How did it go?
So. This month I read absolutely nothing from my book ends list. If you’ve kept up with this blog you’ll have seen how my progress was wobbly for a couple of months, but it totally disappeared this month.
I’m prone to beating myself up so, instead of that, I had a think about why we read and why we buy books. One of my pals, Sandy Thomson, alerted me to “tsundoku” a Japanese word for the habit of buying books and never getting around to reading them. Side note: I’ve been learning Japanese on and off for a couple of years, so if you’re nerdy about the language like me – “doku” means “reading” and “tsun” comes from “tsumu” which means “to pile up”.
This phenomenon isn’t unique to books but I’m interested in why it is common enough to warrant a word – and, indeed, this project.
I think for a lot of people, myself included, buying a book is a little thrill. There’s the excitement of being hooked in by a blurb and sense of fresh escapism. A feeling of “I want to try this world on as soon as I can!”
Physically, books are also aesthetically pleasing – they look nice on a shelf and can make us feel safe and comforted. Is there anything more soothing than cuddling up on a sofa, or bed, with a book surrounded by homely piles? You can imagine the rain on the window and the melting marshmallow in your hot chocolate. It’s a very homely image, and doing what you can to feel comfortable and content at home has been a huge part of Being A Human in the last year.
With books – especially if you’re a writer or keep up to date with recent publications and bestseller lists – it can also feel like there is never enough time to read everything you want. Often when I go into a bookshop I see at least 10, if not more books, that I want to read or are already on my to-read list. I think many of us will buy a book because there’s a sense you might not be able to later or you don’t want to feel left behind (which is a wild notion, because there’s no one reader who’s The King of Books sitting on a throne of I Have Read Everything, as much as impostor syndrome at parties makes you feel).
It’s especially wild because I read about 80-110 books a year, and did a degree in English literature, and yet I’ll say to my husband once every couple of months “I’m not that well read.” Then what am I doing?! Is this need to self deprecate just because I haven’t read any Thomas Hardy? Or because I’m aware of the vastness of books out there?
Even when I made a conscious decision to keep an eye on my tendency to buy new books instead of reading the ones I have at home, I still gave into temptation. Because buying a book feels good and exciting! Because I went to a comic book shop in Newcastle that is one of my favourites which COVID-19 has kept me away from for over a year and I felt so gleeful to be back! Because I spotted a book I’ve wanted to read for a year finally out in paperback (no offence hardbacks, you’re just so uncomfortable to read in bed and my wrist is close to scarring at this point from your unwieldy spines).
Cataloging the books I own, and haven’t finished, opened my eyes to a lot of my past book habits. A lot of the books on the list are books I bought because I thought I should if I was a reader – books like Thomas Hardy (I promise I have nothing against him), but also Oliver Sacks, Gabriel García Márquez, Graham Greene, John le Carré – I could go on.
There’s nothing wrong with these books, but I think it’s fascinating how many I own because as both a student and reader I felt like I should and the enjoyment would probably follow.
I have also realised that a lot of the books on the list that I started but didn’t finish are because they aren’t fast-paced page-turners. They’re still great books, but they just take a lot more energy to read. For example, I have been reading The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry which I am really enjoying – it’s beautifully written, mysterious and filled with great women. However, it’s taken me since the 24th May to get to page 208. Meanwhile, I devoured all 367 pages of My Dark Vanessa in less than 48 hours. Plowing through a list of back-to-back books that take more energy was never going to be possible. Sometimes you need that lemon sorbet book that grabs you and wipes the thought straight out your head (or palette – at least for this metaphor to work).
What have I learned this month?
I guess what I’m saying is there’s a nexus of reasons why we buy books when we have an unfinished pile at home and many of them are deeply emotional, maybe even tapping into our sense of security and safety. In a world where we’re pretty desperate for escapism, a blurb can do a lot to loosen our promises.
What I read in May 2021
- Nine Perfect Strangers, Liane Moriarty (not on list, library audiobook)
- H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald (not on list, audiobook)
- The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett (not on list, bought)
- Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connoll (not on light, bought)
- Odessa, Jonathan Hill (not on list, bought)
- Giant Days Vol. 1, John Allison and Lissa Treiman (not on light, bought)
- Blackbird Vol. 1, Sam Humphries and Jen Bartel (not on list, bought)
- Heartstopper Vol. 4, Alice Oseman (not on list, read online since Jan 2021)
- Mooncakes, Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu (not on list, bought)
- Henchgirl, Kristen Gudsnuk (not on list, bought)
- Heimat, Nora Krug (not on list, wedding gift)
- The Martian, Andy Weird (not on list, wedding gift)
- My Dark Vanessa, Kate Elizabeth Russell (not on list, gift)
Total ticked off the list: 19
Total still to go: 76
Full list here.
However… I also gained the following books in June 2021…
The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennet Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connoll Odessa, Jonathan Hill Giant Days Vol. 1, John Allison and Lissa Treiman Blackbird Vol. 1, Sam Humphries and Jen Bartel Mooncakes, Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu Henchgirl, Kristen Gudsnuk My Dark Vanessa, Kate Elizabeth Russell Mexican Gothic, Silvia Moreno Garcia
- All the books that the gorgeous guests at our wedding gave us (more on that in another blog post soon!)
I’m currently reading Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreono-Garcia, a gothic horror about a young socialite investigating her cousin’s claims that her husband is trying to murder her.
I have also been reading The Essex Serpent on and off since the end of May, so will go back to that and finish it as well as Trafalgar by Angélica Gorodischer which I didn’t finish in time for book group last week!
After that I’ve been eyeing up The Housekeeper and the Professor from my book ends list – I loved Ogawa’s The Memory Police and was recommended this because of how it similarly writes eloquently about memory. It’s also part of a series of Vintage reprints of Japanese classics with art by Yuko Shimuzu that I have been slowly collecting since 2019. I have already read The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki which I adored, and Out by Natsuo Kirino which I loved (but detested the ending).
Into July with hopefully more understanding, if not more progress!