By December 9, 2008 5 Comments Read More →

The Tyranny of the To-Read Pile

It’s fun following the threads of a blog conversation through cyberspace, even when I have to do it backward. In the Wall Street Journal (“Still on the Shelf“), Book Lover Cynthia Crossen gave herself the following challenge: “to save money by reading a book that I own but have never read.” Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

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.”

Try it yourself and see how many pitiful excuses you can find for not reading a book you own.

Book Ninja George Murray notes that the saved money has the potential to benefit a beleaguered industry–and no, it’s not publishing:

(I know from experience that this exercise can yield pleasant some surprises. I once found a Mars Bar behind a copy of Elizabeth Costello.) I’m sure this strategy won’t help the publishing industry, but it might boost the hospitality services industry with all the extra beer money you’ll have.

But former Bookninja assassination target Sam Jordison knows the dark side of exploring the to-read pile:

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?

I post my own to-read pile online, but those are books that I have been given to review and, barring catastrophe, I will indeed read all of them. My personal to-read pile is much more shameful, given that my schedule of assigned reading pretty much precludes any reading for fun. During a really good year, I might read six books on my own time. During a bad year, maybe two. (Every January, Bill Ott polls all Booklisters on their favorite for-fun reads on the Back Page.) 

And yet I still buy and hoard books. I’ve joked–joked–that I’ll have to quit my job as a book reviewer in order to read books. But given that I won’t, I imagine I’ll spend my first months of retirement doing math, dividing the number of pages per day I can read into the number of years I think I have left–and weeding my thousands of books to read accordingly.

It’s a sickness, yes, but one I have no wish to cure.



About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix (2011). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

5 Comments on "The Tyranny of the To-Read Pile"

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  1.' Tricia says:

    These are some funny observations. I recently purchased a Kindle and I’ve noticed this same book gathering behavior as with my hard copy pile.

    I thought I was just attracted to covers and seduced by the coffee smell in Barnes and Noble and somehow that magical combination forced me to leave with several books.

  2. Keir says:

    Thanks, Tricia. Interesting to learn that the book-gathering impulse transcends physical books!

  3.' katherine says:

    I am a book hoarder too, but sometimes when I actually do sit down to read one or several of my hoarded books, I find that some of them really are lousy books (at least for me) and I don’t need to bother reading them but I still get to remove a book from my To-Read pile.

  4.' Mary says:

    As an Uber Book Hoarder, I share a particular dilemma that I bet is mirrored with some of you. My friends and family know that an invitation to Mary’s includes an invitation to browse the plethora of bookshelves that inhabit my home and more often than not they
    include their “Thank you! It was wonderful seeing you…It’s been too too long!” with “I’m so excited to read these! As soon as I’m done I’ll bring them back ….you are sooooo awesome!!!!”
    If this sounds like you… you also know that you fall prey to buying books twice. I console myself knowing that in my own way I am a publisher / writers / bookstores dream……

  5.' Kristen says:

    I try to bring at least one aging unread item from my bookcase whenever I’m flying somewhere. So I have pretty much no choice but to actually read it.

    Also, joining GoodReads has somehow guilted me into getting through a lot more stuff, especially the classics. Ego, I suppose.

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