Reading Reflections Miscellany

Some thoughts on long books, withdrawn library books, and reading to define our own experience (the last from Alberto Manguel).

Long Books

I have noticed this many times in the past. When I’m reading a really long book (most recently Don Quixote), the beginning 200 pages take forever. I feel like it’s a novel that will take months to get through, that it will never end. Sometimes this is okay, but in the case of Don Quixote, I didn’t like it so I dreaded the rest.

Once I get through the bulk of the book, however, it began to go much quicker. The last 200 pages were a breeze. I’ve noticed on books I like too: the last 200 pages are much faster reading.

Have you noticed that too?

Library Books

I recently saw a copy of NYRB’s Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang at my libraries’ book sale! I was delighted to take a copy home with me. Until I realized that this particular copy is the one I checked out from the library last year. It has been withdrawn from circulation. Now no one can check it out.

This has prompted me to rethink my “read from my own shelves” goal. I now want to go check out all of my favorite books just to ensure they will remain on the shelves. It breaks my heart that books are withdrawn. I’m assuming it was because it hadn’t been circulating (I was the only one, maybe, to check it out?).

Librarians, please chime in. Are book withdrawal decisions all about circulation numbers? It makes me so sad that now no one else in the library district can read this particular book.

Defining Experience

In his first essay in Into the Looking-Glass Wood (published 1998), Alberto Manguel dicusses the ways in which reading helps us assign words to our own experience. Some choice quotes:

Words, the names of things, give experience its shape. The task of naming belongs to every reader. …Readers must make books theirs (page 14).

The books we read assist us in naming a stone or a tree, a moment of joy or despair, the breathing of a loved one or the kettle-whistle of a bird, by shining a light on an object, a feeling, a recognition, and saying to us that this here is our heart … (page 15).

Systematic reading is of little help. Following an official book list (of classics, …) may, by chance, throw up a useful name, as long as we bear in mind the motives behind the lists. The best guides, I believe are the reader’s whims — trust in pleasure and faith in haphazardness — which sometimes lead us into a makeshift stat of grace, allowing us to spin gold out of flax. (page 16)

Do you agree? How does reading help you define your experiences?

I feel it does for me. For me, I think maybe Jane Eyre’s recognition of herself. Elizabeth Bennett’s feelings toward Darcy. (I was always a romantic.)

What about his last statement? Do you find that systematic reading helps you define experiences, or is whimsical reading more helpful?

I personally am conflicted by his comments here. I see what he’s saying: reading a course work of books is not going to necessarily help one come to understand his or her own life. I personally am trying to read more on a whim these days. But, I find that reading through the lists of classics helps me define out-of-the-box experiences, ones that I might not personally experience in my own life. So, those “not me” books may not help me define my experience, but it does help me put life in perspective. After all, my sheltered experience is not the only experience with which I should be familiar.


About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. I’ve often had similar experiences to yours with long books. I find that it sometimes takes me a while to adjust to the language, setting, and style of something new, so I go slowly, but then once I’m into it, the last half or so speeds by. Unless it’s a book that’s unnecessarily long, and then the last half is ridiculously slow and only goes quickly because I end up skimming.

    Regarding your library observations, Danielle from A Work in Progress has made a project of checking out fiction books from the library where she works that look interesting but that she thinks might be at risk of removal from circulation. She’s called the project Lost in the Stacks, and she’s picked up some books that look like gems. I’m still doing most of my reading from my own stacks, but I like to browse the library, and I often check out more books that I know I’ll read because I want the library to see some patron interest in these books. (And I do want to read them, I just might not do it right now.)

    1. Teresa » I think that DQ was definitely a book I needed to get the rhythm of, but also, Cervantes just got to be a better writer. He knew his characters far better by the end, so it was easier to write them.

      I love that idea of “Lost in the stacks”! off to read her archives…

  2. I like the way our library system does things. They don’t take books out of circulation unless no one has checked them out in years (I don’t remember the exact number, but it’s large), and even then, they leave one copy of the book in circulation at the main branch of the library. No book is ever completely thrown away.

    1. Amanda » I suspect there may be other libraries in the consortium that have this particular book, but it did break my heart to realize that I’d bought for 50cents the only copy at my building!!

  3. I used to go to the library and check out my favorite rare books periodically, even if I owned them, just to make sure they wouldn’t get culled. I don’t know that this ultimately did any good, but I hope that it did. I love that we live in the age of the internet, and I can acquire a copy of nearly any book I want; still, it’s comforting to know the library will keep copies of my favorites, just in case.

  4. Hi, Rebecca!

    Like you, I see what he means about reading according to our whims, but I have found that reading from lists (1001 Books You Must Read, award winners, etc.) has exposed me to writers and books that I would have never picked up on my own. I don’t stick to any list religiously, but I do use them to open doors for myself and have found some authors and books that have become favorites that I may have completely missed out on.

    Great post!

    1. Hi, Lezlie! Good to hear from you! I do like to find new authors via lists and blogger recommendations — and I’m just not patient enough to only read from a list. I like reading by my whims.

  5. While librarians wish the library was large enough to keep every single book it ever buys, this is unfortunately not the case and circulation statistics do play a big role in helping librarians weed the collection to make room for new books. If it is any consolation, we have as hard a time weeding library shelves as we do our own personal bookshelves.

    I think in terms of systematic reading v reading at whim, Manguel is saying that lists all have an agenda and someone’s list of books you have to or should read reflects what that person values which may be entirely different than what you value. I think lists can be a great guide and help us find books we might not have otherwise discovered but to read through the Modern Library’s best 100 list for instance, just because they say you should is not a useful thing to do.

    1. Stefanie » I did suspect that librarians had a hard time with it. It’s so sad :(. I think you’re right about the agenda. I find some lists of “best books” quite amusing simply because most of them are not books that *I* personally want to read. I’ve found some that work for me.

  6. I think I tend to find that for me long books drag in the middle. I think this has to do with me approaching them like they are regular length books, so by the time I get to the middle, I expect them to be almost over! I think that’s also around the time my attention begins to wane, and I begin to get antsy to read other things.

    1. Steph » I definitely get antsy to read other things too! I took mini-breaks with DQ so I didn’t burn out…but in the end, those last 200 pages were quite fast compared to the first 200. Was very comforting to know I was “almost done” and actually almost be done!

  7. I live in San Antonio, like Amanda, and I think the limit is two years. And it’s true, they will leave at least one copy in the system. But I do sometimes check out books even though I know I won’t get to them — I’ve just checked out Rachel Ray by Anthony Trollope, which I sincerely doubt I’ll have time to read in the next month or so. But I am increasing its circulation stats — hey, maybe if I get around to reading it and blogging about it, everyone will want to read it, and I’ll start a trend!

    I think our branch has the Eileen Chang book and check it out so it doesn’t feel neglected!

  8. I’m with you on the long books. Actually, I was just thinking about most books and I wonder, for me, if it’s a percentage thing. There hits a point where I consider a book “the book that I’m reading” and not “the book that I’m trying to start”. Even books that only weigh in around 300 pages, may take 50 pages to feel like home.

    1. Pam (@iwriteinbooks) » I agree. That’s why I have a hard time abandoning a book so close to the beginning simply because I know I haven’t gotten in the groove yet…

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