Stack of Shame (The “To Be Read” Pile)
This is the stack of books at my bedside. It embarrasses me.
These are my To Be Read books. The stack never seems to get any bigger or any smaller. For every book that’s removed and read, another one (or two) takes its place. I frequently tell myself “No more books until this stack is gone,” but then other books shoulder their way into my life and hands and get read and somehow this grouping remains. There are, no doubt, some excellent books in this stack – in fact, I’m sure of it, as I’ve actually started several of them. Yet month by month they have dropped lower and lower in the stack. Some books have been in this stack for more than two years. That’s the embarrassing part.
I used to feel obligated to finish every book I started. Even if I disliked it, I would force myself through it until it was done. I felt that unless I really finished it, I wasn’t allowed to have an opinion about it. About three years ago I realized that not being able to finish a book was not a sin or a crime, and that my inability to finish actually constituted an opinion. I initiated a new amnesty program, which I call The General Literary Absolution (with its attendant prayer, Forgive Me, Author, For I Have Forsaken Thee), whereby I am relieved of any obligation to finish a book that just isn’t working for me. Unfortunately, I’m also a big believer in giving every book a chance to win me over, and that usually constitutes reading at least the first quarter of the book before I allow myself absolution.
So how did all these books end up in this stack? Well, let’s have a look at some of them.
Right on top is The Gifts of the Jews by Thomas Cahill. I got this book because I read Cahill’s earlier work, How the Irish Saved Civilization, and really enjoyed it. I am actually reading this book now, so by rights it ought to be on the floor by my nightstand, where all my current reading lives. This is because I often read at bedtime. My rule is that I read until my eyes start to cross, then I stick a bookmark in the book, put the book on the floor and turn out the light. The only reason why the Cahill book is in the stack is because I moved it to vacuum the other day and haven’t touched it since. This is a bad sign. So far this book isn’t grabbing me like its predecessor did. I could put it aside and move on, but it’s a slim volume and I don’t actively dislike it, so I’m going to finish it. I swear I am.
Beneath the Cahill book is the latest volume of the Nimrod Literary Journal. It just came in last week, which is why it’s still in its plastic wrapper. Literary journals make good bedtime reading because they’re usually comprised of short stories and poems, so it’s easy to finish one before the eye-crossing point. For the same reason they’re good to take along to auditions or to read backstage when I’m working on a show, and once I’m finished with one I leave it for someone else to read, because God knows most green rooms could do with something other than ancient copies of People or Us or Men’s Health to read. So I will read the Nimrod – with luck, before the next issue appears in my mailbox.
Below the Nimrod Literary Journal is “oh dear” territory. These books are a little like the assigned reading you have for course work. Because I write in the fantasy genre, I have been advised to read more fantasy, and the unfortunate thing is that I’ve discovered I really don’t like a lot of fantasy writing. The first book in “oh dear” territory is a collection of Mercedes Lackey short stories. Now Mercedes Lackey is a HUGELY popular fantasy writer, but these stories just aren’t speaking to me yet. To be fair, they’re all over the map as far as genre: fantasy, spec-fic, horror, etc. And I’ve only read the first couple stories, so I haven’t given up on this volume yet. But beneath the Lackey book is the current bane of my existence: Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay. This is a fantasy novel that was also recommended to me, and it has one of the most beautifully written prologues I’ve ever read. I know this because I’ve read it about five times. My problem is with the first chapter. It’s an inn/tavern scene – one of my least favorite fantasy tropes. In tavern scenes characters are often being drunkenly obnoxious or skulking in the shadows wearing hoods. There is usually some kind of odd drink being consumed (in Tigana it’s khav; in Elizabeth Moon’s Paksenarrion books it’s sib; in the Harry Potter books it’s pumpkin juice – you get the idea). Bad puns, hearty joking and much backslapping goes on. Most tavern scenes occur early in fantasies, and they’re usually an attempt to mask the infodump contained within.
