Reader’s Journal: So Many Books, So Little Time

How I wish I could claim that title–So Many Books, So Little Time–but in fact it belongs to Sara Nelson’s book, a collection of essays about reading. Ms. Nelson set out to read a different book every week for one year and chronicle her experience. This isn’t the sort of book I usually buy, but one day several months ago I went to the bookstore to do a little retail therapy (a note here: books and perfume are the best retail therapy because they will never remind you of weight gain, new lines around your eyes, or your desperate need of a pedicure) and picked this up, thinking it might be sort of amusing.

If you’ve ever met a person you really liked, someone whom you wanted to befriend, and you’ve had one of those conversations with said person–over lunch, say–where you find yourself constantly nodding your head in vigorous agreement at everything and punctuating the end of stories with “Me too!”, then you understand my experience with this book. Any dedicated reader can tell you stories regarding her plans and schemes for reading, and any dedicated reader can tell you those plans generally fail.

Ms. Nelson began the year with a reasonable premise: as an avid and longtime reader, she made a relatively short and pragmatic list of books she’d been meaning to read but never got to for various reasons, but she ensured her list was not so long that she couldn’t account for the occasional impulse purchase or recommendation from a friend. As she walks the reader through her year, she takes on such topics as: Is it okay to double-book yourself…you know, with books? (Answer: YES!) What if you’ve tried and tried but you can’t finish a book? (See: Don DeLillo’s Underworld) What if the book you brought on vacation is all wrong for the place and time? (See: “Ambitious Beach Reader” or “Nabokov and Mann at the Shore”) What if someone loans you his favorite book, and you hate it? (Not going there.) What about books made into movies? (Wonder Boys–pretty good! Empire Falls–Ed Harris and Paul Newman were great! Under the Tuscan Sun–wouldn’t touch the movie with a ten-foot pole!) What about the books you go back to again and again, instead of picking up something new (and perhaps equally compelling)? (The Secret History; Two Girls, Fat and Thin; Diary of a Mad Housewife; anything by Flannery O’Connor, Lorrie Moore, or Alice Munro; Straight Man; Rare and Endangered Species…the list goes on!)

I nodded and “Me too!”-ed (forgive the mangled phrase) all the way through this book. Sara Nelson and I could be best friends, at least when it comes to books. For example, she shuns the overrated writer (and as an editor, she shuns with good reason). I also shun overrated writers! She hated The Bridges of Madison County and thought it read like a bad screenplay. Me too! She makes lists of things to read and then gets distracted and doesn’t read them. Oh, oh, I do that! Schlocky, “deep” best sellers about “life lessons” annoy the hell out of her. Come sit next to me, Sara!

Sara Nelson’s book echoes my reading life experience. Everywhere, I find sticky notes with book titles and authors scrawled on them: in my purse, in my notebook at work, in desk drawers at work and at home, in the car, in kitchen drawers, stuck in other books as bookmarks. About twice a year I dutifully copy all of these titles into “A Book Lover’s Diary,” a gift from my mother several years ago, one of those blank books where you record the titles in your library or thoughts about something you’ve read. Always, I find several titles both on sticky notes and already recorded in the book, and always, I tell myself, “That will be my next purchase. I clearly want to read that book!” Of course, I never get to it. There’s always something else to read. It finally got so bad that this year I went around the house and wrote down all the books I own but have never taken the time to read (or read all the way through), with the solemn plan to read what I have and buy no more books until the list was at least half-conquered. There are 66 books on the list. I’ve read four of them. Not so good, this reading plan of mine. Well, unless I list all the books I bought (even though I said I wasn’t going to) this year that I have read. If that counts, then I’m tracking to plan.

**Update: It occurred to me after I wrote this that one of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much is that it reads like a blog–one you can read lying in bed. I don’t know if you’ve tried that with a computer, but I found it doesn’t work so well.

*image from Powells

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