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?