The Letter vs. The Spirit: About That Book Challenge

Not too long after I started this blog, I finished my undergrad degree. As I did so, I wondered what was next.

In January, I went to a party and people were talking about books. This is, of course, exactly what I get for going to a party largely attended by English majors. I’m just glad I escaped before the debate over the Oxford Comma came down to a brawl.

We started talking about books and somebody asked me what the last great book I’d read was. I couldn’t remember. Actually, I couldn’t remember the name of the last book I’d read that hadn’t been required reading for one of my classes.

Shortly thereafter, I went on holiday. I visited my grandmother, did absolutely no schoolwork, and spent rather a lot of time stretched out on a towel in the sun. I also read. I’d picked up a paperback thriller in the airport on my way, and thoroughly enjoyed it, even though I can’t actually remember what it was about. I’m reasonably certain the protagonist saved the world, or their kidnapped offspring, or caught the murderer or whatever it was.

I love reading. As a kid, you never caught me without a book in my hand, unless my parents had told me to put it away, and then it was hiding in my backpack until they turned around. There’s a scene in the movie version of Roald Dahl’s Matilda where the little girl discovers the magic of the library and promptly loads a red wagon full of books to take home and read. Our wagon was blue, and my parents usually drove me to the library, but I remember arguing with my mom over how many books I would have time to read in the two week loan period. I don’t remember who won the argument, and I don’t remember who was actually right, but the point was that I never felt like I had enough books around.

My uncle once asked me if I would rather have one new book or five used books and I couldn’t figure out what he meant. Did I have to give up five of the books I’d already read to get a new one? Things like garage sales and thrift stores weren’t something I knew much about by then, and most of my books came from Scholastic book orders through my school. Once my mom explained it, I couldn’t figure out why he’d asked the question in the first place. Obviously getting five stories would be better than only one.

At some point though, I stopped reading as much. It wasn’t that I didn’t like reading anymore. I just didn’t choose to spend my time on it the same way. As I got closer to the end of university, I realized that I wasn’t so happy about that. So I set myself a challenge to read 100 of the “Best Books of All Time” based on a collection of similar lists, filtering out the ones I’d already read.

Two years later, I’ve read about 12 of them, with another one in progress. That’s a far cry from the five in two weeks I used to average, and it all comes down to the fact that I haven’t made reading a priority.

I’m thinking that part of the problem with that is the challenge. I started the challenge hoping to jumpstart my reading again, and it seems to have had the opposite effect. Even when I pick up a book that looks interesting in a shop, a library, or from a friend’s bookshelf, I get a wave of guilt. Guilt is a really effective conditioning tool for me. Just like the dieter drooling over the beautiful array of cupcakes in a bakery, I drooled over thrillers, mysteries, and romances. But like the dieter with a refrigerator full of cabbage soup, I had my list, and those drool-inducing books weren’t on it. I should really finish my vegetables before even considering the cupcake.

I had enjoyed some of the books on my list. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was interesting, and Cat’s Cradle was fascinating. On the other hand, Madame Bovary was like watching a train wreck in slow motion, and you might have heard what I thought about The Road. For the most part, I was dreading the next book on my list, because so many of them are written in language that I have trouble deciphering, with inaccessible (or superfluous) plots. But I wasn’t reading anything else, because I hadn’t finished my challenge yet.

Then I was left to my own devices in a thrift store for 40 minutes. Lacking the will to actually spend any money on anything, I gravitated towards the books section, figuring I could probably read my way through the summaries while I was waiting. Among the droves of well-loved books ranging from James Patterson hardbacks to romance novels so old you could have bought them new for under two dollars, I happened upon The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I read the back, and I wanted it. Fortunately, it was just about then that I was called out of the shop, and wound up at my parents’ place (did I mention I moved out of my parents’ house?) and sure enough there was the very same book sitting on my mother’s bookshelf.

So I borrowed it. Then I finished it and borrowed another one, which I’ll start reading again as soon as I’m done writing this.

In short: starting to read for fun again? I was doing it wrong. The letter of my challenge was to finish reading the books on the list as quickly as possible. The spirit was to try to get reading again, to remember that I like reading, and why this pastime took up so much of my time when I was younger.

Eventually, I’ll work my way through the challenge list. But it’s not a homework assignment, and I don’t have to feel guilty for reading something else in between. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m in the middle of a thriller.

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