It never gets old: I still get a thrill out of finishing one book, and then walking over to my book shelves to pick out the next one to be read. There are many unread tomes in there; who knows what pleasures lurk in them, waiting to be delved into, savored, and hopefully, treasured for a while?
The selection process is always, though, a little anxiety-ridden. Part of the burden of being an academic is that despite my best intentions, I often find myself making a distinction between reading for ‘pleasure’ and reading for ‘work’: some books are part of my supposed ‘research’, while others are seem like merely dilettantish indulgences. This leads, unfortunately, to a tension: do I have time to spare for ‘light’ reading when so much else remains to be read in domains that are supposedly my central intellectual passion? Am I slacking off by diverting my attention elsewhere? (In my graduate school days, I remember many fellow students saying they had stopped reading fiction for this reason.)
This is a silly distinction, of course, precisely because the books I read that are not part of any academic project of mine still inform my work: they enable the formation and appreciation of different perspectives and approaches to material ostensibly subject to paradigmatic readings. More to the point, it seems like I have imposed some horribly spartan vision of life upon myself, an austerity that seems impoverished more than anything else.
But having said that, another related burden of the academic life imposes itself. Does my reading, the part that isn’t within the ambit of an ongoing intellectual project, have to possess a certain minimal gravitas? Or can I slack off a bit, perhaps go a little ‘pop’? I suspect the same response as above holds.
These questions answered, I can move on to the next round. What comes next? Books that have been virgin for all too long? I can see unread books on my shelf dating back to purchases made in 1998. Are there books that are losing their topicality? I see an unread book on Chechnya in there. Yup, one of the 1998 ones. Should I read a book that will form an organic connection with the one I’ve just finished? This sort of selection happens quite naturally when, for lack of a better description, I find myself ‘going through a phase.’ Sometimes, I am keen to get rid of a book from my shelf because it is falling apart or because it wasn’t destined to be a long-term resident anyway. Here, I haven’t lost my desire to read it, but I am not interested in holding on to it for too long. The best thing to do under these circumstances is to read it and pass it back into circulation. Provided, of course, that it can undergo such a journey. Many books that I have picked up from garage sales or from Brooklyn-stoop-giveaways fall into this category.
And then, finally, sadly, once in a while, I come across a book that I realize I will never read; its time has passed, my interests have changed, and I cannot foresee my inclinations turning toward it ever again. Then, I take it down, set it aside ruefully, consoling myself that a slot has opened up for a new resident of my bookish world.