I am probably never going to read all the books I own.
The last few years I’ve been dealing more and more with that realization. I have thousands, maybe several thousand, and the ones in the house are certainly not all that I’ve ever owned. I have culled a few times over the years and I’ve slowed down acquiring new ones, but it’s a kind of compulsion. I mentioned once in a post, I think, that owning books for me is a sign of wealth. By that standard, I’m moderately well off.
Here’s the thing now. I don’t read particularly fast. I can be dogged, and from time to time manage to read a book in one day, but honestly my average lo these last few decades is about one or two a week. This is down considerably from the few years between 16 and 19 when I could speed read. I took a course in high school that increased my reading and comprehension to a ridiculous level. The machine they used to bring us up to speed only tracked at two thousand words a minute and I went past that. At peak, I was probably reading close to three thousand words a minute, which is about eight to ten pages, depending on typeface. I was reading all my assignments in home room or study hall. A book a day? How about an average SF novel in an hour or two? I’ve talked about my senior year before, during which I cut maybe two thirds of it. Most days I walked up the street to the local library and spent the day reading. By the time I graduated high school I was reading a book a day there and another one at home in the evening.
The problem with that is, I have pretty much forgotten all those books.
Oh, some of them stuck, certainly. I went through most of the “classics” section at the library and I can conjure images from a good number of them, but the rest? I know I read a great many ACE Doubles, a lot of Ballantine SF works, and so forth, and any number of detective and Other, but do I have any memory of them?
I post my reading lists on-line now. I have two accounts, one at Shelfari and one at Goodreads. You may notice that the numbers are different. I did a much more thorough job of recovering lists of past reading for Goodreads, so there are several hundred more books there than Shelfari. (I keep the Shelfari account because I’ve been participating in some of the discussion threads.) Even so, the Goodreads list is incomplete—because I cannot remember all those books. It lists about 2700 titles. I conservatively estimate that this is short by nearly a thousand. Partly, I’m making myself be honest. I know of a couple of hundred titles that I did read, but I frankly can’t remember anything about them beyond the title (most of Thomas Hardy, a number Theodore Dreiser novels, Trollope, and the like) and so I won’t list them unless I either suddenly remember something about them or reread them.
Then there are all those paperbacks I flew through that I can’t even remember the titles. Now and then, in conversation, one of them will pop up and I’ll have an “oh, yeah, that one” moment, but to be truthful I think a book should stick somewhere in your memory for you to claim it.
Why can’t I remember them? Probably because I went through them so fast there was no time to form a longterm impression. Some of them were over my head and I passed through them without having grasped them (I read Joyce during that senior year and it made no impression other than the sense of being completely out of my depth—I’ve since reread Ulysses and so I can claim it). I read a number of science books that left behind a lot of general scientific information, but nothing about the specific texts. And then there was a considerable amount of what one might call “trash” fiction—which term I loathe, but I use it here as a handy marker, since I think everyone, whether they admit it or not, knows exactly what I mean. For instance, Anne and Serge Golon’s Angelique series. I don’t think I read them all, but I read a number, and aside from a vague costume drama residue and a lot of erotic imagery, not a bit of their plots or characters remain in memory. The same can be said of any number of antebellum novels, like the Kyle Onstott/Lance Horner Falconhurst series, some of which I read back in grade school, but again, little of that stuck. (There was a fad for these things in the mid to late Sixties and several writers indulged–Ashley Carter comes to mind, and Boyd Upchurch. Ah, well.)
Sometime after I turned 21 I consciously slowed my reading down. I realized even then that I was retaining little. Oh, it stuck for a while, it was the perfect “cramming” technique, but even then I could barely remember what I’d read two years prior. That, and I was simply not enjoying it. Everything reduced to “textual experiences” that held none of the real pleasure of reading a good book.
So I went too far in the other direction. In a good year I read between 70 and 80 books cover to cover now. If I estimated all reading, it probably comes up to the equivalent maybe 120 or so. A far cry from when I read four or five hundred a year.
But I’m enjoying each one now, and remembering them more clearly. I would hate to read certain books too fast—books that should be savored.
So I won’t be getting through my stacks. Ever. But I find I am appreciating the journey a lot better.