Am I Reading this Book?

Below are some thoughts I put together last summer when I first started thinking about this blog. They have to do with what I’m reading at any given moment, and more grandiosely what it even means to say I’m reading something—topics which, for many, are doubtless completely straightforward but which, for me, take up an inordinate amount of psychic wherewithal. The specific examples from my nightstand have changed since last summer, but the questions they pose remain.


How do you know when you’re reading a book?

A question with an obvious answer, surely. Because I’m reading it, that’s how. But at any given time I’ve got plenty of books in various states of being read, such that the concept of “being read” starts to lose meaning. For example, right now I am definitely reading David Copperfield.  I’ve been plugging away at it most days for two or three weeks, a decent chunk at a time. Unlike the first two times I tried to read it, when I stalled out at around page 100, I’m definitely reading this book—before long I’ll be finished and then the answer to my initial question will be clear. Nope, all done.

I’m also reading a Donna Leon novel, kind of nibbling away at it around the edges, ten minutes here, fifteen minutes there. Pretty soon I’ll finish that too.

But what about those books on my to-be-read pile? From one perspective (my wife’s, say), most of the house is a TBR pile. I’ve got hundreds, maybe thousands of unread books, and unrealistic plans to get to all of them, eventually. In my experience a pretty sure-fire way to not read a book, or to not read it for a long time, is to put it on a shelf. It immediately ossifies, gets hard to even pick up. But I have a more defined TBR pile, though it’s more a cluster on and around my nightstand than a discrete pile. There are books I have more or less vague plans to get to soon—volume one of Knausgaard’s My Struggle, an Icelandic crime novel M recommended. But then there are the books—more troubling both psychologically and in terms of categorization—I actually have started reading. Take Rebecca, for example. I read the first half at the beginning of the summer, and, although I loved it, I eventually lost interest, thanks to my familiarity with the film. I still plan to finish it, though, so I guess I could plausibly be said to be reading it.

But am I reading the J. G. Ballard novel I read the first 30 pp of back in the spring? Or the book by Alan Bradley that’s been stashed in the drawer of my bedside table for a couple of years? (I unaccountably left off after enjoying its first three-quarters—well, perhaps not unaccountably: I often don’t finish books I’ve been reading on the way home from a trip. Somehow, the books can’t make the transition from that world to my everyday one.) Or what about that new Michelle de Kretser novel that I dipped into the very evening it arrived from Amazon but was disappointed by, all the more so after loving her last one, the unjustly neglected The Lost Dog?

It appears that reading, for me, is closely tied up to finishing. I suppose that’s why I’m so drawn to narrative (rather than poetry, say, or drama.) Plot propels me forward. All plots tend deathward, we learn in Don DeLillo’s White Noise. And death is certainly relevant to this topic. Finishing a book means being able to get on to the next one, and the next one after that, and, eventually, the last one, on that day (happy? sad?) when I’ll have read all the books.

Sometimes I can step back from my compulsions just long enough to get dispirited by them. And then I’m glad that my position as a member of what Roland Barthes once called “certain marginal categories of readers (children, old people, and professors)” requires me to re-read. Barthes explains that “those who fail to reread are obliged to read the same story everywhere,” a line I never fail to remember when picking up yet another police procedural or when reading yet another middling review of contemporary so-called literary fiction in The New York Times.

It’s also true, of course, that books put aside (but temporarily, thus still in the position of “being read”) can be hard to return to. I really enjoyed the opening to that Ballard novel, but the details are hazy now. In fact, I’ve forgotten almost everything except an image of a couple driving a fast car on a dusty road in the South of France. Does that mean I’m not reading it?

Such thoughts make me wonder about the many books I have indeed read. Can I really be said to have read them, if I remember hardly anything about so many of them? (Sometimes, especially with crime fiction, I can’t even remember whether I have read them at all—at least I can’t overcome that uncanny feeling that a book feels awfully familiar, and I can’t tell if it’s because of the repetitions of the series or because I have in fact read it before.) These feelings become especially acute when it comes to the books I teach. I need to teach a book three or four times before I really feel comfortable with it, able to recall its incidents and details without difficulty and grasp clearly its shape or pattern. By the measures of memory and recall, I haven’t read that many books at all.

Maybe it’s necessary to have these half- or partially-read books, these ghostly companions. Maybe they are what power or give meaning to our “actual” reading. Or maybe this distinction between what I’ve actually read and what I haven’t is spurious, even pernicious. Maybe the only thing that matters is simply reading, in the gerundive, infinitive sense—without completion, without cessation.


