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