The tottering TBR pile

One of my new year’s resolutions was to stop buying books on impulse – simply because the house is full of such purchases that I’ve not yet got around to reading. I’ve kept the rule reasonably well up to now, though I wish I’d found the time to read more books. I’m doing well if I manage one a week, and even then it’s normally about Shakespeare. Nothing wrong with that, except that a little variety wouldn’t do me any harm.

I’ve noticed something about my reading and how it’s changed as I’ve begun to reach middle age, and I think the observation is strengthened by my chats with people at a similar stage of life, and also what I saw when I sorted out the books in a local charity shop week by week. As I’ve aged, I’ve read fewer novels. When I was in my 20s and 30s I read many, and if you go into a branch of Waterstones (almost the only High Street bookseller chain left here in the UK) you’ll see them piled high on 3 for the price of 2 offers. Very enticing they look – I’ve often succumbed only to find that my purchases linger on my shelves unread. As usual, I carried on buying them for quite a while before I realised I’d stopped reading them.

I have read some terrific novels, books that taught me a lot about different places and periods – Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall lingers in my mind and I always meant to work through the whole 2010 Booker list – purchased four of them but have, so far, only read hers and The Children’s Book. I’m not knocking novels. But these days, I find non-fiction much more interesting, particularly historical and biographical stuff. It seems to me that, in those two genres particularly, fiction and non-fiction are converging anyway, with historians like Alison Weir turning to novels and many historical books reading like the best fiction. When I do read novels, they tend to be mystery stories, which never used to appeal to me at all, usually historical ones like Ellis Peters and Susanna Gregory.

I wonder why this is? And if other people are finding the same thing happening to them as they hit their late forties and early fifties? Basically, it’s ideas that interest me most these days, I think. Or at least a bit of an intellectual challenge. Or is it just a by-product of doing a degree late in life and having bright children who want to discuss intellectual matters with you?


3 thoughts on “The tottering TBR pile

  1. Hmmm – I do still read novels, but I also read a lot of non-fiction now (historical biography, in particular, often fascinates me) which I never did in my twenties or teens for pleasure – probably, come to think of it, because I had to read a lot of non-fiction and lit crit for “work” (A levels and then degree), so it wouldn’t have been relaxing.
    (Sure, the same was true of literary fiction to an extent – during the final year of my degree the only fiction I could read to relax was Terry Pratchett and Ellis Peters. I still vividly remember the first time I felt up to reading a Serious Novel for pleasure after graduating – and because I’m incapable of doing things by halves, it was the Vikram Seth doorstop A Suitable Boy…)
    What I do find is that – unlike the Resident Geek – I don’t buy novels on the whole, because I know there’s a strong likelihood I’ll only read them once (and our house has pretty much reached the one-in-one-out book space horizon. Actually, forget that, it went over said horizon long ago. Fortunately I am such a bookslut that it is a source of pride rather than shame to me that we have books piled and scattered over every available surface!). I borrow novels from the library – I’m much more likely to buy poetry, because if I’ve enjoyed a particular poet’s work then I’m more likely to read that again and again.
    Though I did realise we really did have Too Many Books when last year sometime I ordered Jim Shapiro’s 1599 from the library, picked it up, brought it home, was reading it on the sofa, looked up… and caught sight of the copy of 1599 that I’d asked for for Christmas the previous year and, erm, not only never got around to reading but forgotten I possessed…

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