The guilt of the unread books on my nightstand

Monday, September 17, 2018 - 3:33pm

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Illustration by Betsy Stubbs

I know I am not supposed to say this, but most of the books I have bought recently have not been finished. My nightstand has become a graveyard for abandoned literature.

I read a few chapters of “The Idiot” because I fell in love with the millennial pink jacket cover. After watching Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk I found myself downloading her book “Presence.” And I even tried reading “An American Marriage” because Oprah Winfrey said I should.

This consumerist flaw revealed itself earlier this summer when I found myself impulsively adding books to my Amazon shopping cart. I think I felt like I was missing some important knowledge about the world and the only way to make up for this was to start reading. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that you really only have two options when you spend money on Amazon. You can either be practical and stock up on shampoo or mechanical pencils or you can indulge and buy things you really don’t need. I chose the latter. Two days later a box of 10 books arrived at my front door.

The moment I broke the seal of Amazon Prime packing tape, I felt the weight of the books drop in my stomach. I had betrayed bookkeeper Kathleen Kelly and the local Shop Around the Corner. I had bought from the breed of corporate giant Nora Ephron had specifically warned us against —  à la Fox Books. I had given into the allure of discount pricing, two-day shipping and the comfort of shopping in my pajamas. The experience of shopping online did not satisfy any of the reasons why I love shopping for books. So, why did I do it anyway?

To begin to understand the roots of my impulse book buying, it is necessary to examine the genius marketing scheme that raised a generation of retail habits: Scholastic Book Fairs.

Once a year in elementary school, Scholastic would take over the library creating a curated retail space of Junie B. Jones, Harry Potter wands and hamster posters. For one week, our dedicated library time turned into a shopping crash course. My classmates and I would browse the inventory, write our book lists on the provided stationery and tally our pocket money. It was exhilarating.

A decade later, I still love the romance of bookstores. I love how all the salespeople wear cable knit sweaters and tortoiseshell frames. I love the scribbled handwritten recommendations that dot the bookshelves. I love the old couple who spends the entire afternoon working on the coffee table puzzle. I love when a guy whoàfaintly looks like Timotheé Chalamet spends five minutes explaining why I need to read “The Goldfinch.” I love the tchotchkes. The fogged glasses. The Mozart music. Going to a bookstore evokes a feeling of escapism, to the extent that I forget about all the unread books sitting on my nightstand and I buy more.

I wish I could say I read all 10 of those books this summer. I would even be happy if I had read five. I am like one of those people who has a gym membership, but rarely goes to the gym. I buy books and never read them. It is pitiful, I know.  

Each week there is a new body of research or viral op-ed discussing the pitfalls of consumerism or rebuking those who no longer read. It would appear I am guilty on both accounts. I don’t think my reading for school or the occasional fluffy beach reads qualifies me as a member of the book club anymore. And I acknowledge my impulse Amazon book purchases do not renew my membership to literary circles. You actually have to read books to be considered a reader.

Despite my remorse, the stack of nightstand books continues to remain largely untouched. Their uncracked spines mocking my ignorance every time I reach for my phone or turn off the light. Occasionally, a vacation or lazy afternoon will summon one of those books off the shelf and for a few hours, I remember the girl who used to read dozens of books — the elementary and middle school version of myself. The girl who finished the library summer reading challenge in June and who memorized the account number of her library card.   

It is an interesting thing when you run into the person you used to be. The identity that carried you through childhood. Yet it happens every time I return to the bookstore. At least for a few hours, I reconnect with the characters and settings I grew up with.  I remember how much I loved to read and I feel a sudden panic to read again. To not lose who I use to be before it is too late. And when this feeling creeps up when I am not in a bookstore? Well, I guess that is when I buy 10 books on Amazon. I am beginning to think in the future I should go to the library instead.