate some books to.

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  11. The only books that sit for long on my TBR pile are those I know I "should" read, but don't necessarily want to read. The book my cousin wrote was there for over a year--and actually turned out to be pretty good. Others are from book clubs or a trilogy I read the first 2.5 books of before stalling out. I don't buy many books, so those I do I've either already read or simply have to read RIGHT NOW!

    I want to know what she's reading if she's buying so many books she ISN'T reading. Surely she's reading SOMETHING?

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  12. I don't even own 800 books period, and yet people are always commenting on the number of books I have! I probably need to buy another bookcase soon for all my TBR books. Of course, being a librarian-in-training, I do borrow books on occasion. ;-)

    I've read books and been disappointed because they weren't what I expected, and in some cases it did make me a little nervous to read other books for which I had high expectations. I don't let this keep me from reading them, though. And like Caitlin, I find my TBR pile grows if I let a book sit there too long. When I get to it, I'll decide I'm not really in the mood for it anymore and go purchase/borrow newer things. So half the collection just sits there for a few years. I've still got books from BEA 2008 that I haven't read, but I think those are the oldest, and I'm glad for it.

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  13. I have over 1600 books in my private library at home and sometimes I love to just sit and look at my books. That said, I've read about 98% of them. I try to keep my TBR pile rather small and I have a nice system of catagorizing everything by author and subject so that I don't end up buying the same book twice, which has happened more than once!!!

    Not read a book that I've bought, for any reason.....it's beyond my comprehension!

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  14. I have an embarrassingly large TBR pile (thanks to a few online swapping sites), but there are a few standouts that I'm holding off reading. #1 is Spook Country by William Gibson. I'm a huge Gibson fan, and I'm not holding off because I fear disappointment, but rather because you can only read a book for the first time once. I devour Gibson's books far too fast, and I'm not ready for it to be over (even before I begin).

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  15. I worked out recently I was buying an average of a book a day, and I can not read anywhere near that rate. Thank goodness for digital books!

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  16. Thanks for linking to my article; I'm glad it's encouraging such debate!

    Caitlin, I'm fascinated by your comment. I absolutely agree that books lose their 'shine' after a while – I've always put this down to my tastes changing, but now I'm thinking about your other reasons too.

    Vicki, the thought of giving all my books away fills me with horror. If I give them away, I won't be able to read them! I think perhaps I should have used the phrase 'pre-read books' rather than 'unread', because I will read every book I own at some point. Sometimes I like to leave it a while (whether that's a week or a year), just to enjoy the anticipation of it.

    Robin, I certainly do read a lot of books! I have to read for my work (writing, teaching, book reviewing) but I mostly read for pleasure. I tend not to keep books I've read, though; I keep my favourites, and give the rest to friends or second-hand bookshops.

    Kristi, I love your point about only reading a book for the first time once. I think that is the core of my joy in unread books.

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  17. I wish I had the money to have a shelf of 800 tbr books! I have about 20 unread books on my shelves but mostly they are books that I bought and after a couple of pages I found that I just didn't really like them. I definitely have a very long virtual list of tbr books but being a poor post grad I buy books in twos or threes and read them when I get them.

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  18. I just bought a house in Massachusetts in addition to my flat in Moscow. I couldn't bring all my books back to the US, but I don't feel good without some particular books on my shelves. So, I'm having a blast going around used book sales and hunting for my old friends, as well as finding some new ones. My rule is never to pay more than 2 USD a pop, and I'm itching to get them all on the almost-completed bookshevles!! I have a lot of books I INTEND to read (I intend to read Proust) but I don't think I have ever not read a book because I was scared I wouldn't like it. Tell me this, do you think it is okay to abandon a book in medias res?

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  19. And I thought my TBR pile was groaning! I read most of what I buy within a few months of buying it, but I admit I've been hesitating on the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - for a couple of reasons. It's come highly recommended, the reviews rock, and I've been told that once I get past the first few chapters I'll not want to put it down. But, it's a BIG book and I promised myself I'd read every book I start to the end this year - my friend and I are doing a 100 books in 2010 challenge. So, what if I DON'T like it? That's a big commitment. Instead, I stare at it lovingly every time I reach for a new book.

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  20. 800 books is pretty extreme, but I DO understand the logic behind this. I've had Vikram Seth's 'A Suitable Boy' on my shelf for far too long along with a couple of others that look great, but a bit daunting. But I've also had a Cadbury's fruit and nut bar in my freezer for the past six months.

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  21. Jennifer, I operate a strict 50-page rule. If I get to p50 of a book and I still don't like it, I get rid of it. There are too many amazing books out there to waste time on one that's not doing anything for me.

    Incidentally, I don't think that giving up on a book is the sign of a bad book or of a lazy reader. Sometimes it's just not a good match.

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  22. No, but I've put off reading books because I felt like other people's expectations were too high. It's snobbish, but it kind of bugs me when someone shoves a book in my face and says I have to read it because it's the best book ever. (Please. I've read the best books ever. They start with Harry and end with Potter.)

    Twilight sat on my shelf for six months because my mother-in-law compared Stephenie Meyer to J.K. Rowling. Sacrilege.

    After I finished Twilight, I twiddled my thumbs for about thirty minutes, then I told my husband I needed to go to the store. I went to the store and bought the next book...

    I'm still kind of annoyed at my mother-in-law for the Meyer/Rowling comparison, but I forgave her when she gave me The Hunger Games.

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  23. I always read my TBR books, regardless of my expectations. I expect much from all of them anyway or they wouldn't be on my list.

    Maybe Kirsty is borderline hoarder...? Some people can be obsessive about books.

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  24. Frankly I find that kind of thinking a bit disingenuous. Makes for a controversial article and it worked. Here we are discussing it. Metinks she exagerates a bit on the number of books purposefully unread and the reason thereof. Balderdash comes to mind.

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  25. I'm a skinflint; I keep my TBR on Goodreads. I can't remember the last time I purchased a book that I hadn't already read and loved. The books I own are ones that are like family to me - familiar, comfortable, and always there for me.

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  26. Unread books used to actually cause me anxiety! I used to feel guilty that I bought them or were given them and they just sat there, unread, on the shelf -- mostly because I devoured new books immediately for the vast majority of my life.

    I got over that very quickly.

    Now I have a small pile of unread books at home, many more at the library waiting to be devoured, and a long list on Goodreads. I'll get there, one by one! But it's nice to always have a great book to look forward to, and I've learned the joy of waiting to read a book til it suits my reading mood exactly.

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