Thursday, November 19, 2009

Questions About Books and Guilt

The day that Dorr announced she was thinking about joining my attacking the TBR tome challenge (with some wise modifications), she set off quite an interesting conversation in her comments section, most especially from Zhiv, who seemed to think that my idea of not buying new books until I'd read what was in my challenge was pretty silly. Those comments got Dorr thinking and led to her asking some questions in a different blog post. Basically, she was thinking about the guilt behind buying books and not reading them soon after buying them, and she asked us: how many of you have had a similar experience and feel a similar guilt? How do you deal with it?

First of all, I have to say that, although I find myself feeling guilty about all kinds of things, I don't tend to feel at all guilty about buying books, even when I don't read them forever (if at all). I love books. I love being surrounded by books. I love living in a house where I can browse the shelves and think about all the good stuff I have to read. Really, it's almost as good as visiting a small public library and browsing the shelves. I'm an anticipatory sort. In other words, I sometimes think I love the anticipation of something good more than I love the actual thing. An anticipatory book lover has no problems with a house full of unread books.

Recently, I read this quote:

Those who aspire to the status of cultured individuals visit bookstores
with trepidation, overwhelmed by the immensity of all they have not read. They
buy something that they've been told is good, make an unsuccessful attempt to
read it, and when they have accumulated half a dozen unread books, feel so bad
that they are afraid to buy more.

In contrast, the truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread
books without losing their composure or desire for more. (Zaid, Gabriel, So Many Books, Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, p. 12)

It's so snobby, isn't it? What a ridiculous generalization. And yet (because, let's face it, I am a consummate snob at heart), I found I was patting myself on the back (all those trips in which well-meaning people dragged me to less-than-stellar art exhibits, off-Broadway "experiments," screenings of unintelligible foreign films, and the opera having paid off) and thinking, "I must be one of the most truly cultured people on the planet." (Bob, too, of course.)

Visiting a bookstore with trepidation? Bookstores are my "warm, fuzzy" place. I don't worry about all I haven't read. I rejoice at all I have yet to discover. The only trepidation I might feel is if I'm stuck at a store that doesn't seem to have anything on the page of my TBR tome that I happen to be carrying in my purse at the time. That lasts all of three minutes, though, before I happily go off and find five books I've never heard of that all look extremely good and interesting.

When I created this challenge, it had more to do with guilt over never completing any challenges than it did over buying too many books, that, and (this may sound odd), but guilt over not reading the books that so many people have given/recommended to me. The minute someone lends me a book, I begin to feel guilty about it until I've read it, and I will start setting myself deadlines as to how long I should keep it before I give it back unread. I always, always return books to their rightful owners, but sometimes, I keep them for 2 years before doing so, and then I feel guilty about that. If someone enthusiastically recommends a book to me, sure I will love it, I feel obligated to read it. The TBR tome is full of books that friends and family members have told me I must read and that I never get around to reading.

Finally, we have run out of shelf space in our house, and that bothers me. I keep thinking (wrongly, I am sure), that if I start reading more books from our own collection, I will be in a better position to decide which ones really can be given away. I promise you, this is a ridiculous thought on my part, because I manage to think of reasons to keep almost every single book I read, the most common being, "So-and-so might visit, and I'm sure he/she would love to read this book while here, so I'd better keep it." (Forget the fact that so-and-so has just moved to Indonesia and hates airplanes.) Still, I am hopeful that I might decide I can depart with some books to make room on our shelves if I start reading more of them.

The fact that I decided part of this challenge would be not to buy any books until I'd read those on my list tells you a lot about me. You see: I want to read these books. I want to complete a challenge for a change. Therefore, I need an impetus to do so. It's all purely selfish. I did not think about writers and the publishing industry (shame on me, since I want to be a published writer, and I work in the publishing industry). I did think about libraries, but now that I've begun choosing books, it seems I will probably just be reading from my own shelves (shame on me again, since I used to work in a library, have a graduate degree in library science, and Pennsylvania libraries need all the support they can get these days).

It's sort of a combined punishment and reward system, I suppose. My punishment is that I can't buy books until I've read 20 from the TBR tome, so if it takes me all year to read them, I have to go a year without buying any books. On the other hand, if I finish them all by February, my "reward" will be to get to buy books (and there's no telling what I might do. I might go to The Strand and come home with two bags full of books).

So, there you have it. It's guilt, but it's guilt of a different sort. Very rarely do I buy a book and feel guilty for not having read it, which is a blissful thing for me to have figured out (thank you, Dorr, for getting me to think about it). That's a very good thing, because there are plenty of other things taking up the guilt section of my brain (right now, in the forefront, there are unwritten blog posts, unread posts written by blogging buddies, pen pal letters to write...the list could go on and on).


litlove said...

Great minds think alike - I posted about this too, having read Dorothy's post! And you'll not be surprised to know that we come to the same conclusions. :-)

Watson Woodworth said...

I chipmunk books in the good times and then read most of them in the lean ones.
(and hope my tastes don't change too much in between)

Emily Barton said...

Litlove, as I said on your blog, you did a much better job with it than I did, but long live those of us who buy books without guilt!

Nigel, I like the idea of "chipmunking" better than "squirreling," so I think that's what I will do from now on. Even if your tastes do change, it's kind of interesting to see how they do, isn't it?

Rebecca H. said...

I will do my best to learn from you and Litlove and to get rid of those guilty feelings! I've been thinking that I don't feel guilty about acquiring classics or books I know I will love, but I feel more guilt over those books that sound interesting at the moment, but their interest fades pretty quickly and if I don't read it immediately, it's likely to go unread forever. I should concentrate my book-buying on the former category, I think, and get the other ones from the library. How's that for a solution?

Emily Barton said...

Dorr, sounds like the perfect solution to me.

Susan said...

Emily, I have missed coming here! My fault, it's been an awful autumn, and you've been posting some wonderful thoughts on books and life. And this post is no exception: I am like you!! I have a house full of unread books as well as read ones. I feel no guilt on buying books that don't get read right away - far from it. I get panicky when I think I might be running out of books to pluck unread from the shelves!! That being said, when I discovered I did have well over 100 books that I really wanted to read, I put them all onto a double bookshelf, and this year i have made good headway in them; this is because it sits next to the computer, so as I finish a book, I look over the shelf of unread books, and pick up another. but, do I have any empty spaces??? No!! Why? Because I buy books faster than I read them!! So the holes are filled immediately!!! Then I am so happy to always see my shelves of books TBR!!! Plus, I have the satisfaction now of answering my husband's gentle inquiry of 'have I read any I bought this year?' with a big yes.

I really love your TBR Tome that you carry with you, I have one too!!! It really helps with getting books i'm interested in, because as I read about one book, I forget about the previous ones, and there are so many good books out there! I love my TBR tome.

So no guilt here about feeling guilty for not having read a book I recently bought.

And guilt for pen pal letters not written yet? I have a beautiful card for you, waiting for me to sit down and write you a response to your wonderful letter from the summer! that guilt I'm familiar with!! :-D

Emily Barton said...

Susan, so sorry to hear you've had an awful autumn. I certainly hope things improve (2009 has been bad for both of us, no? Bring on the New Year!). And do not feel pen pal guilt. You'll write me one day when the mood strikes, and that will be much better than some guilt-induced obligation.

Emily Barton said...

Susan, so sorry to hear you've had an awful autumn. I certainly hope things improve (2009 has been bad for both of us, no? Bring on the New Year!). And do not feel pen pal guilt. You'll write me one day when the mood strikes, and that will be much better than some guilt-induced obligation.