A personal essay about all the books I haven’t read and some I have..
How many books have you started reading but never finished? That’s a question I asked myself recently now that I have many more unread books than ones I’ve finished. And I read a lot.
I won’t even talk much here about my to-be-read pile—that is the books that I’ve bought because the title, cover, subject, or the smell of it caught my imagination. The pile got so large and unwieldy on my nightstand it became a safety hazard—it could topple on me in the middle of the night as revenge for my inattention. No, I won’t talk about those here. Those books now rest neatly on their own set of shelves in my study.
It’s the books you start—taken them out on a first date, excused yourself to go to the restroom, and never returned to the table. Those books. No second date, left at the altar—you get the idea. But why, I wonder? And why, as I move through this book-loving life, do I possess less patience with books that politely ask me to hang in there a little longer?
So Many Books, So Little Time…
Maybe it’s because I write thrillers and I expect the story to be so compelling I have no choice except to turn the page and keep going. I try to craft that into my writing—ask the reader questions, put a mystery out there to be solved, leave you hanging over a cliff at the end of every chapter, and keep those chapters short.
Or maybe, it’s because life is short. So many books, so little time, as the saying goes. But I think that explanation is too rational. Reading is emotional unless it’s textbooks for school. And the choosing of books for me is impulsive or I’ve read a persuasive review in the Sunday Times Book Review. OK, but that’s only half the equation. I have no problem choosing books, lots of them.
It’s the sticking with it that’s the problem. The reality that I am a slow reader compounds my too-little-time challenge. As a rural self-educated man who had built a vast backwoods library said to Charles Kuralt years ago, “I likes to ponders when I read.” That’s me.
Decades back, I was about to start my first daunting year of law school at Boston College and purchased two hundred pounds of law books. Out of necessity, I needed to speed up my reading pace. So, I enrolled in the Evelyn Wood speed reading course. That dalliance failed on two fronts. First, you really need to ponders when you study law textbooks. Second, the Evelyn Wood teacher confessed in a private moment that he didn’t speed read for pleasure—too much work, and it took the joy out of reading for him. Case closed: I learned to speed read but never used that skill again, and I’m still on a “leave of absence” that I took after my first year of law school.
Those rationalizations aside and having a degree in philosophy with an analytical mind, I’m inclined to dig deeper into this buy ‘em and leave ‘em conundrum. Could it be a time-of-day thing? I mean, I do most of my for-pleasure reading before bed at night. Recently, I’ve abandoned good thrillers, a collection of Hemmingway short stories, an elegantly written investigation into the origins of ancient languages (I studied Ancient Greek in college and the Decipherment of Linear B is an astonishing read). Nope, nope, and nope.
Books I Finished
Am I hopeless? What books have I finished lately? I always seem to finish Michael Connelly novels. I like his Harry Bosch, Renée Ballard not as much, but she’s growing on me. And I don’t think his latest books are as good as his earlier ones and sometimes the extreme detail is excruciating, and for long stretches, nothing really happens, but I finish the books. That’s a mystery in and of itself.
I also cherish whole bookshelves of tomes I’ve finished on flyfishing, not the how-tos, but the rambling stories alongside glorious rivers and rugged mountains by the likes of talented storytellers like John Gierach and Ted Leeson. Great books to fall asleep by. Same thing with tales from the world of poker like Positively Fifth Street by James McManus or The Biggest Game in Town by Al Alvarez.
Or anything by John McPhee, whose narrative non-fiction brings such irresistible characters and faraway places to life. I started reading McPhee by accident, picking a copy of the McPhee Reader off a shelf at a New England guest house we were staying at for a long weekend. It swept me away and I went on to read and finish more that twenty of his books.
Same thing happened to me with David Morrell. I picked up a copy of Burnt Sienna at an airport kiosk and subsequently read all his books. I used to travel a lot for business. The airport bookstore is where I’d pick up a new book by an author I’d never read to enjoy on long plane flights. Those happy accidents led me to some of my greatest reading pleasures. Besides Morrell, I discovered Philip Jose Farmer that way. I picked up the strange SciFi classic The Unreasoning Mask and from there I read his entire Riverworld series.
I don’t travel for business as much anymore and perhaps I’ve developed ADHD, but I haven’t had that pleasure recently of finding a new author that makes me want to read everything she or he has written.
Still, I shouldn’t lament so many unread books as I have relished so many more that I read right to the very end.
How about you—any recommendations? What are your favorite read and unread authors? Please share in the comments below…
Read for FREE some of Charles Levin’s short stories:
Nora Delivers the Package
The Permission Slip
10 Life Lessons I Learned from Playing Poker
Missing the Ghost in the Palace Theater
Moon Landing Memories
P.S. My original fast-paced thriller NOT SO DEAD and the Sam Sunborn Series are also available on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com
If you like short reads you can really finish, grab a copy of my short story collections: The Last Appointment: 30 Collected Short Stories
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A few favorites: Bear Town, Beneath a Scarlet Sky, A Gentleman in Moscow
Hope you’re well! I recently retired and was lucky enough to travel to Las Vegas/ Grand Canyon!
Thanks for the recommendations. Sounds like you had a great trip. I’m glad you’re taking the well-deserved time to enjoy yourself!
Anything my Amor Towles
Mick Herron series slow horses
Paul vidich books
Nice piece thanks
Delighted you enjoyed my crazy essay and thanks for the recommendations. I’m going to check them out.
Sharp insights, Charlie, into the perseverance of readers, or lack thereof. I once heard a talk by the writer Jane Smiley, promoting her new novel. She had the book perched atop the podium, displayed to the audience. The reader, she pointed out, can at any point in time simply do this, and with a flick of her wrist she knocked the book to the floor. Writers beware!
Thanks, Bob. Good story. In a way, inattention is a challenge in all media and messaging. I believe the bar has gotten even higher for authors to capture the readers’ imagination enough to see their story through to the end…. which you do so well in your books!
Funny, after posting my rambling lament of abandoning perfectly good books, last night I resumed reading an eclectic collection of short stories, SIDECOUNTRY by John Branch, I had put down many months ago. It is masterfully written. I probably let it lay, after having finished several stories, to pick up some other shiny new object of a book.
Returning to it last night was a true delight as I was transported to the weird and wacky world of alligator hunting in Alabama. The story of the15 ft., record-breaking Stokes alligator wrangled in by a plucky woman and her two friends was full of wonder and fun. A perfect bedtime story.