When I was working on my Best of 2013 and 1913 posts, I planned to include a “to-be-read” section. It would list the books that were published in 2013 that I was interested in reading but never got around to. I was going to call it “These could have been the best books of 2013 if only I had read them.” I came up with 31 books before I realized that this list was already too long and therefore incredibly boring. (Even now part of me is still tempted to curate this list into a top ten, but what would that be? Best Books of 2013 I Did Not Read? Books of 2013 I am most likely to in fact still read?) At that moment I was suddenly struck by my strange relationship to making lists of books.
So first of all, where did I get these 31 titles from? Why, obviously it was culled from a much longer list of books I would like to read. I counted and there were 187 books on that list. Theoretically I could get through all those books in a year, but I absolutely won’t, even though they’re supposedly the books I want to read. Some of those books have been on that list for many years. I feel oppressed by that list because it’s so damn long. In fact, less than one year ago I did a massive “Selektion,” keeping some books on the list but sending many others to the metaphorical gas chambers. (Yes, that’s how guilty I felt about it: I was picturing myself as an SS officer. Any other time I picture that scenario, no more than once a day, I am a camp inmate. This is probably because I’m Jewish.) Since then, the list has burgeoned again, which explains the high proportion of 2013 books on the list.
Why am I ADD about everything else in my life but OCD about books? (And OCD about thinking about the Holocaust?) These days I try to stay away from “What is the point of. . .? Why am I doing. . . ?” questions because the answers are always the same. (“There is no point, things don’t have a point.” “There is no reason, this is just something you’re doing and stop worrying about it.”) I know a lot of things are beyond my control, but maybe not this thing. Making lists of books is not actually an autonomic life function like breathing or pumping blood, as much as it may seem that way. So I could stop if I wanted to. Is the first step admitting that I am powerless over making lists of books?
I remember a more innocent time before the internet, when the only way I ever knew about books was if some human being talked about them to me with their actual mouths or if I saw a review or ad in some sort of magazine or newspaper. I got most of my books through browsing in the library or the bookstore. Now my browsing is done online and then I either put them on hold at the library or buy them from Powells or Charis online bookstores, or ABE or Alibris in a pinch. Back in the day I did have a list of books I wanted, but it was very short, and I kept it in a notebook. Even then, it sometimes took me many years to read a book on my list, but that was mostly because at that time it was harder to find any specific out-of-print book. I remember when I was a teenager my friend S. recommended a book called Come to Mecca and other stories by Farrukh Dhondy. (This recommendation may even have been made via handwritten letter mailed with a stamp!) The book stayed on my list for, oh, at least five years. I finally read it, liked it a lot, and told S. about it. She did not remember anything about the book and refused to believe she had recommended it.
The upside of the way we discover books now is that I come across books that will never be reviewed in a big periodical. Five of my favorite books of 2013 are not in my local library system because they are either from a small press or self-published. So it’s not that I want to turn off the internet (okay, well actually I kind of do.) The problem is on my end, the list making end.
I actually don’t like to read as much as I used to. I think in some way reading about books has replaced actually reading books as the satisfying activity. I read about a book, it sounds so very interesting, and then I put it on my list, which in some way mentally checks it off. Resolution has been achieved, and some sort of endorphin is released. Why would I want to actually read the book? It would take hours and I might not even like it after all.
One thing I actually still like is reading and briefly reviewing the books of one century ago. In fact, my fantasy is that someone would pay me to do that. I say this in the spirit of putting my intentions out to the universe, which as I understand it means that my intentions will magically come true because it turns out the world is a wish granting factory after all. I have in mind a classy periodical like The Chronogram. Or, perhaps a brand new magazine, devoted solely to the books of a hundred years ago. Every month there would be a different author on the cover. (Although probably it would mostly be P.G. Wodehouse, L.M. Montgomery, Arnold Bennett, Baroness Orczy, E.F. Benson, and L. Frank Baum over and over. The way David Bowie has been on the cover of Uncut magazine nine times, about 5% of all their covers. But Uncut has had women on the cover only seven times, total. My magazine would have female-identified writers on the cover every other month, at least.) I guess I’m not averse to a single, really high quality issue per year. Wealthy Edwardian-literature-loving visionary publishing dilettantes who share my dreams, contact me.
All right, I got a little off-topic here. Let me tell you how my genius girlfriend solved my list-making problem for me. I had all kinds of ideas but hers actually worked. She told me to use a Bannanagrams rule where if I want to add a new book to the list I have to delete three others. It’s been working wonderfully. If I ever get through all the books on the list, you will hear about it.