Buying a book or three or four at a time is an optimistic exercise. Carrying them stacked against my chest to the register, I like to picture where I will read them. House of Sand and Fog at night huddled in the corner of my sectional at home under rain soaked skylights. Three Junes outside on my blanket, flicking ants off my legs as I hold the shiny, blue cover above my head to block the sun. No Country for Old Men in the black turtle chair of my dorm room, huddled over the pages, straining my eyes to soak in the words before the exact minute I have to leave for class.
All of them will be read. They will become the inspiration that helps me write a successful story or essay. I will use them in conversation and then say, “Oh you didn’t read that? Well you’ve got to!”
But after a day or two of them sitting across each other in the bag at the foot of my bed, I have to place them somewhere. The shelf I have recruited as “books as of yet to be read” is so heavy it’s warping. Titles stair-step onto the backs of others. Paperbacks lie across the spines of hardcovers fit tight to the board above. I put them in soldier fashion around my corner desk. They march across the filing cabinet, the art table. They sit in decorative piles on top of my ottoman. They bookend the TV, and hold my alarm clock to eye level as I sleep.
Some I have started, some I have restarted twice. It’s an honest moment to have with yourself, when you have run out of useable bookmarks and pull out one of the many books in your personal backlist. I wipe the dust off the cover. “Don’t worry,” I tell them, “I’ll get to you eventually. This book just needed it more.”
I am busy. I am reading. It’s not you, it’s me.
You can try keeping a ledger of dates the books were bought to see who is up next, keep it fair. But there are always the snooty ones, the brownnosers who cut the line. A friend made you borrow it. It would help you for class. The movie is coming out. It’s easy. It’s short. The cover is popping yellow. Meanwhile guilt builds up from the growing stacks in your bedroom or office. It might scare you away, like avoiding an ex in the grocery store.
Meanwhile, I find new things to read, to show the books on my shelves and under my set of stuffed, hugging monkeys that I am busy. I am reading. It’s not you, it’s me.
But each book on the backlist is still as fresh as the day I brought them home. Although they have accumulated skin cells, fluffy balls that cling to the binding, in idea and language they are raw. There is no need to fear a growing backlist. Each one was once bought because I found them attractive. If I feel differently now, there are no hard feelings. At least we tried. We can always try again.
Don’t let it get too big.
Mine got too big for the shelf I’d set aside, so I had to put some in the basement storage at my apartment building. When I checked back in a month (to add more books), they’d grown so much mold, it was crawling out of the box. And now I’m never going to get to read The Corrections because I’m too damn proud to buy it twice.