I admire people like Joel Miller who are able to plan out their reading, which seems infinitely preferable to my habit of perusing my to-be-read shelves (now numerous, spanning multiple rooms) waiting for a certain inspired curiosity to fall on my head like, well, a book from a high shelf.
But I doubt I will ever be able to join the ranks of the planners. Instead, every time I must choose my next book, I’m seized with a bit of paralysis. What’s the book for me right now? is one of the questions with which I struggle. And, is it a book I want to have read, or one I want to read? — which are sometimes the same, sometimes not.
This is why my husband rolls his eyes at how many books I bring whenever we go anywhere, weighing down the luggage. Well, I don’t know what I will feel like reading when I finish the one I’m reading right now! I must have choices.
Unfortunately, once I defeat the paralysis and answer the questions, sometimes those answers are wrong.
I have a habit of accumulating books that make sense for a certain time and place in my life, but then never getting around to reading them — until, possibly, they are well past their season.
For example, John Fowles’ The Magus has existed in a corner of my shelves in various editions throughout multiple housing situations since I was in high school. I didn’t know much about it, but as a young man (boy) the idea of it, as encapsulated in whatever marketing copy was on the back of that original tattered paperback, thrilled me.
But I always put off reading it, imagining it would be an experience I could savor at any time. Last summer I found a very nice Modern Library edition at a bookstore in Maine, and then last week, when asking myself, What’s the book for me right now?, I decided to answer myself, Why, it must be The Magus, finally.
Oof. Wrong answer. 700 pages of, to be frank, absolute shit, which does not qualify as the most insightful book review ever written, I agree. But this book started off as the sort of faux intellectual potboiler I would ordinarily enjoy, and very quickly devolved into what can only be termed a “hate read.” I finished it only because I couldn’t believe it was as bad as it was. I sometimes wondered if Fowles was pulling my leg.
But, no. This was his first book, though he worked on it for years and published it as his third, and then later revised it again in 1977. (If this edition was an improvement, I shudder to think what the original was like.) Fowles was as serious as the seriously despicable-yet-dull narrator he had created.
I hated this book so much that I don’t even want to dwell on all the reasons why I hated it — the complete misunderstanding of women (or men), of sex, of religion, of simple adult human living and decision-making. I wasn’t bothered by how horrible all of the characters were, I was bothered by how boring they all were, despite the author’s desperate, interminable attempts to make them all seem so sinister and twisty and interesting.
Anyway. Even Fowles admitted in a foreword that he didn’t quite understand the book’s popularity, and that said popularity seemed to be centered among adolescents. If I’d read the book when it first caught my eye, instead of putting it off for 30 or so years, I might have found it just as transformative as some of the gaga Amazon reviewers. I was a pompous ass, after all — God is dead, so let’s drink coffee, and all that crap — and the book’s naive ramblings and endless circularities would probably have struck me as profound when I didn’t know what profundity was.
This isn’t the only time this has happened; I had a similar experience with John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. It was first published when I was in college, and reviews convinced me so thoroughly that I would love the book, that I always held off on reading it until there might be a time when I felt the need for a truly transformative reading experience. Such a time finally came, and I read the novel while in the waiting room every day for six weeks undergoing radiation treatments.
And oh my God, I hated that book, all of it, every word. Again, perhaps I would have loved it, if I experienced it earlier in life.
I know, some will say — life’s too short, stop reading if you don’t like it. And generally, I do; there are lots of books I’ve started and set aside, but I don’t hate those books, they just weren’t for me at that time. (Some of them I return to, and find it has become the right time.) The books I loathe, for some reason, I tend to finish. It may be that the books which engender such strong feelings have other compensatory traits that drive me forward.
So I’ve learned that the books I self-consciously put aside as a younger self to read later may not scratch any particular itch I develop in, shall we say, middle age. But I’m not sure this lesson is compelling enough to change my haphazard approach to selecting books, even though a schedule, or at least a goal, might be helpful. For example, I’ve been toying with the idea of declaring 2024 a “big book” year, and focus on finishing a few big novels I feel guilty about not having read.
But I’m hesitant to make a commitment. After all, any fiction I read is in addition to all of the Kierkegaard, Ellul and similar authors I am determined to continue absorbing. Can one actually read Either/Or and Moby-Dick in the same year?
Hmm. Come to think of it, perhaps one can and should.