Next to my reading lamp on my bedside table lies a stack of books. The make-up of the stack of books may vary every few weeks, but the stack is a permanent fixture in my bedroom.
8-Inch Tall Stack Of Books
The current stack stands 8-inch tall, put together by 7 books. It is propped up by the thickest book, a 2-inch thick, English translation of War and Peace paperback by Russian Leo Tolstoy. I lugged this book from Singapore to France during my last year’s visit back home. Since my book collection in Singapore had been left to gather dust for many years, my father decided to give some of the books away. In the last visit, he wanted me to go through the books to pick out the ones I wanted to keep. When my glance fell on War and Peace, still in minted condition, a wave of guilt crept into me. It is one of the classics that I have promised myself that I will read, and that particular promise made ten years ago in Singapore was still unfulfilled. With a renewed promise, I packed the hefty paperback in my luggage and flew it with me to France.
War and Peace was purchased ten years ago when I was still living in Singapore. Ten years have passed, and I have barely made a dent in this weighty tome. My only defensible excuse is that I wasn’t living in Singapore for eight of those ten years, and the book was neglected during the moving process. The reading of this classic is not made easier when the tome contains close to 1,400 pages, and each nearly translucent page is crammed with 40 closely spaced lines of small print. Since its arrival in France, I have ventured only few chapters which have barely scratched the sixtieth page.
Sitting steadily on top of War and Peace is the The Count of Monte Cristo (Volume 1) in its original language, by French Alexandre Dumas. Boosted by my self-confidence in my level of French after managing to finish the first volume of The three musketeers by the same author, I decided to try my hand on The Count of Monte Cristo last year, Dumas’ other famous novel. This book, compared to War and Peace, is more manageable with its slightly bigger fonts printed on the 1000-page paperback. I am one third into the book. With luck, I would be able to finish it by the end of this year.
The remaining five books of this stack, a mixture of French and English, are less formidable in appearance and contents. Lain gingerly on top of The Count of Monte Cristo is Émile Zola’s The Ladies Paradise, followed by Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Grey…
Hold on. I am not an intellectual snob who reads only classics. The other three books were written by contemporary authors—The House of Mr. Biwas by British VS Naipaul, Perfume: the story of a murderer by German Patrick Süskind and Trois jours et une vie by French Pierre Lemaitre. Two books are my recent purchases, having been in my acquisition for about a year. One of them is a book borrowed a few months ago from Silviu, my husband.
These seven books are not the only books that are reading-in-progress (RIP). These are just seven out of the numerous RIP books in the apartment. Most of our books are lined on the white 3-shelf bookcase in the hallway.
Why does it take me such a long time to finish one book? Why do I keep buying books when I still have a pile of RIP books to vanquish? From time to time, when a book is really riveting, or when it’s a light read, I can devour the book in just a day or two, neglecting my tasks or sacrificing my sleep. It used to happen quite frequently when I was much younger; I would be yawning all the time in class or at work after putting in an all-nighter. Nowadays, I get easily distracted when I read. Perhaps researchers are right. With age, one becomes more prone to distraction.
The books placed on my bedside table are the “books-du-jour”, ones that I am currently focusing or at least making an attempt to. The daily obtrusive reminders—upon waking and before sleeping—are supposed to prompt, exhort, beseech, and guilt me into picking them up and reading them.
Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind
Whenever my eyes fall on the stack, a twinge of guilt will rear its ugly head for a few seconds. I will feel contrite enough to pick one up and read a few pages. Depending on how the plot unfolds in those few pages and my mood at that moment, I can read quite a few chapters at a time, and consecutively for days. If every book works out that way, I can clear a book within two weeks. But clearly, my reading pattern does not always work out that way.
The remorse that evoked each time those books fall within my sight seems to lose its hold on me as the time passes; my nonchalance towards the stack waxes. After every three or four weeks, when I don’t seem to make much progress in shrinking this stack or when my attention has shifted to some other reading material, I will bury some of the books in the deep drawer of the bedside table or move them to the bookcase. Out of sight, out of mind. I shall not be daily reminded of the neglect suffered by these books.
Falling Into The Rabbit Hole
I usually grab one of the books from the stack at random. Well, not really random as it also depends on whether I feel I have had done enough French reading lately. If I have not practised enough French, I will gravitate myself towards a French book. Regardless of the book I pick, I get many a time distracted somewhere along the way.
I can be reaching out for my Samsung mobile phone to search online for the definition of a word that I have just come cross in the book. The search may lead me to glancing cursory at the social media and email notifications on my phone. It can be an innocuous late-night work email (not the fault of the sender of course) that sets me off thinking about creating new contents for upcoming lessons. I will then promise myself a quick search online to see what kind of interesting classroom activities I can adopt for my students. The quick search can potentially turn into an hour-long exhaustive search which adds 20 English-learning websites saved under my list of favourite websites, and as for book, barely touched.
The distraction can also just be a notification in the shape of a multi-colour camera, sitting boldly on the top left corner of my phone screen. The notification calls out wordlessly, imploring me to check out the Instagram user who has recently liked one of my photo posts. Just by knowing the identity of the user is not sufficient to quench my curiosity. I will peek into the user’s profile and check out his photo posts.
If the posts are amazing travel photoshoots, I might dig for more information on the photo location such as the geography, the history or the culture. One thing leads to another. By the time I put down the phone, a couple of hours have already passed since I fell into the Instagram rabbit hole.
Then, there are times when my interest is piqued by some trivial information stated in the book, such as when it cites other books or other authors. Such information oft-times leads me to a literary rabbit hole. If I am sufficiently engaged by the information revealed by the search results on the cited book or one of the books written by the mentioned writer, I would try to get hold of the book. There are a few ways I can go about doing it. If it’s an English book, I would try to search for it on OverDrive, a free library service that allows me to have access to digital content (e-books, e-magazines, audiobooks) thanks to my Singapore National Library membership. If I cannot find the book (which is rare), I would purchase it from Amazon. If it’s a French book, I would buy it directly from a bookstore.
For instance, this was how it led me into buying The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile Zola. I came across his name when I was reading about the Alfred Dreyfus Affair in a French history book. The affair was a political scandal that marked the French history at the end of the 19th century in which Emile Zola was involved. A quick online search provided me with his profile and books, from which I chose The Ladies’ Paradise. In this case, not only had I not finished the original book (history book) that I was reading, I added another one to my RIP books.
Both Silviu and I both are bibliophile. Like me, he has his share of physical books and e-books (through kindle). He gravitates more towards non-fiction books and literary books, and his readings are split 50/50 between these two categories. As for me, I spend half of my time reading genre fiction, 40% on literary books and the remaining 10% on non-fiction. As such, our tastes overlap occasionally. One of the seven books in the current bedside stack, The House of Mr. Biwas by British VS Naipaul, is a purchase of Silviu.
Tsunduko: Impulsion to possess books with an intention of reading them, but ultimately creating stacks of unread books.
My bedside stack of RIP books, the RIP books on the bookcase (mine and Silviu’s), the RIP e-books on OverDrive and Kindle. I don’t see myself clearing or shrinking the RIP books anytime soon, not to mention the “To-read” stack, comprising of books in my possession (physical and e-books) that I have yet to start reading! This reminds me of a word in Japanese: Tsundoku. This word aptly captures this impulsion to possess books with an intention of reading them, but ultimately creating a stack of unread books (in my case, lots of RIP and To-read books). Perhaps Tsundoku is a product of the consumerist society that we are living it. Perhaps it’s the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO), missing out on good reads. Perhaps there are other justifiable reasons. Regardless of the reasons, a stack of books will always accompany my sleep.