Coping with the ‘to read’ pile: confessions of an English book-eater


“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” Oscar Wilde

All book lovers and avid readers, whatever type of book or subject matter they’re into, are faced with one great big non-negotiable truth – YOU’LL NEVER READ THEM ALL.

In principle this is fine. You can’t argue against time. Even in the unlikely event of a massive lottery win, which paid out enough ‘Fuck-off’ money to free somebody from the daily grind and allowed every waking hour to be spent consuming books, they couldn’t do it.

Nobody, not a modern-day Hercules of reading – a Booker judge for example – could ever hope to complete the task.

But the trouble is, if you’re anything like me, whilst acknowledging all of the above, you’ll still try, you’ll ignore the realities of everyday life and the passing of the hours and blithely continue to accumulate books like so much gathering dust.

The bulk of these will be bought on numerous unnecessary forays to bookshops, (both new and second-hand ), during raids on hapless charity store shelves and via absent-minded clicks on websites.

In acknowledging your addiction, you must also factor in the random arrivals: volumes given as gifts, acquired from friends who work in publishing, or the book trade, still more borrowed from libraries and colleagues, single volumes pressed into your hands by family members, and once in a while, whole piles of the things dumped on you by people having clear outs.

Some of these you will actually read. Most of them, most of the time, will be added to the dreaded to-read pile, next to your bed, armchair, car boot, tree-house, shed, or double-stacked and wedged forcibly into already groaning shelving.

This is why the stack never really goes down. Every time you actually read one of the books, give one or two away, or hide a few, the temptation cycle kicks-in again and blows apart your best intentions.

I can’t even manage to stop adding to the pile when I’m in the middle of reading something that I’m really enjoying. I’ll be properly drawn in, revelling in that delicious tension between the desire to race to the end of a book and not wanting it to end, when something else hoves into sight and BAM I’m sidetracked. I can handle it though, it’s fine, just a little non-fiction here, a spot of poetry there, a cheeky short story or two. Nothing to worry about.

Whatever else you do with your life, if you have a passion for reading, you’re in trouble. There’s always, always an excuse for allowing yourself to wander off into the arms of another book.

Temptation is everywhere. All it takes is a half-decent review, an interesting blog post, a table top two-for-one offer, a Booker Long-list, a personal recommendation, an end-of-year newspaper book pages round-up, or the merest hint of a great cover design, on a book a stranger is reading on their way in to work.

I recently finished reading War and Peace and allowing for its length (it took several months of small commuting chunks followed by a mammoth Christmas binge as I raced to finish the actual story and then plough on through Tolstoy’s closing remarks on the writing of history). During this time, I was fairly well behaved, honest. I only meandered away from Pierre, Andrei, Natasha and co. once or twice, for the following:

The Old Ways – Robert Macfarlane

My excuse – after enjoying Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places so much, I HAD to read it as soon as it came out. He was also appearing at a festival I was going to.

Into the Wild John Krakauer

Picked it up in Oxfam Bloomsbury, read the first page, couldn’t stop. Watched the film on DVD too.

Real England: The battle against the bland Paul Kingsnorth

My big brother gave it to me. I have a gnawing hunger for reading about pubs, canals, orchards, high streets and other things that are lost or about to be.

Pure Andrew Miller

The 2011 Costa Winner came out in paperback as I was about to go on holiday at my inlaws – and I quite like graveyards.

American Gods Neil Gaiman

On the same holiday I was unable to resist an intriguing journey across the epic, ever-changing landscapes of small town USA, especially one centred on a battle for the soul of the country, between various gods of the Old World and the Mammon driven techno-fiends of the present day, fought not in the big cities but in the backwaters and in-between places of America’s Deep South and Midwest. And by-heck can Gaiman spin a story.

Communion Town Sam Thomson

Long listed for the Booker. I like multi-stranded tales set in cities, interweaving love affairs, ghosts, gangsters, mundane urban life into strange, half-recognisable dreamlike cityscapes.

White Bicycles Joe Boyd

I’m a sucker for well-written music/social history memoirs. It’s a 1960’s England’s Dreaming – another fantastic music/social history book.

Looking at the above list now, I feel a little guilty that there are no women on it, but if you look carefully at the photo at the top of this piece, you’ll see that on my current to-read pile there are a couple there at least.

I promise that in 2013 it’s going to be different, this time I’ll read the to-read pile books before I bring home any others. Unless of course I get distracted.

7 thoughts on “Coping with the ‘to read’ pile: confessions of an English book-eater

  1. Pingback: A dream of a bookshop | Richly Evocative

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