An Apology To the Books I’ve Cheated

I don’t feel guilty about my TBR. I can put off reading books for years (decades, probably) and feel no discomfort about it. I like seeing them lined up on my shelves, patiently waiting their turn. No, it’s some of the books that I have read that cause me guilt.

Oh, Orlando. I had been meaning to read you for years. This classic of queer literature that I somehow managed to never pick up. So this January, when I was contemplating which book to begin the year with, I thought you’d be the perfect choice. And you were a great book! My first Virginia Woolf, you introduced me to the ornate, flowing, and subtly biting writing style that I know I will return to in years to come. But I feel I betrayed you.

January turned out to be a very distracting month. Within a few weeks of each other, I moved and began a new relationship. The new place also came with cuddly and irresistible doggy roommates. Netflix took over my reading time. Long walks that would usually be prime audio book time turned into conversation opportunities instead. Added together, instead of reading the one to two books a week I usually do, I spent an entire month finishing Orlando in snatched moments.

Although I enjoyed reading Orlando regardless, I know that the reading experience suffered for being so drawn out. There’s an ideal amount of time to read a book in, though it does vary from book to book. Some benefit from being gobbled down in one sitting. Some should be dipped into leisurely, drawing out the process to really savor every word. Most fall somewhere in between: enough time to really dive into the book and think about it, but not enough time that you start to forget what happened in the beginning of the book.

These are the reads that I feel the most guilty about: the books that I cheated. Stories that I know that if I had read them in a different mood, in a better location, in a less distracting context, I would have appreciated much more. I really love 24 hour readathons, but I know that the books that I read in those final, bleary, sleep-deprived hours are not getting the kind of loving attention that they probably deserve.

Then there are the audiobooks I’ve listened to while going though a life crisis, zoning out every five minutes, sometimes backtracking and sometimes just letting it go. I sometimes wonder if it even counts as reading the book at all at that point. Other victims of circumstance are books I plowed through even though I knew I was in the wrong mood for them, usually because I wanted to review them by a certain point, or because the library due date was approaching.

I wonder how much book enjoyment depends on the context. If I had read my favourite book for the first time this January, would I have still thought of it as my favourite book? How many books have I given three stars that I would have adored if I had been stretched on a beach, absorbed in the luxury of reading for as long I wanted?

Do you ever feel like you’ve treated a book unfairly by reading it at the wrong time? Or do truly great stories transcend their circumstances and always shine through? I’ve shared my book guilt: tell me about yours!

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