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archaeology of the book tower

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I’m assuming most people are like me: pile (or piles) of books stacked near the bed, on the nightstand, on the chair, books in progress, books waiting to be read, the pile changing in altitude, higher, lower, as books come in and go out. Many of these books will never be read, or will be partially read, abandoned for the new or the rediscovered. The ones that will be read will be cherished or disliked, put on the shelf, returned to the library, loaned to a friend, donated. The cycle continues. While the books may change, the pile remains, growing and shrinking. Is this familiar to you?

I used to feel guilt about not finishing or not reading my books. When I was a child, I finished every book I was ever given, borrowed, bought. I prided myself on seeing my collection grow from one tall bookshelf to two. Knowing that I had read all the books on those shelves was satisfying.

As I grew older, my interests expanded beyond the American Girl doll series, Little House on the Prairie, Nancy Drew, and The Babysitter’s Club. In middle and high school, I started adding books to my collection at a pace I was just able to keep up with. I added books by Kurt Vonnegut, Alison Weir, Walt Whitman, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Oscar Wilde, Edith Wharton, Tracey Chevalier, Wilkie Collins, Charlotte Brönte, Jane Austen, countless other historical fiction and non-fiction books, and all the incredible classics assigned to me in high school for summer reading. I usually read them all. By college, I had added many books on art, comparative religion, philosophy, anthropology, and the great historians: Deborah Gray White, Gordon Wood, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Edmund S. Morgan, David Freeman Hawke, Robert Hughes. I also started reading Virginia Woolf, Augusten Burroughs, Shirley Jackson, Joseph Campbell, David Sedaris, Wally Lamb, Michael Faber, god, the list goes on. In grad school, the same: Weil, Wilkening and Chung, Falk, Serrell, Genoways, Lord and Lord, Diamond, and lots of other books on museum education, planning, interpretation, and exhibitions.

But over the years my reading habits had changed. I no longer devoured every single work written by an author; I read less for fun and more because it was an assignment. I basically quit reading fiction for the better part of the 2000s. And I started to get overwhelmed. As my world opened up and my experiences changed, my reading list grew. And grew. And grew. I would collect and collect with every intention of reading and as my pile grew bigger, so did my sense of overwhelm – and of guilt. I had too much to read, too much to learn, too much that I was interested in, and absolutely not enough time to cover it all. My shelves were expanding at a pace I could barely contain, let alone afford, but I was still compelled to read – and collect – even though not much reading was actually being accomplished. I was the queen of opening a book, reading a few chapters, flipping through the rest, maybe reading the last few pages, and setting it aside. If I read like this, might I just not read at all? I considered myself a reader, a collector, someone who was obsessed with information, and yet I could barely be bothered to finish a book. I felt like an imposter.

So one day I asked the internet a question: do you have to finish every book you read? The overwhelming answer was no. As I read people’s opinions, I realized that being a reader doesn’t necessarily mean being a finisher. As a frequent reader of non-fiction, the concept of not finishing was a slightly easier pill to swallow. I had a professor in undergraduate school (shout out to my main man, Dr. Matthew N. Vosmeier) who taught us how to “dissect a book”. Essentially it’s a way of getting as much from a book as possible prior to reading it, an important skill if you were to go on to graduate-level historical research. At the time I thought it was absolute insanity. What I was hearing was, “It’s impossible to finish all the books you’ll be assigned or you’ll need in your research, so don’t bother reading all of the them.” So, you’re saying I don’t need to read a book in order to learn from it or use it for research? It was an almost embarrassing idea. How can you be a historian if you don’t know your history, how can you know your history without reading? And further more, how can you support your arguments without fully knowing what you’re talking about or what the current scholarship has to say about a subject? In light of realizing I didn’t need to always be a finisher, it occurred to me what Dr. Vosmeier was actually trying to help us do. He wasn’t saying not read, he was saying read smarter, not harder. Was I really that dense in college to not get this at the time?

But being in the middle of an existential crisis about what it meant to be a reader, applying the concept of not finishing to fiction? Did not compute. How can you read a story and get anything out of it without reading the whole thing? Sure, I’ve read lots of excerpts (often gratefully – I’m looking at you, anything by James Joyce) in classes, but the point of reading outside of class was to experience an entire work, without anyone’s curriculum to teach to or pet theses to point out. Can you fully appreciate how deeply disturbing Crime and Punishment is without slogging through Raskolnikov’s slow descent into despair, paranoia, and madness? Is the wrested conclusion of Howard’s End essential for understanding Margaret’s evolution as a woman and, indeed, the plight of women everywhere? Would you seriously give up on Mary Lennox before she opens the door to The Secret Garden??

Yes, no, and yes, apparently. People were leaving books unfinished and unread, and what’s worse is they were kind of, sort of, slightly advocating for it. Fine, no one was going around with posters or writing opinion pieces on why finishing books is the worst. But they were saying that sometimes it’s A-OK to wave the white flag, or to say, in the immortal words of Michael Bolton and his mullet (#neverforget), “I surrender.”

And you know what? They are right. A quick Google search will bring up a millions articles about why it’s ok to give up on a book, but two of the reasons that really resonate with me are, one, no one actually cares if you finish a book or not; and two, we’re all going to die one day so we might as well not waste our precious time on this earth attempting for the 5th time to get past the first few pages of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (James Joyce can fuck OFF). And so began my slow ascent from the depths of reading drudgery, where I now comfortably sit with about, oh, 500 books stacked in various places throughout my house that are in various stages of completion (though mostly all completed). Not to mention the book tower in my bedroom, where I’ve currently got an archaeologist’s dream dig of old, new, and everything in between.

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