Self-Flagellation over Books Not Read

I was just complaining on Twitter that I feel genuine and physiologically-palpable anxiety over the idea that there are so many Important Books that I’ve never gotten to, and likely never will. (Read more about my struggles with particular aspects of the Western Canon here.) Then Bill Boulden (@Spruke) pointed me to this piece at NPR by Linda Holmes on this very subject. This gist of it is that there’s always too much to get to, and being “well-read” is less about filling quotas and more about sincerely and actively exploring what human culture has produced. Good intentions, in other words.
She distinguishes between two ways of deciding what one will spend one’s time consuming:

Culling is the choosing you do for yourself. It’s the sorting of what’s worth your time and what’s not worth your time. It’s saying, “I deem Keeping Up With The Kardashians a poor use of my time, and therefore, I choose not to watch it.” It’s saying, “I read the last Jonathan Franzen book and fell asleep six times, so I’m not going to read this one.”

Surrender, on the other hand, is the realization that you do not have time for everything that would be worth the time you invested in it if you had the time, and that this fact doesn’t have to threaten your sense that you are well-read. Surrender is the moment when you say, “I bet every single one of those 1,000 books I’m supposed to read before I die is very, very good, but I cannot read them all, and they will have to go on the list of things I didn’t get to.”

I get this, I do, but I’m not just hung up on he idea that, oh my gosh, there’s so much stuff to get to. I’m hung up on the idea that my failure to get to it all, or more specifically, my failure to get to all the Important Books, is my own fault.

I stopped paying attention in high school (get a sense of why here), and missed a lot of those books assigned in English class that everyone else read. As a result, I didn’t read Lord of the Flies, Great Expectations, or A Tale of Two Cities until a couple of years ago. I was supposed to back then, but I didn’t. (Two Cities is now among my favorite two or three novels ever.)

During time away from school, I was no better. I never read anything during summer vacations, and instead, during the breaks of middle school and the first half of high school, I let my brain rot on hours and hours and hours of relentless television. (In my defense, much of this was spent going through my dad’s Betamax tapes of Monty Python, Cosmos, Black Adder, and the like, but far, far too much of it was crap like music videos and god-awful sitcoms.) The second half of high school was still a lot of television, but also a little more music, guitar, and a little more social interaction with the few friends I had. But despite being a nerd, despite having no desire or talent for physical activity, I still almost never picked up a damn book.

I think it may even go back further in time. I recall being assigned a book report in second grade, and we were to choose the book ourselves. Imagine my dismay when, on the day we were to present our reports, all the other students had chosen honest-to-goodness novels for children, and I had picked some crummy Sesame Street picture book, just so I wouldn’t have to read something “hard.” That was a rough day.

Even into college, as a theatre major, I read mostly plays, and anyone who’s read plays knows that they’re an entirely different ball of wax when it comes to deep reading. Heck, I even found those to be too cumbersome (and again, in my defense, plays aren’t meant to be read anyway. Whoever thought it was a good idea that kids read Shakespeare before seeing and hearing it should be forced to memorize the phone book and perform it.)

Now I am a grownup, as it were, and back around 2001 or so when I was a working actor and had no TV of any kind and only a spotty connection to dial-up Internet, I rediscovered the joy of reading. Did I ever. But.

This utter lack of practice in the act of reading may have hobbled my ability somewhat to do it efficiently. I have never formally measured my speed, but certainly in comparison to literate friends, I seem to be dismally slow. (I’ve complained about this before as well.) Also, reading has a soporific effect on me, and given the fact that what little time I do have to read these days, what with my two noisy and exhausting children and whatnot, it’s usually not too many paragraphs in before I’m zonked.

In other words, I blew it. I had the chance to work my brain into a reading muscle, and I threw it away on TV and generally dicking around. And now I am scrambling to catch up. It’s futile, of course. I imagine that my Goodreads to-read list looks at me like an idiot, saying, “Surely, you can’t be serious.”

So this is where my anxiety comes from. I get that there’s simply too much Important Stuff out there to ever get to it all. But I feel like I can’t even scratch the surface. I can’t even graze it. And it’s because I blew it, and continue to blow it. I cull, and any surrendering I am doing is to my own self-loathing.

Holmes also talks about a certain kind of culling.

I see people culling by category, broadly and aggressively: television is not important, popular fiction is not important, blockbuster movies are not important. Don’t talk about rap; it’s not important. Don’t talk about anyone famous; it isn’t important. And by the way, don’t tell me it is important, because that would mean I’m ignoring something important, and that’s … uncomfortable. That’s surrender.

It’s an effort, I think, to make the world smaller and easier to manage, to make the awareness of what we’re missing less painful.

I might cop to a version of this, but not entirely. Living without cable as I did way back when rejiggered my brain to find such a situation acceptable, and soon it became my norm. Since 2003 or so, whenever cable or commercial television has been reintroduced to me, I have a visceral response to how bad it usually is. How even the things we all rave about or consider better-than-crap is really, itself, crap. So I have developed a prejudice against the medium. I’m aware of it, and I admit it.

