I probably have about half as many abandoned books on my bookshelf as I do books I finished reading. Of these abandoned books, there are books that represent my ambitions: a whole shelf of rock climbing books describing lines I’ll never try, a shelf of classics of which I can’t quite bring myself to get past the first chapter (hello War and Peace), books started-because-everyone’s-reading-them, but abruptly abandoned because I couldn’t quite figure out why everyone was reading them.
The reality is that we only have so much time. We are all mortal, after all. Averages vary, but depending on where you look, the time it takes most people to complete a single book varies from between three hours to six hours. I read a little faster than that, but assuming you read two hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, that’s only about 730 hours of reading time in a single year, which adds up to about 121 books a year. Most people aren’t so committed to reading every day for two hours. The reality is that most people will struggle to finish one book a week (I know I do), and many struggle to finish even one book a month. Assuming you could finish about one book a week, at around 52 books a year, that still means that in your lifetime, assuming your lifetime is 80 years, you’ll only have room for about 4,000 books—and that’s being ambitious.
4,000 felt like a familiar number. That’s when I remember that I just finished reading Oliver Burkeman’s wonderful book (which also managed to fill me with deep existential dread and also relief). Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. In the book, Burkeman offered some similar calculations. He concluded that at best, most of us will only get about 4,000 weeks to live.
Given that there are so few weeks and likely so many fewer books I’ll be able to read in a lifetime, I suddenly find myself re-assessing which books I’m choosing to read. If each choice is indeed so precious, how could I not carefully consider which books I choose to read? Shouldn’t I more carefully select which books I’ll read in my limited span of time? Suddenly reading the latest Stephen King release doesn’t feel so pressing.
The beautiful and damning thing about reading is that it can’t be forced or sped up. I may be a fast reader, but reading War and Peace or say, a book about immunology is still going to take me longer than, perhaps, reading the Hunger Games. Burkeman writes that “reading something properly just takes the time it takes.” But given the pace of modern life and our easy distractibility, “we’re unwilling to accept the truth that reading is the sort of activity that largely operates according to its own schedule.” That’s because thought moves at the speed of thought—which is sometimes slow and sometimes fast, and sometimes full of interruptions. In this case, I stopped reading to write this essay, but I could have just as easily stopped because I got a phone call, or had something more pressing to attend to.
Given that I have such a limited span of time to read, it only makes sense to abandon books that aren’t working out for me.
And so, when I find that a book’s own schedule equals what appears to be close to infinity, I abandon the project. Unlike a university literature class, one of the distinct pleasures of reading books for pleasure that you don’t have a deadline, and that you don’t have to finish the assignment. There’s no essay at the end, either (unless you’re me, but if you’re me, you’re a distinct breed of monomaniacal).
My propensity to abandon books is perhaps why I’ve never been a good member of book clubs. The second a book comes along with a deadline, I stop wanting to read it. And yet, months or weeks later, long after the deadline has passed, I’ll sometimes find myself curious again.
I have abandoned many books, and I have picked up books I’ve abandoned months or even years later. For this reason, I won’t explicitly list the books I’ve abandoned here. I don’t want to doom them to hell, but rather choose to keep them in purgatory. There’s always the sense that I’ll get back to them, when the time is right.
About the Writer
Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.
She founded Sphinx Moth Press to provide more opportunities for low-income writers to have their work read and reviewed.