I was telling Ms. C about how timely it is that I will get my OT pay right on the start of the Manila International Book Fair. It’s a real blessing, considering that I have to sort out my finances because this year has been truly about spending, spending, spending. Anyway, my attendance in the bookfair would mean more books to add to my collection. I’m thinking that even if I get a really long break, I would not be able to finish all of them. As my habit is, I start books and leave them unfinished and they’re there, piling up on the bedside table, or sometimes, I have the temerity to place them back in their rightful places in the book cabinets, with my trusty Hallmark bookmark collection to mark where I left off. At this rate, I probably have around 20 different bookmarks, all used. You get the picture.
Then just when I thought that starting a book and not finishing it is a sign that I am fickle, shallow, discontented, or whatever, I found an amazing essay that seems to have read my being and put it into words. No more, no less. It’s nice to know that in another part of the world, someone feels and does things the way you do. With regard to books, at least.
And here goes Joe Queenan’s essay (emphasis mine) :
When taking my fledgling steps toward literacy, I lived in a neighborhood with no library. Luckily, there was a bookmobile that came around every week. Each Tuesday night, I would borrow as many books as permitted, devour them and come back next week for more. I would also read any palatable materials my sisters brought home, excluding obviously unsuitable items like “The Child’s ‘Northanger Abbey’ ” or anything involving Trixie Belden. Like many children growing up in crummy neighborhoods, I honestly believed that if I read enough books, I would one day possess a gorgeous house with two cars, two children and a white picket fence. This is exactly what has come to pass.
Unfortunately, my youthful experiences got me into the habit of reading too many books simultaneously. Most of my female friends read one or two books at a time; my male friends insist that they are always reading at least one, though I suspect this figure may be aspirational. But I am never reading fewer than 25 books. I am not talking about books I have delved into, perused and set aside, like “Finnegans Wake” or Pamela Anderson’s first novel — that would get me up way over a hundred. I am talking about books I am actively reading, books that are on my nightstand and are not leaving there until I am done with them. Right now, the number is 27.
Like any addiction, the insatiable desire to start new books provides immense pleasure. Still, it is a monkey I often wish to get off my back, because I do not want to wait another five years to find out how “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” turns out, and would love to know what Shelby Foote (“The Civil War”) thinks about the stand-alone burial of Stonewall Jackson’s arm. At my current glacial pace — I am now roughly 400 pages into each — I will be a grandfather before I get to the part where the Crusaders sack Constantinople, and will be festering in my grave long before Pickett rolls the dice at Gettysburg.
There is no discernible rhyme or reason to my frantic reading pattern, except that the books are rarely less than good and are usually great. A few weeks ago, I read Barbara Freese’s “Coal: A Human History,” four chapters of “The Guns of August,” and a collection of harrowing stories about addicts, creeps and losers called “Jesus’ Son,” by Denis Johnson, which served as a 75-minute pit stop between Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination and the coal industry’s offensive against Al Gore in 2000. Simultaneously, I wrapped up “The Pickup,” a brilliant, insufficiently appreciated novel by Nadine Gordimer, and “Henry Miller on Writing,” ramblings by the most overrated writer of the 20th century. Meanwhile, I was blasting away at story collections by Mavis Gallant, John McGahern, Thomas Mann and Marcel Aymé, none of whom write about addicts. I was also plowing through A. J. P. Taylor’s heretical “Origins of the Second World War,” Paul Cartledge’s snappy reappraisal of Alexander the Great, and Jeff Long’s gutsy demythologizing of the Alamo legend. A bit farther back on the burner were Flann O’Brien’s uproarious “At Swim-Two-Birds” and Oscar Wilde’s children’s tales. I am also reading not one but two books about Pizarro’s conquest of the Incas. This is madness.
Friends say that I suffer from a short attention span, but exactly the opposite is true. I do not stop reading books because I lose interest in them; if anything, I have too long an attention span, one that allows me to read dozens of books simultaneously without losing interest in any of them. Moreover, I have an excellent memory that allows me to suspend reading, pick up a book six months later, and not miss a beat. A chess player once told me that a good memory is a cheap trick that creates a deceptive aura of intelligence around an otherwise ordinary intellect. This is true.
The closest I can come to understanding my reading habits is the possibility that I became addicted to starting books as a child because books usually take off like a house on fire but then ease up around Page 70. The “Iliad” kicks off with Achilles’ decision to go off and pout, denuding the narrative of its star performer, so it is understandable why a thrill-seeking kid might set it aside and take a crack at “Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle.” Most books written by journalists start off with two good chapters, followed by loads of padding, then regain a bit of momentum for the big roundup. This is because editors encourage writers to frontload the merchandise, jamming all the good stuff into the early chapters, the only chapters that will ever get read. I was once told that readers regularly abandon books around Page 60, vowing to get back to them later. Well, I do get back to them later. I started “Lord Jim” in high school and finished it when I was 52. Gratification delayed is gratification all the same.
In June, I tried an experiment: seeing how long I could go without starting a new book. With about 30 books on the active list, I was hoping to whittle down the number to a manageable 10 by July 15, which I could do if I read at least three books a week and did not begin any others in the meantime. Things started off just swell as I finished off two mysteries by Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell under a nom de plume), Haruki Murakami’s haunting “Norwegian Wood” and a charming Joanna Trollope novel called “The Men and the Girls.” But somewhere along the line, my resolve weakened and I cracked open Penelope Fitzgerald’s “The Bookshop,” which I had already read six years ago; Paul Fussell’s “Wartime,” a gift from my college English professor; the peerless Tom McGuane’s “Ninety-Two in the Shade”; Henning Mankell’s unnerving mystery “Before the Frost”; and a book about the 1954 French catastrophe at Dien Bien Phu, lent to me by a friend who served in Vietnam. Here, in a nutshell, is the problem: No matter how good the book I am currently reading may be — the “Aeneid,” “War and Peace,” Bill Bennett on Texas Hold-Em — I am always ready to drop everything and start reading a 39-year-old book about Dien Bien Phu.
I used to think that I kept stopping and starting books because I could never find the right one. Untrue. All these books are the right one. It’s the fact that all these books are generally so good that makes me stop reading them, as I am in no hurry to finish; the bad ones I whip through in a few hours. The problem is, there are just too many good books. Reading is like being in a candy shop, or the Frick: Just because you love the Rembrandts and the Van Dycks doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be tempted by the Titians and Bellinis.
Starting books always makes me feel that a long-awaited voyage has already begun; that while it may take five years to finish Boswell’s “Life of Johnson” or “Remembrance of Things Past,” these are no longer dimly envisioned projects like learning to play the accordion or fly a helicopter, but in some way a real part of my life. Other people say, “One of these days, I’m finally going to get to ‘Ulysses.’ ” Well, I’ve already gotten to “Ulysses.” I’ve been getting to “Ulysses” for the past 25 years.
A few weeks ago I visited the superb postage-stamp-size bookstore in Grand Central Station, where I bought Andrea Barrett’s “Voyage of the Narwhal.” Since I had only just started Tacitus’ “Annals of Imperial Rome” the night before, this was hardly an essential purchase. But for whatever reason, I had to take a crack at that book. Some people go into bookstores and are seduced by classics they absolutely must own; I go into bookstores and am seduced by classics I absolutely must start.
“I’m already reading 25 other books, so why am I buying this one?” I asked a friend. “Do you think this is a disease?”
“Yes,” interjected the cashier. “But it’s a good disease to have.”
Joe Queenan writes for Smart Money, Men’s Health and The Guardian. His most recent book is “Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile’s Pilgrimage to the Mother Country.”