The tyranny of the to-read pile
Advice to beat the credit crunch by reading those books youown but never read isn't as straightforward as it sounds
Over recent months I've read plenty of articles about the impact the credit crunch will have on publishing, and the general consensus appears to be that while it will doubtless be affected like every other industry, the impact will likely be gentler than elsewhere.
The industry is used to struggling already, so it's less likely to be panicked by narrowing profit margins than those skittish coke-fiends in the city. What's more, recessions generally don't seem to stop people buying books.
Punters may have less money to throw away on extravagant food-porn absurdities such as The Big Fat Duck Cookbook, but this is balanced out by the sad fact that plenty of people suddenly find themselves with a lot more time to read.
I'm prepared to go along with that theory, but an article I just came across on bookninja.com has led me to question the premise slightly. The stealthy links-master (whom I love even though he once tried to have me assassinated) suggests that if we're feeling the financial pinch, we should stop going to bookshops: "Instead of going out and buying more books you fully-intend-to but are-not-going-to read, why not examine your shelves for ones that slipped through the cracks and feel lonely and neglected."
If everyone has as many unread books as I have such actions won't help the industry - as bookninja suggests. And much as I'd appreciate the spare cash he also points out will result from not buying books, the challenge has a definite dark side. In directing us to the books we already own, bookninja is asking us to confront the tyranny of the to-read pile head-on.
Bibliophiles everywhere will be only too well acquainted with the demons of guilt and shame that such explorations would conjure. The to-read pile is more than just a physical stack of books: it's a tower of ambitions failed, hopes unrealised, good intentions unfulfilled. Worse still, it's a cold hard reminder of mortality. Already, I have intentions to read more books than I can hope to manage in a normal lifetime.
How will this pile of books taunt me when I'm 64?
And Cynthia Crossen, whose Wall Street Journal article inspired Bookninja's own musings, points out another evil of the to-read collection. It's a catalogue of pathetic excuses:
"As I scanned my shelves, I found I had convincing arguments why I shouldn't read each one of the orphans - or convincing to me anyway. I rejected a book called English, August, by Upamanyu Chatterjee because it is, after all, November. No to The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell because the book jacket says it's about 'the desperate lives of working people.' No to The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro because I heard it wasn't nearly as good as Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go."
I know exactly what she means. Each book on my overloaded pending shelf comes with its own unconvincing reason as to why I can't quite manage it yet and am going to buy the new Paul Auster instead. Chief among my tormentors is Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day. There's no ignoring it, because it's so big. Indeed, owing to the fact that my shelves are right next to my bed, it's pretty much the last thing I see before I go to sleep and the first thing I see when I wake up. And I have no reason not to read it other than its size.
I know I'll enjoy it, but, you see, I need to know I'm going to have a good month or so at home before I make a start. It's just too heavy to go on holiday or assignment and I'm also worried that taking it in a bag will break the spine. (And in case you're thinking I should just interrupt my reading for a few days, I can't. It's Pynchon. Losing the thread could get me completely lost.)
I'm similarly haunted by a copy of The Spire by William Golding. My failure here is made even more irksome because when I picked the book up (three years ago) in the lovely Priestpopple Books in Hexham the man behind the till laughed at me and said: "Good luck with that."
He clearly didn't know what kind of an intellectual giant he was dealing with, I thought, as I pocketed it. I intended to munch it within a week - and enjoy it. But since then, I've found that the splashes of turquoise on the cover have put me off. It's really not a colour I like.
And so it goes - through Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road (I'm saving that for a trip to the US), to Joseph Roth's What I Saw (too depressing for winter) via Umberto Eco's The Island Of The Day Before (it's a trade paperback; I hate those) … I don't have one single good excuse for my failure to read any of them. Indeed, the whole process has so depressed me that it will be at least a month before I can face the to-read pile again. Maybe the publishing industry will survive after all.
The writer is a regular contributor of The Guardian.
The write-up has appeared on www.theguardian.com