This blog is written during the March 2022 strikes in UK higher education. I am on strike and trying to balance spending time with my puppy Sula, resting, and spending some concentrated time with the books on my shelves.
In the first strikes of 2022, I began a project of self-flagellation. I decided to use the “Reading List” function on The Storygraph to document all the unread books I have in my home. The project was motivated by shame. I felt my spending (on books) was out of control although it was definitely within my means. The truth is that when I was isolating alone for months during the pandemics, I retreated into books: reading books, buying books, talking about books, and thinking about writing books.
I have beautiful shelves in my living room, which is a warm yellow like this background and, to me, the books shine like intricate wallpaper as well as little parcels of imagination. Every book is one I have read or want to read and yet, the “task” of reading has begun to feel overwhelming. And so I begin small challenges and tasks to break down the 200+ backlog into something more respectable.
And then, this morning, while reading a poetry collection by Kei Miller, I realised that all this shame and worry is not only self-created but also about internalised shame about materialism. Somehow, I cannot be at peace with myself while knowing that I never buy books for the sake of buying. I choose not to buy books all the time. I have slowly turned my feeling of being lost, out of control, and unable to carve out time to do things I love onto the collection of books in my home.
There is no time frame for reading these books. I still have space to expand and I have not put myself in any financial risk during my pandemic anxiety sprees. However, I realised when reading The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion that my conscious purchasing is not always matched with conscious reading. I rush. I feel the need to set silly goals even though I deliberately set my book target for 2022 very low. The basic “reading goal” is an ADHD crutch rather than an outward looking challenge and yet, I am increasingly aware that my anxiety revolves around being competitive with my potential to do more.
iv.The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion – Kei Miller
The rastaman thinks, draw me a map of what you see
then I will draw you a map of what you never see
and guess me whose map will be bigger than whose?
Guess me whose map will tell the larger truth?
In his poems, Miller asks who maps are for and what mapping leaves out. He grapples with knowledge democracy and what is left out from our methods of recording what we think we know. In a later part of the poem quoted above, we learn that the cartographer does not recognise the rastaman as an expert. This made me think about how I read and why I amass books in the way I do. It transported me to the comfort and privilege of collecting books with diverse stories, histories, and styles. Audiobooks too.
I am a bookworm but more generally a curious and restless soul, who is always looking for brighter, more detailed insight into the world. I amass books because there is so much I don’t know, cannot imagine, and do not understand. I don’t want to possess the books. More often than not, I will give them to a reader I love or add them to book swaps. I buy a lot because I read a lot and I find it (for disability reasons) easier to have books that can be bashed and written on.
I read voraciously and broadly because I am interested in all parts of the book: the cover, the dedication, the font, the style of language, the paragraphing … as well as the material itself. We learn much from paying attention to the layers of our material items. I also love to listen to different narrations of the same stories. I particularly seek out authors reading their work. Not because they are always “the best”, but because you get a particular set of inflections. I return time and again to Maya Angelou reading her poems and I alternate reading Toni Morrison’s fiction with listening to her read it.
What I learned today is that I use my bookshelves as a barometer of what is going on with me, what’s going on in the world, and what I’d like to discover and enjoy. I know that I read every book I bring into my home whether that’s on the journey back from purchase or two years later when it’s just the right thing. That actually, through reading I listen to myself – my restlessness, my fears, my comforts – and that I find solace in the multiplicity and abundance of voices that I can turn my focus to when I turn my mind to reading.