At the Emerging Writers’ Festival a few years ago, artist Emily Stewart gave many of her favourite books away to strangers as a piece of performance art she called Dear Reader.
It’s a project that fills me with a mixture of fascination and horror. In her essay about giving up her books, Stewart describes feeling dragged down by the weight of her ever-expanding book collection:
I am a passionate reader. I’ve completed an Honours degree in literature, managed a bookshop, and trained as an editor. That is, I’ve had three terrific, tax-deductible reasons to indulge my book-buying habit. But I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with the weight of books that surrounds me. I’ve started to wonder about the specific function of books as cultural objects. What is their psychic measure? What do they act as receptacles for?
I feel the weight of my book collection too. Except in an entirely different way. Let me explain. No – let Zadie Smith explain. Because, as is so often the case, Zadie says it so much better than I ever could:
Was anyone ever genuinely attached to anything? She had no idea. It was either only Zora who experienced this odd impersonality or it was everybody, and they were all play-acting, as she was. She presumed that this was the revelation college would bring her, at some point. In the meantime, waiting like this, waiting to be come upon by real people, she felt herself to be light, existentially light, and nervously rumbled through possible topics of conversation, a ragbag of weighty ideas she carried around in her brain to lend herself the appearance of substance. Even on this short trip to the bohemian end of Wellington – a journey that, having been traversed by car, offered no opportunity whatsoever for reading – she had brought along, in her knapsack, three novels and a short tract by De Beauvoir on ambiguity – so much ballast to stop her floating away, up and over the flood, into the night sky.
– Zadie Smith, On Beauty
I often wonder about the books in Zora’s backpack. Were they old favourites with dog-eared pages and scribbled notes in the margins? Or were they books she hadn’t yet read, carried in her bag like talismans?
I’ve been thinking a lot about my to-read shelves lately. I remember a favourite tutor at University once joking that her dying words would be something along the lines of “Are you fucking kidding me? I can’t die yet – I still have reading to do!”
I feel exactly the same way. Like Zora, I’ve always felt that books – in particular, the ones I’m yet to read – are the weight that anchors me to the earth. They keep me here, keep me going, keep me wondering what’s next.
So, in no particular order, here are thirty-six random books from my to-read pile. Some I already own and are sitting on my shelves, others I’m yet to acquire, and others still are scribbled down on a list at the back of my diary or in the Notes app on my phone.
Georges Perec, Life, a User’s Manual
Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth
Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs
Emily Maguire, Fishing for Tigers
Charles Dickens, Bleak House
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway
Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Simone de Beauvoir, The Mandarins
Jonathan Franzen, Freedom
Charlotte Wood, The Children (that’s when and if I ever get over Animal People)
James Joyce, Dubliners
Carson McCullers, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe
George Eliot, Silas Marner
Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle
Octavia Butler, Kindred
Rajesh Parameswaran, I Am An Executioner
Jane Austen, Persuasion
Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (this one’s on the list out of sheer curiosity)
Emile Zola, Germinal
Thomas Hardy, Under the Greenwood Tree (how have I not already read this?)
Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt
Jessica Anderson, The Commandant
J D Salinger, Nine Stories
Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels
Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady
Sjon, The Blue Fox
Miranda July, No One Belongs Here More Than You
J G Ballard, Crash
G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen
Zadie Smith, The Autograph Man (the only Zadie Smith novel I haven’t read)
Jon MacGregor, Even the Dogs
Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy
Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot
Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls
What’s with the number thirty-six? It’s because today’s my thirty-sixth birthday. And I’m not quite ready to be thirty-six just yet…
In the face of what’s shaping up to be a potentially difficult year, this list is a reminder of the many literary discoveries I’m yet to make. And it’s a list that leaves me itching to drop everything and get reading…
Bur first? Cake.
(Feel free to let me know what you think of my To Read list, by the way. What should I read first? What shouldn’t I bother reading at all? What’s missing? What’s on your To Read shelf?)