Addicted to books


I recently posted on Eva Stalker’s initiative #TBR20 – read a nominated 20 books from the To Be Read pile within a set period of time. I’ve been thinking some more about this.


JacquiWine’s blog, which I referred to last time, talks of the ‘craving’ to buy books, avoiding the ‘temptation’ of visiting bookshops and buying, and of the impulse to ‘splurge’ on yet more books. There was also the issue of ebooks v. physical copies.


I don’t take much pleasure from reading an e-text. I don’t like the way my screen refuses to give page numbers, just the percentage of text I’ve completed, and some weird ‘location x out of y total’ figure that means nothing to me. In a ‘book’ as huge as the collected works of Chekhov these numbers are enormous. I like to feel the weight of a real, physical book in my hand. Ebooks are a poor substitute, so I shall exclude them from any TBR undertaking I subscribe to (which I don’t intend to do anyway). To my mind the Kindle is an unpleasant but useful substitute for the real thing – like alcohol-free beers.


I’ve also taken, over the last year or so, to using my local library again – but mostly for research purposes. If I’m reading a book I’m likely to write about here I like to be able to annotate it, underline key passages, and so on (in pencil, of course; ink is barbaric – and I include Wordsworth here, cutting pages with his greasy butter knife; Coleridge was a great inked-comments-in-the-margins culprit, too). Ebooks’ facility for ‘notes’ is ridiculous, cumbersome and annoying.


Then I came across the excellent blog by Belinda: Bii’s books. Back in May Belinda had some interesting things to say about her TBR project. She’d even devised a spreadsheet to constrain the urge to buy more books! As she said, ‘It sounds crackers’ to do such a thing…


Then on June 1st she continued in similar terms. She called herself an ‘almost unapologetic book buyer’ who loved a ‘spree’ of acquisitions. This leads, of course, to the ‘almost unbridgeable’ gulf that grows ever wider between books read and those accumulating relentlessly on the TBR pile. It’s a theme I find constantly on book blogs, or when talking to bibliophile friends.


She goes on to describe the desire to de-clutter, and take books TO the charity shop, and the conflicting desire to visit secondhand bookshops with a view to buying more. Here her imagery becomes revealing: she says at the end of the TBR20 project she ‘gorged’ like a ‘sugar addict at the end of Lent’ on buying new books. Repeatedly she says it’s ‘unhealthy’, this desire to ‘guzzle’ texts.


Better to appreciate the ‘treasures’ on the shelves already, she concludes. ‘Rekindle the passion’ for what one has in hand, is the message here. Reminds me of Kipling’s Kim, or a zen koan. Commendable – but I’m not sure I’m up to the challenge.


Unlike Belinda, I don’t think I have the resolve not to stray into the ‘path of fanciful desires’, to seek something newly invigorating. ‘I spend far too much time feeling like I’m missing something’, she adds, suggesting it’s how we’re ‘socially wired’ in this materialistic, capitalist world. (I haven’t even touched on the desire – the need – to do my own creative writing. Where’s the time?)


Finally she returns to the metaphor of addiction: the ‘seasoned alcoholic’ trying to self-convince that ‘coffee is a fair substitute for…vodka’.


She even tags this post ‘book obsession’.


That’s it, isn’t it. It’s an obsession. An addiction, almost. I have a parallel obsession, apart from books, with notebooks. In a cupboard I have enough pristine notebooks to keep me going for decades. But I still have to work hard to resist that temptation to buy another when I see a good one.


The other day, on an errand to town, I heeded the siren call of a charity bookshop. I won’t buy anything, I assured myself. Then picked up a good copy of Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End – only £1.


I put it back. As I walked away empty-handed I felt like I was leaving an AA meeting.


So: the TBR pile? I’ve been sent some novels to review, so they won’t count. I have several novels bought over the last two years which I’ve still not got round to reading, from de la Pava to Charles Newman and Shark, Will Self’s sequel to Umbrella, which I loved.


And there are those Library of America collections of Henry James criticism, Raymond Carver, Philip Roth, Bellow and the rest…oh my. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.