I try to always read more than one book at a time. Partly, this is because I am fickle. I do not always want to learn about history or read a memoir or return to a particular fictional world. Partly, this is a defense mechanism against not reading. Always reading more than one book means it is much more difficult to be “done” reading books. You’re always reading, so you never have a moment to decide not to read anymore.
Recently, though, I ran into some trouble. I finished a book of poetry, a novel, and a non-fiction book all at roughly the same time. This is rare and strange! It could have been fine, but it wasn’t. The next two books I picked up I want to read. To be more honest, I want to love them. They are books that objectively I should love. They have bright colored covers and are written by women and have been lauded in newspapers and book awards. They are recent. They have been recommended by women whose taste generally has mirrored my own and whose opinions I trust. And yet.
I do not want these books.
Objectively, I know that they are good (probably?), and so not wanting to read them has filled me with a kind of shame that I haven’t felt from reading in a few years. Why don’t I like them? It’s not the subject matter. It’s not the format. Is it the writer’s tone? Is it the “writerly voice,” whatever that mysterious truth is? It doesn’t matter, that’s the truth. It doesn’t matter why I don’t want to read them; I just don’t want to. That’s what matters.
I wrote in a post for subscribers a few months ago ((we in the subscribers zone are trying to read 15 books by Labor Day as a team. Please join us!)) that the number one rule to reading a lot is “Don’t Read Things that You Don’t Love.” Here’s what I wrote then:
When you pick up the book, you should be able to read at least four pages before you want to pick up your phone or you DONT REALLY LIKE IT. This is easy enough to know. It doesn’t mean you won’t ever like a book. You just don’t like it in that moment.
God is there anything worse than being owned by yourself?
At that point in time, though, it had been a while since I had gotten more than 10 pages into a book I didn’t like. Generally, I don’t power through any books. I start them and love them and finish them. Or I start them and don’t love them and return them to my shelf of unreads to be tried again at another time.
I forgot about shame.
Shame is maybe the most shattering emotion. It does not dissipate in the sunlight of truth, and it does not remember the past without it. Shame is all-encompassing. It takes over. And reading, I am now remembering, can be upsettingly tied to shame. People are shamed over not reading the right things. People are shamed over reading the wrong things. People are shamed over reading too slow, or reading to fast. People feel shame because they have been told that things are good and then they don’t think it is good or don’t enjoy it. Am I the thing that is wrong? we ask ourselves, and that is a terrible question to have to ask.
I’m talking about myself again. I know what I like, but have also historically been able to read books deemed “good” by the powers that be and enjoy them for what they are. Not these two books that sit glaring at me on the chair by my couch.
I am quitting them. I am putting these two books that I am more than halfway through back onto the shelf of unreads where they will stay until eventually I open them and see what everyone else sees, or until I realize that they might not ever be for me. It is a defeat, but one that I am not going to be ashamed of.
And you shouldn’t be either! Sometimes books are not for us. Sometimes books are not for us right now in this moment but will be for us later. Quit the book that you don’t like. Quit the book you feel indifferent about. Quit the book that doesn’t draw you in and make you think about it while you try to answer your emails. Quit that book and choose another one. I’m doing it. You can too!
[[Painting is Lesende junge Dame by Alfred Stevens]]