Shelf Awareness

Like many devoted readers, I had a shelf in my room dedicated to “books I wanted to read.”  Whenever I got a book that I was ZOMG EXCITED about, I’d put it on the To-Read Bookshelf, because otherwise my books had a habit of wandering away.

So every time I was tempted to purchase a new book, I’d go to the To-Read Bookshelf and ask, “Is it more interesting than these?”  Often?  It was.  Or I’d go, “Ooh, that’s right, I wanted to read that Robert Bennett book” and take it down.

As the time went on, though, my To-Read Bookshelf expanded to two shelves, then three, then an entire bookcase.  And I noted that some books had been there since I instigated the To-Read Bookshelf, stubbornly remaining even as I devoured new and more exciting books.

I eventually realized that they were not books I wanted to read.

They were books I wanted to have read.

And there is a distinction there, since the “Best Of Gene Wolfe” sits there, the favorite of many authors who I adore, a smart series of dense stories I don’t actually enjoy but would be very smart if I had read them.  That’s right next to the series of faerie-tale-inspired authors who my friends love, and I would have much better conversations with them if I’d read them.  Which is next to that dreary fantasy series I feel I should finish, and would feel like I’d checked off a task when I’d finished the last two books.

But boy, did I not look forward to picking them off the shelf.

Once I started making that distinction between “want to do” and “want to have done,” it seemed to be everywhere.  I don’t want to exercise; I want the satisfaction of having done it.  I don’t want to eat healthy foods; I want the satisfaction of having eaten them.  The “have done” chores feel good after completion, but there is no joy in the process – not the way I feel about writing, which is a “want to do” activity.

Now that I know this, I can draw the task.  I have to make room in my life for the “have done” tasks, like exercise, because left to my own devices I’m never going to drift towards them naturally.  I have to set aside time and say, “This is what you will do” and drag myself towards it, then feel vaguely triumphant when complete.  And I have reorganized my books so that the “want to reads” are all on that top shelf, and I put the “want to have reads” on the bottom shelf, where they acquire a fascinating patina of dust as I tell myself that yes, some day I will have done that.

I don’t want to throw them away.  There’s a value in doing things that are good to have done.  I learn more, and often get greater results out of the things I should have done.

But not today.  Today I’m reading the things I want to.  And that’s a lovely distinction to understand why these books get finished and others do not.

1 Comment

  1. Marc
    Jan 10, 2014

    I also divide my “to read” shelf in two tiers.

    What I do then to ensure that I read everything is that I first read two books from tier 2 and only then I read one book from tier 1. That’s my way of self disciplining.

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  1. How’s This “Reading What You Want To Read” Thing Going? | Ferrett Steinmetz - […] the beginning of the year, I posted an essay called “Shelf Awareness,” where I outlined a critical difference between…

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