My nightstand looks quite different now. (Correction: it looks exactly the same, littered with splayed and stacked books. But the titles are all different.) I didn’t finish Rebecca, or the Ballard, or the de Kretser. At some point, in a fit of literary housekeeping, I put them all back on my shelves. The Bradley is still tucked away in that drawer. I did finish David Copperfield, and that Donna Leon, and the Icelandic novel.  And I just last week read the Knausgaard. (Post forthcoming here.) Those books are gone, replaced with some other ones I’m “reading.” War & Peace, for example, which in a fit of determination I decided I would read on my sabbatical (I’m on p. 25). And Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet, which I adore but still for some unknown reason left off at p 100 several months ago. And Trollope’s The Warden. And the second volume of Knausgaard.

What about you? What’s beside your bed (or wherever you keep your pile)? Do these anxieties ring true for you, or is your relation to reading healthier than mine?

13 thoughts on “Am I Reading this Book?

  1. Learned Southernist Bob Brinkmeyer once depressed the hell out of me after revealing that he felt he owned more books than he had time left to read.

    On my bedside table right now: The Color of the Air: Scenes from the Life of an American Jew (~p. 100 [A wonderful book]), Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus Vol. I (couple stories in), The Reenchantment of the World (fascinated but too dubious to commit), Homo Sacer (still wading through intro), Yi Mun-Yol’s The Poet (almost finished for over a week now), H.D.’s poems (most read; few understood), Hausman, or The Distinction (not yet begun), The Goldfinch (ditto), March of the Musician (collecting dust for years), Danilo Kis’s Psalm 44 (still has bookshop marker where they stuck it), Life After Life (finished a month ago; I’m a slob), Morretti’s The Bourgeois (He doesn’t expect me to actually read this, does he?).

    I’ll be happy if I die having got through this Wednesday’s batch of comics.

  2. Interesting reflections! I too have wondered about books I’ve read but really can’t remember — do they “count” as books I’ve read? But mostly I try not to fret too much. If a book means a lot to me when I read it, I know it at the time, and often that becomes a spur to reread it (and, sometimes, to teach it, which means re-reading and re-reading some more!), and on it goes from there. Otherwise, I figure it just joins all the other things in my life that I don’t remember completely (I’m reasonably certain I have lived all the days that are now only a blur in my recollection). One thing about blogging is that the effort to write about books really helps me remember them — plus it gives me a record of what I thought, thus preserving the reading for the future!

    • Makes sense what you say about blogging–one of the many reasons I have started!
      In general, I suspect you are much less neurotic & more well-adjusted than I am… wise advice to fret less, but hard for me to take.

  3. I guess I share a lot of the anxiety about all the books I never finished (a big stack) and all the books I finished but don’t really remember well (a much bigger stack, alas). But I’m not gonna get bogged down on that point, because I’m holding on to the modest triumph that I’ve only recently learned to give myself permission to be reading as many books as I want to read at any given time. My old obsession used to be completing books in diabolical sequences of my own design, one at a time like slices of boiled carrot. Whence this madness? I don’t know. It made a certain amount of sense to stack up books and knock them down in this way when I was in graduate school and had enormous lists of books to digest at a rapid pace. Each book taken out of such a stack was a book I could pile on the shelf of Here’s-What-I-Know-Obviously-This-Makes-Me-A-Legit-Academic-(In-Training)–an extra pound or so of weight that could be shored up against the door on the day my advisors came a-calling. Getting lost in the natural topography of any book, or worse still picking my own path through the different landscapes of multiple books, just didn’t seem like something I could afford or allow. Clearly more than time management concerns going on there, yes? This is probably why one of my happiest memories from grad school days was the research trip I took to look at Rachel Carson’s paper in the Beinecke–days of binging at will on letters, speeches, articles, cartoons, and drafts, following hunches and patterns I never could have predicted, storing all the acorns up for the day I’d get to tease them out into a chapter. I think that was a transformative experience because I knew there was absolutely no way I could read it all; I had to trust my intuition as well as my analytic training to lead me into my engagement with the texts, and it became an active process of discovery. I still feel surprisingly guilty about the books I haven’t finished (or worse, haven’t even started). This feeling probably isn’t helped by the fact that many of them are stored on the shelf directly in front of the rowing machine in our guest room, where I’ve spent many an hour bobbing back and forth, struggling with other feelings of inadequacy and weakness. But one of the things that helps is taking away this strange literary monomania, and letting myself work a path through one of a few different books at any given time. I think the recurring question of which book I’m going to read today is a small but important step on the road to Zen Reader enlightenment.

