Reader’s Angst

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Quote: I have no feeling of guilt regarding the books I have not read and perhaps will never read; I know that my books have unlimited patience.

—Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night,

The Library at Night is an “uneven” experience: a passing familiarity with the frequent citations is necessary, yet, if you possess such familiarity the connecting exposition sounds oddly bland and loose in places. It’s almost as if this were an expert draft ready to be tightened. Or as if the writing were deliberately left colloquial to “balance out” the  dense forest of references. What Manguel excels at, however, are the dashes of insight, like in the Quote—some of them developed, some less so—that he inserts between the obvious and the obscure in his chapters.

Perhaps calling the Quote an insight a misleading overstatement, for what he says sounds neither novel nor enlightening, but it does touch on a relevant, persistent gripe of many people: there’s never enough time to keep up with the to-read list. Whether feigned or genuine, hyped or deep-seated, I call it reader’s angst.

There are at least two types of reader’s angst: one plagues people who would like to read this or that, in an abstract, diet-and-fitness-goals sense (these are the casual readers); the other plagues people who would like to read an impossibly large number of books, in a concrete, obsessive, catalogue-and-notes sense (the compulsive readers).

A related concept is the Japanese word 積ん読 (tsundoku), often bandied about in lists of untranslatable words or exotic book-related terms, and defined by this Oxford Dictionaries blog post to mean the act of leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piling it up together with other such unread books. A slew of articles from 2014 cite a study that found the average British home had 138 books of which more than half went unread. Therefore, it seems, tsundoku is a well-established concept outside of Japan, if not in name.

(This 2014 tongue-in-cheek article from The Telegraph offers a few similes that might decrease your angst: Reading a book is like wearing smart shoes in the rain; and a few facts that might increase it: Read one [book] a week and you’d get through 4,134 if you were born (a boy) yesterday – 4,290 if a girl.)

Tsundoku and reader’s angst are related, in as much as one may cause, or reinforce, the other. But as Manguel implies, they may also be unrelated. With the proliferation of online bookstores that ship worldwide, stockpiling unread books is less necessary than before—certainly when it comes to cheap paperbacks of classics forever in print. More exotic editions will, by definition, be a collector’s pleasure to chase down and leave unread.

If you suffer from (a compulsive) reader’s angst, have you asked yourself why? The argument that books have unlimited patience, seems solid, rational, eminently unassailable. However, in a different context, Manguel offers a remark that may shed light on the angst from a different angle.

Readers, like epic heroes, are not guaranteed an epiphany.

Is it, perhaps, that all of us who are less controlled in our reading impulses, less mature, desperately seek out this elusive epiphany, while being aware deep down that we are unlikely ever to find it within the confines of the covers—unless we look hard and often and in a very great number of books?

5 responses

  1. I have my own angst. The number of times someone tells me of great things that are in such and such a book and then say, but of course you’ve read that and I stop myself saying, I started it but was bored to tears. But what about knowing that without a doubt there are many books that I know I would love to read but I will die before I do.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A book kindles interest if we can connect to it. I’ve realised that if I’m bored (and the book is a classic, for example), it’s because I’m lacking the links that would allow me to plug into the juices flowing within the pages. Sometimes it’s worth building those links (read around, towards, read the background, the period, similar authors), sometimes the links come in time, and sometimes I forget about it entirely. But it is occasionally annoying when someone says “surely you’ve read that”, then pauses and gives you a look. The situation is a setup for you to say “no, actually” and an opening for whomever is speaking to lord it over you.

      As for there being many books out there we’ll never read, that’s true at birth … I’m reassured by the uncertainty of which collection of books that will be (the same way that most of us are reassured by the uncertainty of date of death), and by the universality of story. There’s only a handful of genuinely original story backbones; sure, there are endless variations, but I figure after a while only the details will surprise me. (Perhaps this is overly optimistic, but I find it necessary for fighting reader’s angst.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I find myself guilty of tsundoku from time to time…and I also have a distinct case of tsundoku of the writing as well. I’ve become very good at starting a piece and never finishing it! Bad habits!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hehe, I’m not sure writing-tsundok means starting and not finishing, but having an idea and not starting at all 😛 Or maybe opening a file, writing down the title, and then not moving past that stage.

      Jokes aside … I know what you mean. But before you let it get to you, remember that there are lots of people who don’t move past the I-wish-I-could-write stage. Writing, even if in fragments, may yet lead to greater, completed works!

      Liked by 1 person

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