Reading: Scarcity or Plenty?

Jo Walton (a writer of thoughtful, impeccably written fantasy and alternative history) has written a fascinating post about the difference between readers who feel that there is an inexhaustible supply of books that they'll never have time to get through and readers who feel that they may well run out of things to read at any time.

I've not given this distinction much thought before, but it's a real one that has a profound effect on what and how readers read.  Those who are daunted by the number of books they'll never get to, don't reread so much and are probably less inclined to read frivolously.  People who experience books as a scarce resource are more likely to hoard books when they can, and reread as an important part of their reading life.

I'm definitely one who worries about running out of things to read.  I read fast and often, and I grew up in a place with few books.  The books in my house were mine, or were crappy thrillers and historical romances that I didn't want to read anyway.  And the village library consisted of two shelves of children's books (including picture books and books for very young readers) and two shelves of adults' books.  These shelves were accessible once a week, on a Tuesday night.  The Dunedin Public Library sent boxes of books up once a month or so and the evenings that the new arrivals were put out were ones of great anticipation, followed by letdown as I discovered how few of the new books interested me.

If I was lucky, I made it into the Children's Library in Dunedin every few weeks to spend a couple of hours there carefully choosing a pile of books.  These had to last as long as possible, so thickness was a consideration.  Despite my best efforts I always ran out of books before the next library visit  I vividly remember reading The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers and then having to wait for weeks, frozen on "Frodo was alive but taken by the enemy," until the next time I was able to go to the library.

A thoughtful teacher gave me a copy of The Hobbit as an end-of-year prize when I was about 8, thus beginning an almost decade-long enthusiasm for science fiction and fantasy.  I went through a horrible, panicky dry spell in my late teens when I got tired of genre fiction, but didn't know where else to go, and didn't think I'd ever find books to lose myself in ever again.  Thank god for the English degree.

The result of my particular reading background is that for me having nothing to read is only ever a book away.  So I collect books around me as a shield against that, and I reread obsessively. When I moved to Canada, I was sufficiently uncomfortable without a bookshelf and a couple of shelves of books that I acquired myself an IKEA bookcase, which currently lives in my lounge here in Dunedin, and filled it with books.  And at first, the books I bought were ones I'd already read.  In a time of huge disruption my old favourites – Jane Austen, P G Wodehouse, Diana Wynne Jones – were comfortingly familiar. 

As a child, I read and reread my books because they were all I had. Now, I reread because I already know that I like the book and won't be disappointed, because I know which book will fit my mood, and because rereading makes my understanding of the book deeper.  I can still find things to delight and surprise me in Jane Austen's novels, for example, even though I've been rereading them annually since I was a student.

I'm also a hoarder of new books.  I bought a Sony EReader last year and have gathered up a huge stash of books I might like to read – more than I'll get to in the next couple of years now that Petra eats up so much of my reading time.  Even though I have a book backlog, I'm always on the lookout for new books and new authors.  I read reviews, look at blogs, browse online booksellers, and search my local bookshops.  It's an obsession!

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