  4. I recently got rid of an entire bookcase worth of books that I haven’t read and decided I most like would never read. For me, electronic reading devices mean that the pile of books by the bedside has disappeared.

  5. ‘What am I reading?’ I used to leave that question in suspension, but my avid engagement with in the last few years forces me to choose: To-read, Currently-Reading, Read. To cope with this constraint I wait till I’ve built up six or eight books in my ‘Currently Reading’ section which haven’t been touched in a while, then I re-assign them to ‘To-Read’ or ‘Read’ based on an algorithm that combines percentage completed with likelihood of returning to it.

  6. Very meta, as the hipsters say.
    I almost always finish a book that I start, but sometimes only grumpily, as I resent having to waste time on something that doesn’t really “do it” for me. But my mother always taught me to finish up what is on my plate so I suppose that carries over to reading.

    I do not have a stack of unread books in my house —- it is not the way I operate, and besides a house fire a few years ago destroyed all my books. Whenever I finish a book, I choose the next one, and it is sometimes not without anxiety that that process goes forward. I always want just the right book at the right time, and I probably spend way too much time trying to find that “right” book. The blessing and curse of the internet is what makes that possible.

    If by chance I can’t find a book that currently appeals to me, I have no reservation about re-reading something from the past. I have been through The Warden (and Barchester Towers) many times. Of all the Trollope books (and I have read most of them) they seem to have the most contemporary resonance. And, speaking of Sarah Waters, her book Fingersmith is my default choice at the bookshop when someone asks me for a page-turner.

    • A house fire that destroys all my books is at once a terrible fear and a secret fantasy of mine. (I don’t mean to make light in any way–that really seems a terrifying experience. But I do sometimes find all these books a burden.)

      I’m fascinated by the idea of the “right book at the right time”–especially when combined with the finishing everything you start philosophy. That’s a delicate balance indeed. Is anything appealing to you right now?

      Fingersmith! How I love that book! And once your customers have loved it too, you can get them hooked on Wilkie Collins…

      • Right book, right time: it doesn’t happen very often, but I will occasionally put aside a book that I have started, and pick it up later when I feel that I am feeling more in the mood for that particular book. I do have a small “to-read” list on Goodreads, but I never seem to get around to them. It is more like “to-read, but not now” list. At the moment I am feeling very Barbara Pym, but I have read all those so it may have to be a re-read.

        The loss of my books in the house fire was not nearly as devastating as I would have predicted, had such a dreadful idea been suggested to me before the fire. It turned out for me that it wasn’t the physical books whose loss I regretted; rather, it was the little notes, inscriptions, comments, etc., that the books themselves contained. Those are well and truly gone; the books themselves can be replaced. Oddly, in rebuilding, space for physical books was not a high priority. I have become a confirmed e-book reader, and I have found it surprisingly liberating. I know, rather odd for a bookseller.

        Right now I am reading “The Night Birds”, Thomas Maltman, a novel about the Dakota war in Minnesota in 1862. I am also in the middle of “The Old Curiosity Shop” as a recorded book. I listen to it while doing my regimen at the Y, as a book is the only thing that makes such tedium bearable. I am enjoying the Dickens, but he is very verbose. A few days ago, at the end of my 60 minutes of exertion, I realized that the plot had not been advanced at all. And the chapter breaks sometimes seem so odd: right in the middle of a scene. I presume that both the wordiness and the odd chapter breaks are connected to the way in which the novel was original serialized.

        I have been pushing Wilkie Collins onto my poor customers for some years now, and not just “The Woman in White” and “The Moonstone.” “Armadale” is my favorite, and I also like “No Name.” From there the oeuvre starts to decline rather rapidly, unfortunately. Since I had already read “The Woman in White” by the time I read “Fingersmith,” I suppose I should have seen the old switcheroo in Waters’ book coming, but I did not. I really love to be surprised by a book, and that one caused me to leap out of my chair.

  7. I hadn’t yet read Collins when I read Fingersmith, so you can only imagine my reaction. (Waters puts that dilettantish Gone Girl to shame.) I like all four of those Collins novels a lot, especially No Name, which amazed me with its naratological innovations. I’m picking my way through Dickens haphazardly, but The Old Curiosity Shop is pretty far down the list.
    It actually makes good sense to me that a bookseller wouldn’t want his home also to be filled with books. But I still fetishize the physical object too much to get with the e-book program, though I can see how it makes all kinds of sense.
    Hmm… Barbara Pym–now where would I start with her?

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