Feeling Guilty about Books and Mortality

As a writer, I am also supposed to be a reader as well.  I wish I had more time to read, but I am also a single parent, and my time is often dedicated to listening to teen drama, watching YouTube videos of gamers playing Roblox, or getting my kids outside to do something with me that they will appreciate and remember for the rest of their lives–so help me if it kills us!  Other parents know what I’m talking about, I’m sure.  We’ve discussed it ad nauseum waiting for kids to get their backpacks and shoes on at school. At the cake line at birthday parties.  It’s in the haggard expressions and the disheveled hair.  The bags under our eyes and the shrugs we convey to each other.   I remember my parents lecturing me too about not spending enough time doing things while I was young.  Now I pass that nagging on to my kids.  The crux of the matter is really this: the older you get, the more you realize how little time there is.

Life is short.

If we had all the time of our misspent youth back, we would do many things differently.  I’m sure there’s a part of all of us that would kiss the girl, jump the ramp, get on that train and ride the rails, go to grad school, visit our grandparents. Et cetera. Et cetera.

I am going to be 43 soon.  I know that there are a lot of books I haven’t read, and just out of logistics, I also know that there are a lot of books I will never read before my life is over.  43 is pretty young.  I might have been telling myself that all my years.  32 is pretty young.  27 is pretty young.  14 is pretty young.  There was always plenty of time.

There isn’t enough time.  Call it a midlife crisis, but maybe it’s just a midlife catharsis.  I am realistic that it is quite possible that I have fewer days left than I have used up.  Getting smacked by a speeding bus or eating some bad shellfish aside, if you double my age now, I will already have passed the halfway mark of the oldest men in my family (except for one old farmer who lived to be 96–working hard, eating bacon and eggs every day of his life, and being out in the sunshine for nearly ten decades).  His son outlived him by only four years.

In my time on this planet, I have watched probably years of television, played months of video games, and maybe read a couple hundred books.  Maybe.  I’m not a quick reader.  For me, reading is an investment of time and money.  Unlike a movie, where you can be duped out of your $8 and a loss of maybe two hours of your day, for me, a bad book can sap weeks of my life.  The good ones have probably added years to it, but those are becoming less and less frequent.  I usually realize a book sucks about 80 pages in and stop reading. I doubt I’m the only one who does this. I have better things to do with my time than spend it reading a bad book (I’m looking at you The Girl on the Train).  I have shelves full of books I have only read the beginnings of.  Which might explain why as a writer, I have scads of stories that remain unfinished.  You learn from experience, and my experience of good beginnings is greater than my knowledge of spectacular endings.

I once heard a man say “If there were more libraries, we wouldn’t need as many police stations.”  Very profound.  But anyone who writes can tell you that nowadays, fewer people are reading.  And fewer publishers are buying.  I wrote recently about my daughter reading the Castle Perilous series. It was just a fun series that occupied an afternoon of my time as a kid.  Better than a movie too, I might add.   But so many books “worth reading” get turned into movies and series anyway.  Why bother with the primary text when you can see Peter Dinklage and Amy Adams do everything every Sunday night on HBO?

Recently, in an attempt to save money, I checked my local library for a book that was recommended to me.  The library had one copy in the entire county, which is fine.  This would be a reference book that would be nice to handle, dog-ear, and write in the margins. Not exactly something you should be doing to a borrowed book. The eReader copy was only a few dollars cheaper than the paperback.  I will get use out of this book, and unlike fiction, it will be something I can read when the mood strikes me.  I can come back to it.  Read it out of order, etc.  It just kills me that most books I have an interest in aren’t found at the library.  You have to buy them.  And I feel guilty for buying books, mainly because I have shelves of partially finished books.

It used to be that I never felt guilty for buying a book.  Spending hundreds of dollars every year for textbooks as an English major and History minor cured me of that.  For a while.  (I didn’t read much of those books either.)  But now, with school supplies, bills to pay, and general adulting to do, I feel guilty spending $16 on a book I probably don’t have time or energy to read, much less finish.

Libraries afford the luxury of reading the first 80 pages of a book and then returning it once the notifications of fines start rolling in on your email.  It’s safe. It’s cheap.  And sometimes it’s enough just to have a book around and stare at the title while you walk past.  It won’t break the bank to do this.

Forget about Kindle or eReaders.  If the kids haven’t run down the batteries or smeared unknown sticky substances on the screen while watching YouTube, there is still the matter of cost and the luxury of time you don’t have to read.  The few eBooks I have read didn’t stick with me anyway. No pun intended. For whatever reason, my memory of a story works much better with an actual dead-tree version of a story.  Also, I do like to dog-ear and write notes in the margins from time to time.  I have a copy of Ray Bradbury’s “Zen and the Art of Writing” I carried around with me for two years.  It is beaten to a pulp.  I love that book.  Until the eReaders can come up with a “writing comments in the margins in really sharp pencil” mode, I just don’t get the same experience from an eReader.

So, long story short.  Today I bought two books.  I feel guilty for it.  For nearly $30, I have two reference books for my home library.  They will collect dust.  They will be something I have to move one day.  For the cost of these two books, I could have bought two months of Hulu without commercials. Three cushy seated movie theatre experiences. Reading might be dying out because it is becoming an elitist venture.

I think it will drive you nuts to itemize it.

What I have to remind myself is this: Reading makes this short life so much better.  We might as well enjoy it.  Eat the steak.  Drink the wine. Kiss the girl.  Hug your grandpa.  Pet the dog. Write the stories. Read the book.

Live the life.

One thought on “Feeling Guilty about Books and Mortality

  1. Sell some of the ones you’ll never finish on ebay to defray the cost partially. I’m always unloading books that, in my heart of hearts, I know aren’t worth coming back to.

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