#121: Why Don’t We Read the Books We Buy?

Almost every reader I know has the same problem: whether they read 3 or 103 books a year, they want to read more. Stacks of unread books lie scattered around their house, collecting dust. With every visit to the bookshop, more books appear on top of the stack. Every now and then, they go through the to-read pile one by one, weighing each title in their hand. ‘One day,’ they think, ‘I’ll get through them all.’

This behaviour is so prevalent that in Japan, they have a word for it–tsundoku.

So many good books come out every year–my favourite authors alone probably publish more works that I can reasonably read in a year. Add the countless recommendations from friends and exciting debut authors on top. Don’t forget the random finds and intriguing discoveries, and of course gifts from friends. Then you have all the classics. Everyone should read all the classics, shouldn’t they?

Really, it’s a numbers game. There are way too many excellent books for anyone to read in one lifetime. In fact, more great new books come out every year for anyone to read in one lifetime. The problem is that no matter what you do, you’ll never catch up.

And so the books keep accumulating around your place for years and years. Over time, books that you were super excited about become mere entries on a list that you’re hoping to get through. One day.

That brings me to the main point of today’s post. Should you really read all the books that you buy? Sure, you thought that you wanted to read it when you bought it. That was probably some time ago. You taste and preferences might have evolved. You may not be the same person that you was back then. Why force yourself to read a book that you feel lukewarm-but-guilty about because you have bought it already when you could be reading the books that you care about right now?

Obviously, there’s a reasonable limit to it. If you only read every 20th book that you buy, you’ve got a problem. Otherwise, I don’t see a reason why you couldn’t change your mind. Sell or give away the books that you end up not reading. That way, they won’t be wasted, collecting dust on your shelves.

Writers have a tendency to want to read everything. In and out of their genre, ancient to contemporary. The list of must-reads for every person that dares to pick up a pen keeps expanding. After all, the books that you read play an important role in shaping your work.

A while ago, a fantasy author V.E. Schwab confessed during a lecture at Oxford University that she’d never read the Lord of the Rings. ‘Treason!’ I hear all you purists scream. Well, despite ignoring one of the most fundamental titles of her genre, she’s more successful than most writers ever will be.

If we all read the same books and did the same things, we would all write the same stories. The books you read are important, but so are the books that you choose not to read.


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