Climbing Mount Tsundoku: On Acquiring More Books Than It’s Possible to Read

One of my little projects last year was something I modestly called “Twenty Core [Subgenre] Speculative Fiction Works Every True SF Fan Should Have On Their Shelves.” Reading is a huge part of my life. Thanks to my freakish cognitive architecture, I read quickly, and thanks to the fact I am as gregarious as a stylite, I have the time to read prodigiously. Putting together the core lists was an amusing application of my resources and yet in amongst all the lists, readers found Twenty Core Speculative Fiction Works It May Surprise You To Learn I Have Not Yet Read Every True SF Fan Should Have On Their Shelves.

It’s worse than that list may at first appear. Not only have I not read any of the books on the list, despite the fact that I’ve owned copies of a number of the books in question since their first publication, but that list is only the tip of the iceberg—only the first twenty examples that came to mind. I am not engaging in a highly inefficient attempt to better insulate my library. I always intend to read books when I buy them. At the same time, I do have a faint, primordial consciousness that time is finite and that I am limited to about 180,000 words of fiction a day[1] and sufficient rudimentary math skills to work out that if I acquire more than 180,000 words of prose a day, then some of those words won’t get read that day. They might not ever get read. Poor sad, unread words…

There’s purpose beyond mindless acquisition behind my habits. Firstly, I am in a very minor way a professional reviewer. In private life I have been known to duck into steam tunnels or scale walls up to a rooftop to avoid failing yet another real-time Turing Test, but when it comes to work, I try to be as outgoing as Death itself, always eager to make new acquaintances. It seems rude to turn down Advanced Reading Copies when offered, despite the reality that even I can do the math on “N books read & reviewed/week vs. 3N ARCs/week received.” Who am I to doubt a publisher’s wisdom in balancing the potential benefits of a future review versus the possibility that I might not ever get around reading the books in question?

Not every book I receive is an ARC. Each book I purchase means the author gets their little pittance, that tiny mite sufficient to keep them striving despite the fact that riches are unlikely, that crushing poverty and abrupt, unjust obscurity very nearly guaranteed. Even false hope is hope. Even if I temporarily acquire the book from a library, the author benefits in two ways. Firstly, libraries purchase the books they lend out. Secondly, I live in Canada and Canada has a Public Lending Right program, explained in more detail here.[2] Each author whose books are in a Canadian library can look forward to riches of Croesusian magnificence, enough to purchase a can of Pringles or a stylish toque, perhaps.

Then there’s the promise of potential. Every new book on the wall, each epub tucked away in my Kobo gives me a delicious tingle of anticipation. Sure, the math says I probably won’t get around to reading any particular book I acquire. It also says that I might. I will take might any day of the week. Better might than definitely won’t.

And finally there’s the security of knowing that even if worse comes to worst, even if I never buy another book, I have enough unread books, each promising in their individual way, to last me for the rest of my life. The sky may burn, civilization may fall, I might be reduced to stalking and eating my former neighbours, all so very considerately composed of tasty, tasty meat—but I will never, ever lack for reading material. And that makes me smile.

[1] Every once in a while I manage a wonderful state of transcendentally focused consciousness where my reading speed doubles or even triples. I have no idea how to induce that state of mind.

[2] Used books are more problematic, although presumably the author was paid when the book was first purchased new. As well, there are some works where a used copy is the only copy that can be found (I suppose “Why the Hell Are These Books Out of Print” could be a future piece.) There’s always the hope a sufficiently inspirational review will inspire a publisher to bring the book back into print.

In fact, I once demonstrated the remarkable clarity of my unparalleled memory by complaining bitterly that Alexei Panshin’s Rite of Passage was out of print having forgotten that A: there was a brand new edition, B: that the edition in question was published by the company for which I freelanced, and finally C: I was the first reader whose report played a role in inspiring that edition.

Top image: Missmarettaphotography under CC BY-SA 4.0 License

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is surprisingly flammable.


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