books as ballast – thirty-six books i’m yet to read

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?

sunsetI’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.

Then books.


(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?)

Author: Michelle

Reader, writer, wannabe. Literary critic (with training wheels on). Blogging my way through the 20th century's classic novels in chronological order.

8 thoughts on “books as ballast – thirty-six books i’m yet to read”

  1. I’ve always had a problem with my To Read pile; I currently keep two TBR lists, on contains book I already own and probably should read (which has about 200 books on it). My other TBR is more a wish list which is more of a dumping ground for books that look interesting, which I normally go through and delete books once I can’t remember why I added it.

    Too many books….not enough time.

    Happy Birthday

    1. Thanks Michael! Truth is, when I started writing this post, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to come up with 36 books from my shelves and memory that I’m looking forward to reading. Wrong! I could easily have kept going…

  2. Happy birthday! 36 is a great number to be. I’m the nerd who loves a year when my age is a number squared :-)

    I love the fact that you have TBR shelves – plural. I have 3 shelves of yet to be read books and a pile on the floor. I managed to knock off some of the pile while I was sick recently. Every other aspect of being sick was bad, but it felt good to reduce the pile.

    I read this because Robyne on twitter said you should read Animal Farm. I enjoyed it as a 16 year old (BTW: another square number) but I want to read it again, hopefully with deeper understanding! I also want to re-read 1984 which I first read when I was 16 (I discovered Aldous Huxley then too). I also want to read Down and Out in Paris and London. Why all these books? I think they are pertinent for today.

    You have some interesting authors in your pile which reminds me that I would like to read some more Thomas Hardy and acquaint myself with Emile Zola. I am not so presumptuous to tell you what you shouldn’t bother reading. My tastes don’t seem to be like most other people’s. Most of Dickens is to bleak for me, and Bleak House sounds way too depressing. But I contradict myself. 1984 is depressing too.

    One of the delights of personal reading is that we don’t have to justify our choices to others and we can be as contradictory in our choices as we please. Enjoy your reads and have your cake too!

    1. Hi Yvonne! I’ve heard it said before that 36 is a difficult age, so I’m very glad you’ve said otherwise.

      I read Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four repeatedly when I was in my teens and I was obsessed with dystopias. I’ve always loved depressing books, for some reason – hence Bleak House is on my TBR. And it also explains my love of Thomas Hardy.

      Thanks, Yvonne!

  3. Happy Birthday!
    I figured out that if I live to the av age of 85, assuming I sustain the ability to read 250 books a year, I will only be able to read around 11,000 more books in my lifetime. That’s not enough! I have around close to half that amount unread on my physical and virtual shelves!

    1. I don’t think there’s ever such thing as enough. Though I’m very, very envious of your ability to read two hundred and fifty books every year! Yikes!

Something to say?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.