Never in a million years would I have believed that I would face the dreaded quarter-life crisis. I, the always-put-together, the collected, driven, intelligent agent of my own future would never succumb to such a base response to growing older–at least, that is, not until I am fifty and at the socially acceptable age to “freak out” about the approach of death. Yet, here I sit, staring into the abyss that is not so deep, containing the “small handful” of days I have left on this earth, and I am panicked, for I have realized the darkest truth of all.
There is not enough time in my life for me to read every book I want to.
There is not enough time in my life for me to read every book I want to.
Several minutes of silent screaming immediately commenced.
Ever since my transition into high school and the ever-growing piles of required reading, I have become a half-hearted pleasure reader. It’s not that the pleasure in reading what I want has diminished in any way; rather, it is that required reading has so often been a pleasurable read (yes, I am one of those nerds who actually liked the same books as the English teachers), I didn’t want to start a separate book of my own. Then, of course, life always seems to get in the way of leisure time, and college taught me that it is often more important to get sleep than to read the next chapter in a book. Besides that, what English major in her right mind has time to read half of Crime and Punishment, all of Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, and a handful of Didion essays in a given week, and then wants to pick up another title?
The result of this casual attitude toward reading has led to a very long Book Bucket List. Whereas the titles on my list used to be carefully screened for those I would find most enjoyable, my experiences with delighting in genres outside my normal “cup of tea” led to titles being added willy nilly. The beast that is my current list causes those who see it (when I show them) to balk and gasp, because it is, after all, very long. And yet, despite its approach to tome-status, I continue my half-hearted engagement with what I am currently reading.
Reading, as a grown up, is hard work.
And then this thought hits, and I panic because I realize that time is going to run out, and if I keep reading at a casual trot, I’ll never finish even a portion of the list I have created.
I think what freaked me out the most about my discovery of this truth is that I, in the 80 or so years I will walk this earth, will not be able to read all of the books that I want to read. This is not simply proving that I will never make it through the books I have no intention of reading. This is proving that there are books out there that I have been waiting to read that I will never get to finish! There are words I will never devour, sentences I will never dissect, titles I will never cross off my list, even though I want to.
So, why have I ever wasted my good and precious, short-lived time on a title I did not want to read?!?
Believe you me, after this realization punched me, I began kicking myself for every book I ever picked up for personal pleasure because someone else told me I had to read it. If I could go back to every book I groaned over, skimmed through, or read with painstaking slowness because I could not appreciate the words on the page, I would turn to the person closest to me and say, “Here. I have better things to read.”
This is not necessarily in reference to all of the required reading I have finished to date. I am more so referring to the recommendations made by people over the years for “really great books” that “changed people’s lives.” They are the ones that people insisted I would enjoy, but when I got to the last page, I would respond, “that was it?” For so many of these, I never felt that I had spent a good bit of my time enjoying something worthwhile.
And here, specifically, is where my quarter-life crisis has begun. When our time to craft our palette is so short in the first place, why do we waste time trying to acclimate it to others’ preferences? Why did I ever think it was necessary for me, as a reader, to indulge in titles that gave me no sense of self-discovery? Beyond that, why did I ever think it was possible to read the entire library?!
I guess I always assumed I would be like Matilda, finishing out one section to take on the next. In fact, when I was younger, I was sure that I would be exactly like Matilda–I would finish every children’s book in the library, then I would read every “adult” book after that. And, in some ways, I don’t think I ever really shook that goal. In fact, I can think of many titles I read over the last five years that felt as though I were dragging through them in order to say I had done it, having forgotten that the point of pleasure reading is in its name.
I do not want to name any titles that came to mind here, because I don’t think that is important. What I have deemed as a waste of my time, I’m sure, has transformed someone else’s world and his/her perception of it. I also don’t want to create a rumored list of books that should never be on anyone’s Book Bucket List, because I think we have to have the confidence to own what we enjoy the most, whatever that may be.
What I do want to focus on, however, is the fact that this realization has led to a rather deep existential consideration of the meaning of life and its brevity for me. As humans, we have a tiny amount of time to spend here on earth. We have to be vigilant about how we use the days and hours we have. We should never compromise our time to try to please someone else, particularly in ways for which the person probably will never notice. After all, do I think anyone who has recommended a book to me that I didn’t enjoy would stop being my friend if I had never read the title? Most real friendships would never end over something so petty.
We also cannot live for the materialism of this planet. Of course, I greatly struggle with calling books “material,” since only their bindings keep them finite. Books are, after all, pieces of souls captured in tiny symbols. They carry with them the magic of community, shared uniquely within the human experience. At the same time, in that sense, we must embrace them as souls; instead of trying to meet every character between every page, I have to recognize the value in dwelling within those texts that speak the most to me. Huh, that even sounds a little bit like friendship to me.
Finally, I think bibliophiles have to remember why they fell in love with reading in the first place–books change us, often for the better. We learn about ourselves, the world, and how each defines the other. While we should, again, never race through every copy we can find, we should be ready to pursue the knowledge, wisdom, and truth we can find in written forms.
I’m still totally devastated that I will be unable to finish my Book Bucket List before I die. However, I have a renewed commitment to evaluating what I will read next, and how thoroughly. Besides, I am thankful for a reminder about how important it is to embrace the lives we have.
“I suppose it’s like the ticking crocodile, isn’t it? Time is chasing after all of us, isn’t that right?”
Mrs. Snow, Finding Neverland