Facing a week off work, the first thing I invariably do is give some considerable consideration to the books I will read whilst I am off. I am never quite sure why I do this, as my reading capacity when I am not working is always less than when I am. Something to do with spending an hour and forty-five minutes on the train every day, with little else to do than stare out of the window. Yet this activity gives me great pleasure. It is a great joy to sort through my books, considering and selecting, taking books from the shelves and putting them back again before settling on my final choices. Generally there are three: a couple of fiction books, maybe, and a non-fiction, perhaps some poetry. Rarely do I work my way through everything I take to read.
(It occurs to me that this is a pleasure that e-readers take away from the average bibliophile. Where is the joy in selecting if you have your whole library with you anyway at all times? Another nail in the coffin.)
Faced with a week off work I start thinking about my reading ambitions. I think it is right to call it ambition because my goals are lofty and I often aim higher than the extent of my reach. I want to read the entire works of Virginia Woolf, for example, I want to read until I know what it is to be Virginia Woolf, until her works are quotable and recallable to me. I want to read the entire works of George Eliot in the same way, and whilst I’m at it Jane Austen and the Brontës. I want to read the full catalogue of writers like A. M. Homes and Ruth Ozeki, Marilynne Robinson and Donna Tartt. I want to absorb myself in the works of Jeanette Winterson, every passion-filled full stop of them, and compare and contrast them to the scope and breadth of Elena Ferranti’s work. I want to read a book written by a woman from every place in the world, from places as far afield as Haiti and Mexico, Laos and Azerbaijan. I want to dig into female non-fiction, covering subjects from history to biology, from philosophy to people trafficking. I want to learn about far-flung islands and read about riding a bicycle from Ireland to India, being a farmer or opening a book shop on a narrowboat.
I want to read the entire works of J.M Coetzee and Don DeLillo, delve into the weird and highly focused world of Nicholson Baker. I want to explore the works of Kazuo Ishiguro and Zadie Smith. I want to read Dickens (but never got around to it) and Hardy and Balzac and Zola. I want to know, not just read but KNOW, the works of Yasunari Kawabata in all their beauty and sadness, their delicacy. I want to absorb the world’s mythologies until they become a part of me, the Greek myths, the Eddas and Sagas, Shanameh, the Mahabharata. Then there are new books. I get excited about the news that David Mitchell is releasing a new book this year (The Bone Clocks) and Marilynne Robinson (Lila). I see reviews of books like The Miniaturist and Elizabeth is Missing and feel, somehow, that I have to read them. Add them to my list.
There aren’t enough days in the week or hours in a day. Sometimes it is almost paralysing, this desire to consume, to absorb stories. I finish a book and move on to the next one, sometimes reading two or three at the same time (not literally but, rather, concurrently). I get frustrated at how slowly I read, how little time I have to absorb the ever-growing stockpile of stories. I get angry at how superficial my reading is, how little I can really take in. Deep appreciation of literature requires deep reading, but with so many books and, more importantly, so many I want to read how can it ever be possible to devote the time required to a real deep reading? And which books? Would I be better absorbing the literature of Tove Jansson than Donna Tartt? What about Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? How is it possible to decide which books, which writers, which stories are worthy of that level of devotion?
So I keep reading, and I dream of a day when I have a library consisting of exactly six books, their covers worn, their contents fading, but which have become my lifelong companions. The books I cannot do without. I dream of it, but I don’t see it happening. Instead I will be the woman crushed under the excessive weight of her library, the hundreds of books unread that can never be read that fall like a stone on her head taking every word with them, and it all will have been for nothing.