Sunday, May 5, 2013

On Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered1

Not to be confused with Books You Haven’t Read, Books You Needn’t Read, Books Made for Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong to the Category of Books Read Before Being Written, Books You Mean to Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, Books Too Expensive Now and You’ll Wait ‘Til They’re Remaindered, Books ditto When They Come Out in Paperback, Books You Can Borrow from Somebody, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too, Books You’ve Been Planning to Read for Ages, Books You’ve Been Hunting for Years Without Success, Books Dealing with Something You’re Working on at the Moment, Books You Want to Own So They’ll Be Handy Just in Case, Books You Could Put Aside Maybe to Read This Summer, Books You Need to Go with Other Books on Your Shelves, Books That Fill You with Sudden Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified, Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time to Re-read, or Books You’ve Always Pretended to Have Read and Now It’s Time to Sit Down and Really Read Them

Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler has a great description of the conflicting emotions a booklover feels when they walk into a bookstore (see footnote 1) which boils down to a simple depressing fact: so many books so little time. It boggles my mind that at some point in the not so distant past it was possible to have read every book ever published. Nowadays you probably couldn’t read all the books published in a single month. With almost infinite possibilities, I sometimes find it almost paralyzing trying to decide what book to read next. Should I finally read the classic I've been putting off or should I read the new bestseller everyone is raving about? What about the earlier work of an author whose third book was awesome? How can I decide when there are so many choices and my days are numbered?!?!?

I spend way too much time thinking about this problem. I’m 32 years old. All my grandparents died before they made it to 75 so I’ll be fighting genetics to make it past 80, but let’s be optimistic and assume I have another 50 years to read. In the last five years I’ve averaged about 36 books a year. That means I’ll probably only read 1800 more books in my life. That’s all I have left! I can’t just willy nilly read whatever book strikes my fancy can I? But I do. I read a review of thrillers on Book Riot recently and the next day Out by Natsuo Kirino arrived at my door. Is this really the best method for optimizing the 1800 books I have left? What if I never get to Middlemarch or Infinite Jest or Moby Dick or anything by Jane Austen, Vladimir Nabokov, Ernest Hemmingway, Salman Rushdie, or James Joyce?

Does it make sense to go deep on authors or should I just stay shallow and read the one masterpiece? I really loved David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, but if I had stopped there I never would have discovered the even better (in my opinion) number9dream. A Visit from the Goon Squad is one of my favorite novels but I’ve never read anything else by Egan. Should I? Looking back it seems like a waste to have read all those not even written by Tom Clancy Op Center novels in my youth. How do I avoid making similar mistakes in the future?

And what do I do about recommendations? I loved Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book, but I absolutely loathed In the Woods, by Tana French which Miller wholeheartedly recommended. I’m very happy I gave into the peer pressure to read the Harry Potter books but I wish I would have avoided The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Hunger Games. Should I finally give in to popular demand and read Ready Player One which many different people have recommended to me? I DON’T KNOW!

I can't even think about re-reading books. Whenever someone tells me they've read one book twenty different times I want to scream: "What? You re-read that book every year? YOU FOOL! Don’t you know you're dying? Your days are numbered!" I know some people hate variety. For example, I know a couple who fly to Florida every few months and immediately head to a Cracker Barrel. But I just don't get it. Why wouldn’t you try something different? What are you really going to get out of reading Angels and Demons for the 6th time?

Am I the only crazy person out there who thinks about this? How do you decide what book to read next? Do you re-read books? How should I allot my final 1800 books? Help!


  1. Never read the Twilight series...unless you want to hop on the bandwagon of people making fun of it.

    I have re-read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings a couple times. I'm sure I will probably reread the Harry Potter series but not for a while.

    You are reading the The Song of Ice and Fire series right?

    Now that I'm not studying or not doing something because I'm guilty about not studying I hope to get back to reading more. Pretty easy to sneak it in while making sure the kid doesn't suicide himself somehow.

  2. Hey George! I don't even know what The Song of Ice and Fire is :)