The Burgeoning Library and the Omnipresent Guilt of the Unread Books

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I am addicted to buying books by the dozen. Bookshops and the idea of being near a clutch of books is orgasmic and makes me drool, literally. Flora Fountain’s second-hand book shops are probably my most visited haunt in Mumbai and so is Kitaabkhana. I stop, even if it’s for a second when I am near a stall with books. The stalls may contain Danielle Steel, Jeffrey Archer, Stephen King, John Grisham and the likes of Paolo Coelho – authors I do not read, and yet I find myself stalled if only for a minute when I can sense their presence on the road or inside a mall. The allure is captivating, gratifying and unsettling. I spend on average a thousand every month purchasing books. On my feedly, I have categories/folders that are divided by books, authors, publishers, literary magazines (Newyorker/Guardian/N+2. You get the drift. But, the fact remains that there’s only so much that I can read, am able to read, and want to read. 4 maybe 5 a month is the best I can manage. Simple calculation would point out that my rate of buying books exceed that of reading it by a mile and yet I proceed regardless to implode the wooden shelf that adorns the living room in the 1-BHK apartment I call home. What I would like ideally is books overflowing the racks, spilling onto corners in stacks and stacks of dust-ridden, yellowed and torn-edged books. Something about them make me wistful and dreamy-eyed. This is a pained confession, for I do not indulge in one on a public page. But the fact remains that I wanted to talk about it. The fact remains that talking about it here through words – the assimilation of which entices me endlessly makes me happy. I am pained to realize that when i shift – which is inevitable, I would not be able to take these cherished possessions with me. Such is the heft and the bulk that carrying them begs forgiveness. 

Here’s what an author I have taken a liking to has to say to something every reader feels at some point:

“Sections in the bookstore

– 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 That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered
– 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
– Books You’ve Always Pretended to Have Read and Now It’s Time to Sit Down and Really Read Them”

Italo Calvino in “If on a Winter’s night, a traveler”. 

The realization also is, that I am not alone in this feeling. In this age of information overdose and years and years of publishing history it is only natural that you would be attracted to a host of books, following literary trends and the author of the day would lead you to buy books, a recent liking to an author would force you to think of completing the whole oeuvre altogether, the spate of literary prizes (Nobel, Pulitzer, Pen-Hemingway, Orange, National Critics Circle, Guardian, Newyorker 40 under 40, Granta, Paris Review, Commonwealth need I go on?) would want you to read what the “critics” think you should read, then there’s the pop-culture which brings in a spate of books both old and new into the popular lexicon, then there’s the scourge of the internet which opens up the world literature to you in ways unimaginable even 5 years ago – these are but only a fraction of the interfaces that make you aware of the plethora of books that are pillaging the world from all quarters. You buy them with the hope of sitting down with a cup of coffee someday and devouring it in whole, slurping your way through the pages, looking up the history and the background over multiple platforms, looking up the past life of the author, looking up where the author is coming from, looking up the various book review windows that are as abundant as the book themselves if not more. What do you then? You do sit down, but that in no way matches the speed with which you stand up. The problem is, that despite your best intentions of staying away from the mindless chasm of digital age information overflow, you are wont to look up your Twitter feeds, your Feedly tabs, your Pocket “read it laters”, your printed “heavy” stories, your subscribed magazines and endless other distractions. They take away that valuable time you want to read something linear and long and continuous (well, the post-modernist literature does not qualify here of course). So the best you can manage is the best you can manage and they fall way short of the speed with which the buying spree is implemented. 

No doubt, the internet is teeming with articles and posts on the problem of the unread books. Simple google search would tell you how utterly commonplace the phenomena is. Some go so far as to say that it’s better to leave a book unread than read it at all. Some justify it by harnessing the power of emotions – they say just owning them gives the owner a sense of joy and fulfillment. Here statistics show people on average have 138 books unread in their libraries (how did they come by that number I wonder). Stress not, help is at hand. There are numerous strategies “experts” suggest on how best to tackle the problem, the guilt and the sheer hard-word involved with choosing your next read. (See here). Would it be effective? I doubt it. When i buy books, I know I would like to read it. But, I always realize that there’s a certain time and certain place for certain book and you cannot randomly pick up a book and start reading it no matter how good it may be. Your mood, your energy, your circumstances and your immediate surrounding have a lot of role to play in deciding what your next read should be. Maybe there’s an author you absolutely adore and love. Maybe his writing makes your sense tinge with pleasure but at a certain time and a certain place, you cannot just bear to pick that author up and randomly start reading it. It isn’t as simple as that. It’s not simply that a particular book is “heavy read (think Joyce, Banville, Proust, Sartre), or that a book is too nonlinear (Zadie Smith, Jennifer Egan, Heller etc) or that a particular book is too regional (Steinbeck, Roth, Delillo) or that a book is simply too simple (Le Carre, Elmore Leonard, Stephen King). It’s something more than that – something that cannot really be objectively stated. 

Well anyways, I am off to reading Llosa for now. For all intents and purposes, my library would continue to explode, I would continue to buy those smelly pages with imprints in those complex and unidentifiable fonts. I would continue to be haunted by the sea of flying alphabets. I would continue to sneak peek into the stories. I would go on to build a large private library of my own. I would continue to build my library on that gray, plastic, 6″, evil evil apparatat people call Kindle as if I am constructing one in a parallel world. I would continue to look at that unread volumes wistfully and I would continue to read books in the pace I like to read. At least, I would be comfortable knowing that I am not alone.  

 

 

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