(For the unitiated, an infodump is a big clump of wordy exposition. Since fantasy and science fiction usually involve major worldbuilding, the reader has to be introduced not only to characters, relationships, backstory and settings, but to the rules of the world that the author is building. Infodump is hard to avoid in any genre, but particularly in any form of speculative fiction.)
No doubt more of the lyrical prose that so entranced me in Tigana’s prologue lies beyond this first chapter tavern scene – but it stops me cold. Every. Single. Time. So I bookmark the book, put it back in the stack and forget about it. Every four months or so I haul it out and refresh my memory with the prologue and then start that first chapter and whammo! I’m up against that brick wall again. One day, when I’m in the right mood, I’m going to force myself through that first chapter and into the world beyond. So Tigana stays in the To Be Read stack.
Continuing downward is a book my mother handed off to me on my last visit. I love history books, and this one is a history of the Thames River, which will no doubt be fascinating. The two skinny books beneath it are for preliminary research for a book idea I’ve been percolating for the past year. Right now I’m preoccupied with my current project, so they’re waiting until I’m ready for them. Under those is a reference book for the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey/Maturin series (the books on which the movie Master and Commander was based). I am a rabid fan of the series – I roared through it two summers back – and have been slowly amassing a collection of books written about the series. I even own a cookbook called Lobscouse and Spotted Dog: Which It’s a Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey/Maturin Novels, and it is enlightening, informative and even fall-on-the-ground funny on occasion (authors Thomas and Grossman also have a website, which is even more fun since it has photos).
Yet another history book follows, and beneath it are a couple of scripts – yes, my acting career sometimes intrudes on my reading as well – and below the scripts are books to feed one of my longtime fascinations: natural science. Lying beneath them is Sophie Tucker’s autobiography, which I picked up from my book swap club a couple years back when I was a fatter girl and was thinking about writing myself a one-woman show. I’ve lost interest in that project along with the poundage, but I would like to read the book, and besides, Sophie autographed it (that really excited me at first, but I found that Soph autographed a LOT of her books, so it’s not much of a collectors’ item).
More history, more science, some reference books for a play I was writing (currently back-burnered), more history more science and OMIGOD STEPHEN SONDHEIM IS THAT YOU? Relegated to the bottom of the stack? Oh, Stephen, much as I love you and your songs and especially your lyrics, your book is a HEAVY mo-fo and hard to read in bed or even sitting up in an armchair. One has to put it on a table or desk to read it properly. It’s not your fault – it’s mine for not having stronger arms. Same with Basic Country Skills. You’re both down there not because you’re least in my estimation or lowest on my priority list, but because higher up in the stack you make everything overbalance. Blame physics.
I just counted the books. There’s 22 of them in that stack – 23 if you count the one I just got from my book club – The Encyclopedia of Musical Instruments: Non-Western and Obsolete Instruments (esoterica if ever I saw it – what is the matter with me?). And I also have a couple of ebooks to finish (they’re in my phone; therefore unstackable and slightly less shameful). So let’s round up and say I have 25 books to read. There are 87 days left in 2012. My goal for the balance of the year is to see just how many books out of this stack I can finish (or read enough of to invoke General Literary Absolution) before midnight, December 31st. Check back then for the results.
You should also read Anthony Bourdain’s “Typhoid Mary”. It’s quite good.
Hah – I have, and it was your copy. You loaned it to me oh so many years ago. Not sure I ever gave it back.
Ha ha! If you went to Friends of the Library book sales you might be in my situation — I have a closet full of unread books. Literally hundreds. I was simply unable to resist that “$5 for as many books as you can stuff in a shopping bag” deal. I finally forbade myself to continue going, but the damage was done.
So, don’t feel bad. Or use my self-justification — I’m stocking up for retirement.
I went to a university book sale a couple weeks back and managed to control myself. I was quite proud.