Last year I signed up to do #TBR20, a challenge where you agree to read 20 books you already own before borrowing or buying anything new. I’ve been awful at it, just awful – once I finish my pile of 20 I’ll let you in on all the other books I’ve read since I started #1. But right now I’m reading Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller, which I bought (according to the sticker on the back) and started reading in 2006. I gave up about one-fifth of the way in that time. This time I’m really enjoying it. It has a great deal to say about reading, and – you might have noticed – I’m a bit obsessed with reading at the moment (watch this space as in about a month from now I start pressuring you to join my fundraising readathon). But even this read has been a cheat – Calvino was not on my initial #TBR20 list, but as the pile got down to the last three books I finally admitted to myself there’s no way I’m going to read two of them right now. So the switch was made. Cities are good for you and Maren Gripe are (temporarily) off the to-read list, with Calvino and Ellen van Neerven’s Heat & Light subbing in – at least both were books I already owned.
Anyway, I’m writing this because I wanted to share a little bit of If on a winter’s night… which is pretty relevant to the whole #TBR20 contraption. It goes a little something like this:
So, then, you noticed in a newspaper that If on a winter’s night a traveler had appeared, the new book by Italo Calvino, who hadn’t published for several years. You went to the bookshop and bought the volume. Good for you.
In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They’re Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too. Eluding these assaults, you come up beneath the towers of the fortress, where other troops are holding out:
- the Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages
- the Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success
- the Books Dealing With Something You’re Working On At The Moment*
- the Books You Want To Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case
- the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer
- the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves
- the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified.
Now you have been able to reduce the countless embattled troops to an array that is, to be sure, very large but still calculable in a finite number; but this relative relief is then undermined by the ambush of the Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time To Reread and the Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them.
(Calvino continues on, but I shall stop here so as not to a. bore you or b. break copyright law.)
*These are the ones I really struggle with at the moment. I’m not at all sure what I’m doing with the book I’m currently writing, and I keep hoping that if I just read this thing or that thing that it will help me find the right voice or the right idea or the right structure… but of course it won’t. Still, it made me read this Calvino, and re-read Slaughterhouse V, and a whole bunch of other books I’ve really enjoyed. I should get on with writing…