Tuesday, 2 April 2013

A Real First World Problem

Ok, I know the whole #firstworldproblems thing is like SO 2011. But really there's no other way to describe the conundrum I am facing.

I have reached a point in life where, generally speaking, I'm not terribly interested in re-reading books. Not because I don't love books and not because I don't think I'd get more out of a re-read book, but because there are so very many books that I want to read, and life is short. Sometimes very short, indeed.

Obviously I make occasional exceptions to this no re-reading thing. It's not a rule. It's just a general feeling.

So here's the conundrum: keeping books. I love my books, but I am a merciless clutter culler. The Husband and I often pick up a half dozen new books at a second hand shop, read them and then donate them back. But not always. We sometimes keep ones that were especially good. Husband is a serial re-reader. Nothing he loves more than reading a good book for the 14th time. He's also an especially fast reader, so the whole mortality thing maybe is less important. He can get through about 5 books to every one that I read (and I pleasure read quite a lot I think -- a couple of hours everyday). When we're on vacation, he has to pack at least 3 or 4, and even then he usually ends up reading the one or 2 I've brought as well.

Just recently I've really gotten stuck on one book in particular, and thus a problem arises. Last year, whilst Child was being born and nursed in the hospital, I was reading First Circle, by Solzhenitsyn. It's a monstrous door-stop of a book, a paperback with the dimensions of a new hardcover, with nearly 600 pages of normal paperback sized text. It weighs much. It's also weighty in its subject matter: 3 days in the lives of dozens of people associated with an urban gulag for engineers in the Soviet Union. It details the excruciating minutiae of their days as prisoners, guards, civilian employees, and outsiders under suspicion. There are moments of levity as the prisoners attempt to keep their sanity with a variety of mind games. There is terror as someone new is brought into the prison and immediately dehumanized in a few short hours. There is love and devotion and despair and labyrinthine rules creating one catch-22 after another. It's the type of book that gives great clarity by exposing obfuscation. It is vast in its scope. It's a wondrous book, I enjoyed it, and I would recommend it.

Will I ever read it again? No. Why not? It doesn't really matter, but mostly it's because it took me ages to finish it. Partly that's because it's huge. Partly it's because I read it during a difficult period of life when I didn't have loads of time to devote to it. But the main reason why I don't want to read it again is that I want to read other books, and if I spend all my time re-reading this, I can't do that, or at least I can't do it as readily. It basically boils down to: it's long and I don't want to.

So, should I keep the book? If I donate the book to a charity shop, there's a chance someone will pick it up who would otherwise have never considered it, and their life will perhaps be richer for it. If I keep it, I can push it on people who I think would like it, and perhaps more people would read it if it were being handed to them by an enthusiast. I lend books out a lot, and I can easily think of several people of my acquaintance to whom I'd suggest this particular book. Do I have a duty to circulate it? Should I hang onto it in case Child reaches a point when she might like it? Should I base this decision on how much room it takes up in my bookcase (answer: a lot)? Although huge, it does look nice on my bookcase. I don't mean that in a snobbish way -- if I were worried about whether guests thought my bookcase was highbrow enough, it would look a lot different. But aesthetically, it adds an interestingly brutalist splotch in an otherwise more colorful visual block.

Opinions welcome.


  1. Lend it to your friends, and we in turn will recommend to our wider circles - I'm totally with you, in that there are too many books to read, so don't spend time re-reading, and I also subscribe to buying 2nd hand books as this is how you open your mind to trying something that you otherwise may not have considered. I've introduced friends and neighbours (not that my neighbours are not my friends...) to some of the weightier books I've come across in this way and they've become fellow enthusiasts, so I think we should continue to share the knowledge of, and passion for, the more interesting and less mainstream books that we come across in this way.

  2. KEEP IT. Keep the book. When I bought the house I culled a TON of stuff. I come from a long line of hoarders and need to weed through the crap routinely. I donated an awful lot of books. I then spent the summer buying them back from the Salvation Army. I didn't realize it at the time of donation, but the books were like friends. I, like your husband, am a notorious fast reader. I devour books. I delve so deep in them that sometimes it takes me hours to come out of my "book coma" after finishing a particularly good one. Even if I don't read it again, doesn't mean I'm not going to. Besides, you don't want to give it up. You listed way too many reasons to keep it. That book is your friend, give it an honored position on your shelf.