Feast or famine?

In my post on re-reading books I dislike, I mentioned that I grew up with a finite supply of books that I’d re-read, and several people responded that on the contrary they grew up with an infinite supply of books they felt they could never get through.

P-L says:

I have my own neuroses about reading as a result. Because life is finite and literature is, for all intents and purposes, infinite, choosing a book feels to me like a zero-sum game. Because I decided on a whim to read The Magus this week, the whole queue was pushed one step farther back, and as a result there is one more book (or two short ones) that I’ll never get a chance to read.

And Individ-ewe-al:

I basically don’t reread, because when I was a kid I was always overwhelmed by how many new things there were out there, rather than afraid of running out of books. Nowadays I occasionally reread my absolute favourite books.

And Atrus:

I lived pretty close to not one but three public libraries, so the concept of a limited amount of available books was—and is—completely alien to me. Like p-l, my problem at most was one of too much choice and not enough direction.

This is all very alien to me. Even though the world is full of books, I don’t want to read most of them. Even if you only count fiction, there’s a lot written in genres I don’t like, or written by authors I don’t enjoy. Also I read fast, and I read all the time. I don’t find libraries infinite—I mean I adore libraries, but I can read my way through everything I want to read in one in a couple of months. When I was twelve I read all the science fiction in Aberdare library in one summer: all of it, Anderson to Zelazny, in alphabetical order. These days it wouldn’t take as long, because I’d already have read most of it. And I’ve read everything by my favourite writers too, and they don’t write fast enough to keep me going. It never feels like a zero-sum game to me, it always feels as if there isn’t enough to read, and even if there is, as if tomorrow there might not be. I’ll admit I have a whole bookcase of unread books, and when I moved to Canada I had four boxes of them, labelled: “Misc Readpile”, “More Misc Readpile”, “The Further Adventures of Misc Readpile” and “Misc Readpile Goes West”. One or two of the books from those boxes may still be on my unread shelves.

Even when I have plenty of books, and access to libraries, that doesn’t mean that I’ll be able to put my hand on the kind of thing I want to read this minute. Re-reading always gives me that. There’s a pleasure in reading something new, certainly, but there’s also pleasure in revisiting old friends. I think I’ve said before that I consider the first re-read of a book the completion of the reading experience, I don’t really know how I feel about a book until I come back to it. I feel that something only worth reading once is pretty much a waste of time.

My ideal relationship with a book is that I will read it and love it and re-read it regularly forever. Sometimes I will know ahead of time that I’ll love it, other times it’ll be a surprise. Some books lay around for years waiting for me to get to them became favourites. More often I’ll pick up something because it looks interesting and then immediately read all of that new-to-me author’s backlist as fast as I can find it. I don’t only do this with fiction, there are biographers and historians whose complete works I have gulped down this way.

I think the real issue is psychological. The people I quoted at the beginning of the post feel as if reading is finite and they shouldn’t waste any time. I feel the complete opposite, that reading is infinite. Of course, some of this depends on reading speed—I read fast, and I read a lot. It’s a rare week I don’t get through at least a book every day, and some weeks a great deal more. If I’m stuck in bed it’s not unusual for me to read half a dozen books in a day. I know I’m not going to live forever, I know there are more books than I can ever read. But I know that in my head, the same way I know the speed of light is a limit. In my heart I know reading is forever and FTL is just around the corner.

On the re-reading panel at Anticipation, I said a couple of things that Kate Nepveu described as “making lemonade out of very sour lemons”. The first was that I have some unread books that are the last book, or the last book I got hold of, by favourite authors who are dead. They’re never going to write any more, and when I’ve read that book I’ve read everything. I’m saving these books for when I get diagnosed with a terminal illness. That way, when life does become inescapably finite, I’ll have new books by favourite authors to look forward to. The other thing is, that should I not be diagnosed with a terminal illness but instead get Alzheimers, I’ll forget writing my own books and be able to read them as if for the first time, as if someone else had written them. And that will be fun too!

So, everyone else: infinite reading or zero sum game?

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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