Books are consumer goods, just like dresses or DVD box sets or surround sound systems or these things. Making them consumes non-renewable resources, no one ever bothers asking what conditions are like in the places where they’re made, and masses of fossil fuels are used to ship them around the world. And like fashion, books can be art or they can be disposable rubbish. I know you already know that, but sometimes we talk about them as though they’re sacred objects, and that buying a new book every week is a wonderful, worthy thing to do but buying a new frock every week is wasteful and reprehensible.
I own a lot of books. Many of them I’ve bought just for the consumerist rush. I picked them up in shops and stroked their covers, I wanted them so badly; I bought them all for my very own, then I took them home, put them on the shelf and never looked at them again. Now they’re just pieces of resentment, sitting there and making me feel guilty about all the reading I’ve failed to do.
So I signed up for #TBR20. The premise is, you read 20 books you already own before buying or borrowing a single other book. Now that I’ve finished, let’s see how I went.
On December 7 last year I started reading Cold Light by Frank Moorhouse. I had 19 other books lined up, ready to read (let’s call these ‘TBR-approved’). While I was reading Cold Light I also dipped into Etgar Keret’s short story collection, Suddenly a knock on the door (TBR-approved). I finished Cold Light and picked up Slow Water (TBR-approved). So far so good. The same day I surreptitiously slipped Jenny Valentish’s Cherry Bomb into my handbag (TBR-forbidden). I had an excuse: I planned to give it to a friend for Christmas and just needed to check she’d like it. It was only a little slip-up and from then until January 24, things went swimmingly: Wayne Macauley’s Demons, Patrick de Witt’s Ablutions, Ryan O’Neill’s Weight of a human heart, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Falling, Toni Morrison’s A mercy, Brooke Davis’ Lost & Found, John A Scott’s N: all read (Ablutions abandoned partway through), all TBR-approved.
Then I went to Varuna and it all went horribly wrong. Oh look, there’s Nicole Smith’s Sideshow on the living-room bookshelf, I’ve been wanting to read that. Oh and Margo Lanagan’s Black juice and Emma Donoghue’s Frog music and Charlotte Wood’s The children and Alison Croggon’s Navigatio oh and James Bradley’s The resurrectionist. I should read all of those. Plus I brought a few books on my Kindle in case I ran out of things to read (???), so I had to read Helen Macdonald’s H is for hawk. At least I didn’t actually accrue any more (hard copy) books. Oh, until I got back home and there was a kindly posted copy of AS Patric’s not-quite-yet-released Black Rock White City so I just had to read that…
February rolled around and I got back on that TBR bike. Best Australian short stories 2014 (TBR-approved), The book of strange new things (TBR-approved), Clade (TBR-approved except not really because I didn’t own it in December but I snuck it in to the list later because I needed to read it for a panel I was on) oh and then it all went haywire again. I had Andy Weir’s The Martian (TBR-forbidden) on my Kindle and well I just somehow started reading it (I stopped halfway through. Got bored). Had to borrow Picnic at Hanging Rock (TBR-forbidden) from the library to read for bookclub. Raced through Rose Michael’s The asking game (TBR-approved) then got waylaid by J Robert Lennon’s See you in paradise (TBR-forbidden) and followed up with an unexplained library borrowing binge: Trevor Shearston’s Game, Barbara Trapido’s Sex and Stravinsky and Jenny Offil’s Dept of Speculation, all TBR-forbidden.
I don’t want to bore you. It carried on in much the same way until last week when I finished my final TBR-approved book, Anna Tambour’s Crandolin. Between reading the first and last of my 20 approved books I read a total of 38 books. It wasn’t a total failure – almost all the forbidden books I read I read for a purpose (bookclub, had to discuss them on a panel, wanted to ask the author for a favour…) and all but one of them I either borrowed from the library or bought as e-books (so not totally undermining my secondary aim of not wasting resources by buying hard copy books I wasn’t going to read).
I want to read books that change my brain and my heart and my life. I’m always searching for the amazing book that will make me see the world in a new way. I can’t resist the promise of the shiny, super-well-reviewed book. And then I’m usually sad (see right). So the main thing I wanted to know was, would I be just as happy reading the books I already had as I would reading the books I thought I wanted? Let’s look at the stats.
One-quarter of my TBR20 books were five-star reads. That’s pretty great. Another seven were four-stars. I abandoned three books.
Of my forbidden books, one was five stars, eight were four stars and two were abandoned. On the other hand, most of those TBR20s were books I had bought thinking they were books that would make all the difference. How did the random, acquired-who-knows-where, don’t-even-know-why-I-have-it books go?
- EJ Howard’s Falling: pretty good, three stars, it’s no Cazalets.
- Wayne Macauley’s Demons: pretty good, three stars, I like his short stories better.
- Toni Morrison’s A mercy: four stars, but not as amazing as Beloved.
- Annamarie Jagose’s Slow water: four stars, really pretty great but not life-changing.
- Etgar Keret’s Suddenly a knock on the door: five stars, totally unexpected, made me so happy.
Three of the four other five-star, life changing books – Cold Light, Life & Fate, N – were books I had bought assuming they would be amazing. And they were.
So what did I learn from this exercise? Finding a brilliant book can happen from a superb recommendation or totally by chance. You may as well stick to second-hand books and the library because there’s a good chance you’ll find what you’re looking for there. And maybe every now and then, when you get a recommendation you just can’t resist, get down to the book shop.
Disclaimer You should totally buy loads of books at your local bookshop at least once a week and maybe more often than that. Bookshops are great. So are books. Authors and booksellers make money from you buying books, and authors and booksellers have been scientifically proven to be utterly excellent people. Buy books.