This is not to say there’s not a lot of TV that I don’t absolutely love. I still don’t have cable, but we do Netflix through Apple TV, and watch a lot of the good stuff once in a while. But with rare exceptions, there is almost never a time when even the best TV moves me or fulfills me as much as even just a “good” book does, let alone a great one. (Rare exceptions being things like The Wire, Star Trek TNG, and comedy like Monty Python and the Diane years of Cheers.)

But I always feel guilt when sitting through even very good television. Like time is being wasted on this passive medium* when I should be digging into one of those many, many Important Books. I’m sure some of that comes from my realization of the time wasted in my youth on TV, and now I’m overcompensating with a cultural hair shirt.

But still.

*Somehow in my own mind, I’ve carved an exception for nonfiction television, even if it’s something as light as video podcasts from the TWiT network. My brain has somehow decided that Game of Thrones is an indulgence I should feel bad about, but MacBreak Weekly is akin to reading the New York Times or something. I really am a mess.

13 thoughts on “Self-Flagellation over Books Not Read”

  1. Not to depress you further but English is just one language. I speak 5 languages. I have read 1000+ books in two and 100+ in another two. I don’t even speak the language in which many of the books I want to read are written. Nowadays I just read non-fiction and Sci-fi in English and reserve my meagre time to catch up in other languages.Life is indeed too short for living.


  2. Man, I can relate so much.
    However, unfortunately, not wasting your time on the TV probably wouldn’t have helped much. I’ve basically never been into TV or movies and before I went to college, I consistently read over 100 books a year. Nowadays I read as much as I can but just don’t have the time.
    Although I don’t care much about Great Novels or whatever; most of my reading-related FOMO concerns nonfiction that I know I’d find fascinating, but I just can’t get to it all.


  3. On who’s authority are we supposed to accept that books=good, TV/movies=bad?
    I mean, don’t get me wrong, my wife and I make at least semi-annual trips to IKEA for more bookshelves, and I think between us we probably average around 2-3 hours of TV a week. But that doesn’t mean that if you happen to enjoy television you need to feel guilty about the time you’re “wasting” by not reading. That’s a personal choice, and you may as well feel guilty that you spend less than 2 hours a day considering men’s fashion, learning to program in Ruby, or completing every Nintendo-Hard game you can find on MAME.
    Even on its face, though, you’re keeping up a blog which means you’re spending time writing; any reasonable metric has to count 1 hour of writing as at least 2 hours of reading, especially if you believe that reading is a more active activity than watching television (which I’d dispute by the way, but that’s not important to the point).
    I reckon you’re being a bit hard on yourself, is what I’m saying. Everyone will die with regrets, and “didn’t read enough books” isn’t exactly the worst regret to have.


    1. I don’t think it’s really regret – more a realization of how much material is available; it’s being faced with your own mortality – the shortness of one human life compared to the scope of human experience.


  4. I used to have the hardest time with certain things that I wanted to read but couldn’t. For whatever reason, Plato’s dialogues just seemed intractable – until I was making a long trip and had an audiobook version where each of the parts was read by a different voice actor. Suddenly it came alive and made more sense to me. I’m hoping the same thing happens with the audiobook version of “The Brothers Karamazov” that I’m laying in for my next trip to Australia (at 8 hrs long, it’s about $2/hr – a deal!) I used to look down on audiobooks as somehow less hardcore until I spent a lot of time driving and realized that I can’t read while I drive. You might want to consider that as a possibility.
    But, since life is short and pointless, why not read what you want? My feeling is that there are so many books I can read that I’m not going to sit there staring at something I “should” read but don’t enjoy (Karamzov, I am talking to you!) when there are still an infinity of other things worth reading. And since none of it has anything to do with my professional life, “who cares?” What goes into my head during the remainder of my life may perfectly well just stay there and never benefit anyone. I’m OK with that.


    1. I actually do think of audiobooks as a totally legit option. But I don’t have a commute or any opportunity right now for long listening. If my wife convinces me to start exercising again, though, that will change.


  5. Snobbery and privilege. And… some of those books are frankly going to seem like garbage to you, and then you’re going to feel horrible some more. It is just obnoxious, this sort of generally white middle class “oh I’m so sad that I’m not better read, I need a snifter of brandy and a smoking jacket to put me right” nonsense. 🙂
    Have you read every Pratchett novel? Have you read everything that Harlan Ellison has written? The collected works of Arthur C. Clarke, or Robert Heinlein? Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns? Listened to everything from Dylan and Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, on top of all the classical music you’re SUPPOSED to like?
    You’re never even going to get caught up on the stuff you know you’re going to enjoy, so why feel bad about not keeping up with stuff that you just think you ought to read because some long-dead person wrote it, and other long-dead people declared it to be “important”?


  6. Wow, I have a different outlook. To me, any consumable, be it Television, Movies, Video Games, or Books (or Blogs!) is leisurely and the only thing that matters is *creating* things. Writing, composing, developing, etc. Everything else is consumption.


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