Mortality and the “to be read” stacks

All book lovers have some feelings of guilt about the “to be read” stacks or shelves in their home. They are the result of the literary equivalent of one’s eyes being bigger than their stomach. Now two columnists on opposite sides of the Atlantic have added mortality to the implications of the TBR.

I first came across the idea in the Nov. 30 NYT Book Review. Laura Miller’s essay “The Well-Tended Bookshelf” contained the following quote: “As the actuarial tables advance, the number of books you’ve got time to read diminishes.” What a day brightener! At least Miller took a glass half full approach. She says she now views her bookshelves as “a charm against mortality. As long as I have a few unread books beckoning to me from across the room, I tell myself I can always find a little more time.”

On Monday, the Guardian books blog also noted the mortality aspect of the TBR stacks. In “The Tyranny of the To-Read Pile,” Sam Jordison takes a more glass half empty approach.

The to-read pile is more than just a physical stack of books: it’s a tower of ambitions failed, hopes unrealised, good intentions unfulfilled. Worse still, it’s a cold hard reminder of mortality. Already, I have intentions to read more books than I can hope to manage in a normal lifetime. How will this pile of books taunt me when I’m 64?

Great. In addition to the various physical aches and pains that accompany growing older, the TBR stacks are more ominous than ever. They are psychological reproach. They are friends who pop up in various places in the house and ask, “Gonna visit me before you die?” They are reminders that the latter half of the adage “so many books, so little time” becomes more true every day.

Still, my guess is that even 40 years ago I intended to read more books than I could in this lifetime. So, I guess I won’t worry about how much or little is in the glass. After all, I figure that if there is a heaven, the bookstore and library undoubtedly are on either side of theater in which Springsteen is playing.

The annoying thing about reading is that you can never get the job done.

Nick Hornby, Shakespeare Wrote for Money

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