While I was eating breakfast this morning, I finished Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on the World’s Greatest Scientific Expedition by Stephen R. Bown. In between spoonsful of Rice Chex, I picked up the next book, opened it, and started reading.
My mid-breakfast pick? Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan by Nancy MacLean, which should not be confused with The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition by Linda Gordon, which I ordered online about an hour ago.
They say the first step to recovery is to admit you have a problem. Okay: Hi, my name is Jenny and I’m a chain reader. Like a smoker who lights her next cigarette from the embers of the last, I cannot not have a book to read. I get jittery and anxious. More than once, I’ve started a new book while brushing my teeth. Sometimes I can sate the urges with an issue of the New Yorker, but it’s a temporary fix.
As I see it, my problem isn’t that I can’t stop reading; it’s that I can’t stop adding to my to-be-read pile. At this point, my TBR stack is structurally unsound and represents a danger both to myself and others. My editor has called it a national disgrace. If it were a toxic-waste dump, it’d be a Superfund site. And yet, depthless as it is, it represents but a fraction of the books I want to read.
Why, you ask, does my TBR stack resist all attempts at containment? Among the many culprits:
- Reading for review: I never get past the top of the stack; mine is a last in, first out system. Sure, this is wonderful when I get the opportunity to read my favorite author or an exquisite debut ahead of everyone else, but the downside is that all its contemporaries are immediately washed downstream by the next flood. Yes, I was a lucky early reader of Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, but now when will I ever be able to fit in Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing?
- Reading for research: In what can only be described as horrifically shortsighted, I mostly write historical fiction. The amount of research-related reading I accumulate, compared to my ability to process it, ends up progressing like a pig through a python. Case in point: My current work-in-progress, a story from early-20th-century Washington, DC, encompasses four administrations, a world war, women’s suffrage, a race riot, the second rise of the KKK, the Depression, and a government-sponsored cavalry charge on its own veterans. I know, right?
- Independent bookstores: I love indies, even ones that have gotten too big for their britches (I’m looking at you, P&P), and I want them to flourish. My rule is that whenever I visit one, I have to buy a book. Just doing my part for the cause.
- Used bookstores: I love used bookstores even more than indies. Where else will you find Madame Bovary’s Ovaries: A Darwinian Look at Literature and The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and Madame Bovary shelved together? One day I’ll read them together, too.
- Library sales: Four for a dollar. Stop judging me.
- Online purchases: We all know I mean Amazon. (Thanks, Jeff, for buying the Washington Post so that every time they say “Amazon,” we have to suffer through the disclaimer of your ownership. Yet you still won’t use your bazillions to resurrect the standalone Book World.)
- The slush pile: These also-rans aren’t going to read themselves.
- Books written by friends: Don’t ever become an author, because if you do, you’ll find you have lots of author friends. And of course you want to support them by buying their books. But those books quickly slide so far down in your TBR stack that your author friends think you’re dissing them. Soon, you have no more author friends. (Until you collect new author friends and the cycle repeats.)
- “Best of the year” lists: My TBR stack contains many notable yet unread books. From 2014. I give up.
No matter. I could look at the books in my TBR stack as constant reminders of my failure to keep up. Instead, I think of them as acquaintances I nod to from across the way. One day, we’ll pull up a chair and get to know each other.
My wish for you is for a 2018 filled with wonderful books. Happy reading!
This column originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 7 December 2017.