It’s a familiar dream: to read ALL the books. Every book lover’s had it. That quixotic idea that someday, somehow, we will read every possible book on our lists. At the end of my life, if someone asks me whether I accomplished all my goals, I’m going to have to haul out my TBR list, and I’m sure the answer will be “no”!
Nothing drives home the impossibility of this dream more than working in a big used bookstore. Over years at Russell Books, it has slowly dawned on me that not only will I never be able to read ALL THE BOOKS, I won’t even have time to read all the books that we stock. (We stock a LOT of books.) If I dropped everything else in my life and spent every waking moment reading, I still couldn’t get through each individual title currently on the shelves at my workplace before I died of old age. And that’s not even considering all the new titles that come in every day.
At first, this realization was paralyzing. If I can’t read all the books, then I’d better make sure I at least get to all the GOOD ones, right? But whose definition of “good”? Does this mean I have to read all the classics first? Or only books of deep and redeeming value? If I’m never going to read them all, hadn’t I better focus on the very best ones?
These sorts of reflections are not conducive to a happy reading life. It’s easy to psych yourself out when you’re surrounded by a nigh-infinite variety of books and a community of well-read book nerds with strong opinions about what’s “good”.
My response, right or wrong, has been to rebel. You know what? I’m never going to read Anna Karenina. Why not? Because I don’t want to. Maybe some day I will want to, but I doubt it. I’ve read a decent amount of classic literature, and I’ll read more as the mood strikes me, but not because I’m afraid to miss it. If I am never going to read all the books in my lifetime, I’m not going to waste my time letting anyone else tell me what I should read. I’m going to read exactly what will bring me the most joy in that moment.
I’m going to read poetry and science fiction and romance novels. For the next year I’m only going to read books with happy endings because, god dammit, I like happy endings and I want that in my life right now! I’m going to read books about unfamiliar cultures and other ways of life not out of obligation, but because I’m ravenously curious about how others experience the world. I will never crack open Infinite Jest, no matter how many litbros tell me I should. I give exactly zero fucks what anybody thinks about my reading history.
When I stopped putting pressure on myself, it suddenly occurred to me: Yes, I’ll never read all the books – and that’s a good thing! Think about this for a second. Imagine having read every single book. What happens afterwards, WHEN THERE ARE NO BOOKS LEFT TO READ? Is there a worse nightmare for a reader?
Throughout most of history, the number of books available to any individual was quite limited. Imagine being an avid reader in the 18th century. Sure, thanks to the printing press there were enough books kicking around to get you hooked, but a truly voracious reader could easily run through the local circulating library and literally have nothing left to read for long periods of time! Not to mention the large swaths of history when the vast majority didn’t have access to reading at all.
We’re incredibly lucky to be living in a time period where our choice of reading material is functionally infinite. We will never, ever, ever run out of reading material. And thank goodness for that!