In My Book: Knowing when to move on

Graphic by Ugen Norbu Yonten

There is a sad truth that all readers must, at some point, acknowledge: It’s impossible to read everything.

But let’s say I tried to. If I’m ambitious, I could read a book a week, and still go to school and work and, occasionally, sleep. There are about 52 weeks in a year, so that’s 52 books a year.

Despite a certain tendency toward ice cream and “The Office” binges, I’m a relatively healthy 22-year-old, and the average life expectancy for a woman is 81. If all goes well, that means I have about 60 years left. Multiplying my book-per-year rate by the number of years gives the number of books I have time left to read in my life: 3,068 books.

That’s not very many at all.

In 2015 alone, 339,000 new, traditionally published titles were released. If we take into account self-published books, that’s another 727,000. Even if I read a book a week for the rest of my life, I still wouldn’t be able to read a fraction of those new releases. And that’s just for 2015 — think of all the books published beforehand that I would miss out on. According to Google, there were at least 129 million books across the world as of 2010.

Distressed? I certainly was when I first did these calculations. I had to stop and stare lovingly at my bookshelf, reminding myself to be grateful for the gems I’d read so far.

Then I noticed the sad stack of books in a shadowy corner of my room, neglected and dusty. For a long time, this has been my “tower of shame”: the books that I’ve started and still haven’t finished. Somehow, they have survived all of my spring-cleaning flurries, moves between college and home, a flood and even a couple of fires.

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My refusal to let go lies in this compulsive need I feel to finish every book I start. And yet, I rarely do. The relationship between my books and me sometimes begins to resemble a bad one: We constantly break up and get back together, only to break up again.

I treat every book purchase like a marriage contract. One with no option for divorce, even if the book turns out to be a bad one. This creates a sort of bibliophilic paradox: I know there isn’t enough time to read everything, and yet I still feel this near-masochistic commitment to finish unenjoyable books.

Tim Parks of The New York Review of Books argues this is a sign of a fresh-faced, freshly peeled reader. He equates this desire for completion with an unnecessary compulsion to assert your identity as a reader, saying, “One can only encourage a reader like this to learn not to attach self-esteem to the mere finishing of a book.”

He’s right. Part of my motivation to finish unsatisfying books lies in how I view myself. My tower of shame is precisely that — shameful. How can I call myself a reader when I can’t finish a book?

However, it goes beyond my own identity. I’m still at the stage where the very fact that a book is bound and published fills me with awe. I feel a sense of obligation to respect the work the writer put into it by reading it completely.

Do I really owe this to the writer, though? The relationship goes two ways: The writer must first pull me in somehow — shock me, scare me, inspire me — if I am to commit to reading the rest of their work. Ultimately, the fact that a book was published does not ensure quality, or that it is the right one for me.

That being said, I don’t want to stray too far into Tinder mode either, superficially swiping left on books before I give them a fair chance. The best books I’ve ever read have often been the most demanding; books that take time to savor.

It’s a fine line to walk — do I stay, or do I go? Unfortunately, like with romantic relationships, there isn’t some magical panacea.

When I asked a friend recently how she knows when to put a book down, she said, “When there is something else I would rather be doing.”

I think she’s quite right. Reading should not resemble some strict and pious duty. Rather, we should finish a book because we can’t bear not to.

As Parks says, “The more bad books you finish, the fewer good ones you’ll have time to start.”

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Samantha Resnick PO ’19 likes reading words, and sometimes, she likes writing them, too.

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