Many years ago, in the long-gone era of the early 2000s, the author Nick Hornby began writing a column for The Believer with the to-the-point name of “Stuff I’ve Been Reading.” Each column began with two lists: books bought, and books read. The two lists often had little overlap.
Earlier this year, I decided to try to copy this practice. I already keep a list of what I’ve read, but what if I kept track of how many books I brought into the house on any given month? Perhaps it would be interesting. Or at least telling. Maybe it would be an effective way to convince myself to buy fewer books. (It was not.)
This lasted for about two weeks, at which point I realized I’d already ordered three or four books and not added them to the list, and that adding books to a list brought nowhere near the sense of satisfaction that adding them to my purposefully disorganized to-be-read shelf provided. But I kept thinking about it. We make lists of books we’ve read, lists of the best books of the year, lists of books to give people at the holidays, to recommend. What does a year’s worth of books bought but not yet read look like?
The answer, for me, is three precarious piles of books I still really want to read.
Being a person who loves stories means accepting you will never get to read, hear, watch, or otherwise experience enough of them. There are always more. Even if you believe there are only X number of plots, there are still an infinite number of stories: the familiar rewoven, the classic reworked. It’s a cliché of writing advice, but it’s true: No two people are ever going to tell a story the same way. That doesn’t mean all stories are good, but it does mean all stories are different.
But reading, as we all know, takes time. As a kid, I could sit down and read a new book cover to cover, only setting it down if someone insisted I do so for meals. (Thankfully, I grew up in a house where sometimes we all read together at dinner.) Devoting that kind of time to anything is harder, now, thanks to both adult stuff (jobs, responsibilities) and the endless array of distracting entertainment options that simply did not exist in the 1990s. Sometimes, we can take—or give ourselves—that time. A friend told me that on your birthday, you’re supposed to do whatever you want, and what I wanted this year was to sit on the sofa reading as much of the eighth Expanse novel, Tiamat’s Wrath, as I could get through before dinner.
It’s easy, sometimes, to look at the detritus of a week or a month or even a year and think, what did I do in that time? Could I have done something better with it? Reading isn’t always the first—or even second, third, fifteenth—thing I wish I’d done. I wish I’d written more, hiked more, seen friends and family more, in whatever way it felt safe and comfortable to see people in this strange time. But a pile of books like this is a series of wishes for more reading time. Every book bought is bought in the hope that there will be time to read it.
Of course, they don’t have to be read right away; they can be read years later (though I do still think that a long sojourn in the unread pile can, unfairly and unhelpfully, sometimes take the shine off). It’s not a race, though the bookternet can sometimes make it feel like a person needs to keep up. Sometimes you really do just want to know, immediately, what everyone is talking about. Sometimes you might feel like you ought to have read a book right away for a whole different reason. There are a couple of books by friends in these stacks, and I feel a little guilty admitting I haven’t read them yet.
But having not read them is not the same thing as not wanting to read them. An unread book pile can be daunting, especially when it fills a whole bookcase, but it can also be a reminder of what we’re looking for when we pick up any book. A reader’s desire—that hope that a story is going to speak to you, change your day or your minute or your life, remind you of something or inspire you to something—exists long before you’ve turned the first page.
Piling all these books up like this was, unexpectedly, energizing. As I pulled book after book off the shelf, I remembered why I bought each one, what sparked curiosity and eagerness when I read about them. Every time I look at Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness, I get excited about seeing what Ozeki does after her masterful A Tale for the Time Being. I preordered Matt Bell’s Appleseed, intrigued by the copy that called it “part speculative epic, part tech thriller, part reinvented fairy tale” and delighted with Bell’s generosity as a writer; his newsletter is a miniature writing education.
My first introduction to Being Seen author Elsa Sjunneson was when she wrote about The Shape of Water for Tor.com, and I can’t wait to read her at book length. Girly Drinks: the perfect mix of cocktail nerdery, feminism, and history. The two Sarah Hall books: After I finished Burntcoat, I wanted to read every single word she’s ever written. Craft in the Real World, On Reading, The Common Reader: fuel for expanding the ways I think and write about reading and writing. Crooked Kingdom: I read Six of Crows last month and could not possibly wait seven weeks for the sequel to come up at the library.
There’s a story like these behind every unread book, just like there’s a different kind of story about every book you’ve finished, whether that story—the story of your experience of the book—is about how it made you angry, made you cry, made you think about how writing works, made you want to read more fiction or more history or more stories unlike no stories you’d ever read before. We don’t just read stories; we create our own stories around them. Even, I think, when we haven’t read them. Yet.
All of these books are why year-end lists, though people love to make them, are so hard—to make, and to read. There’s always another book. There’s always another possibility. There’s always, always something you missed, something you don’t even know yet that you’re going to fall in love with, months or years down the line. Maybe it’s worth taking a minute to celebrate the books we’re still anticipating—the ones that are on our shelves but not yet paged through, waiting so patiently to be picked up next.