How Many Books Have You Read This Year?

By Jennifer Levasseur

Am I the only one who stares into the abyss of November-crossing-into-December with anxiety and trepidation? (It’s a silly question, I know, but bear with me for a moment.) I don’t fear Christmas, its commercial mania, or the party planning that requires cross-checked lists and trips to shops far-flung. The holidays don’t make me blue, but I’m not smitten either. I usually remain pretty even-keeled through the whole thing, enjoying finding trinkets that none of my friends or family members need but that they might like. Every year (and only at this time of year), I make those cranberry-chocolate cookies. I’ve been known to craft ornaments made of little paper birds and stars. Here’s the most unlikely Christmas confession: I actually enjoy wrapping gifts, even after I’ve cut all my fingertips packaging hundreds of books every day at work.

No, it’s not the approach of Christmas that sets me on edge after Thanksgiving and through the blur of the retail frenzy: it’s my inevitable tallying of these last twelve months and how I have accounted for myself. Particularly, which books I did and did not read. How many I bought in a swoon of impatient desire that have not been cracked.

I’ve always treated the buying of a book as the purchasing of time to read it, maybe not now but in some eventual, expandable moment. While I understand the illogical nature of this particular illusion, I can’t stop myself from treating it like an article of faith: If I take it home, I will read it. Eventually. I will.

But why does it matter so much to me whether I finished two hundred or two hundred fifteen books during the course of three hundred sixty-five consecutive days? Sure, there are the end-of-year lists to contribute to, the voting for professional associations (which, no pressure, can change the lives of the writers who win) and the more personal reflection of how I’ve spent my days on earth.

But it’s not about dashing through them to increase the score or to beat some personal record. Sure, there’s disappointment that I haven’t yet read this bestseller or award-winner that everyone’s talking about or the one that looks amazing but no one is talking about (yet). No, the real sadness—that anxiety-producing tension—descends when I realize the loss of all of those selves, all of the people those books might have made me. As Emerson wrote, “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”

Unless I haven’t read them.

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It’s not just the great art I’m missing—all that glorious effort distilled into flashes of brilliance—but also endless chances to be better, to think better, to understand more, to find out who I might be or become.

This time of year, I make overambitious lists: I’ll read at least one novel from every country on earth! I’ll reread Anna Karenina again! I will trace the history of China through its literature! While, of course, reading every new, hot thing that comes along! And more nonfiction! Yes, my internal lists do contain a mania of exclamation marks.

I don’t see a clear way yet to alleviate the anxiety of the unread book, but I can work through it by remembering—and sharing—the ones that created some shift in me. I can stop asking how many books I managed to ingest this year and be more thankful for those that I carried with me and that subtracted from and added to the person I’ll be next year. And, let’s face it, I won’t be satisfied with that. So I’ll vow, again, to read even more in 2017.

Photos of Alice's Bookshop by Kevin Rabalais.

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