William Strang, Münchhausen entdeckt die Bibliothek von Alexandria, 1895.
I am between books. It’s a very uncomfortable place to be. On the one hand, after finishing something good and thought provoking, you don’t necessarily want to move on too quickly—you want to digest and mourn the loss and crave the comfort of its world. You miss the characters. It would feel jarring to just open another novel and invest your mind and heart fully once again. On the other hand, after enough time, you become restive and begin to yearn for the escape, the absorption and stimulation that only a good book can bring—and you begin to wonder if you can ever feel again the pleasure and compulsion you knew only days ago. Maybe, at last, you’ve read every good book in the world.
There are rebounds, of course—stupid books that take little time and make less impression. There are false starts, which are the worst, and there are attempts to replicate the experience of the last reading. And if you feel really fickle or commitment-phobic, there are essays and stories and poems and letters and beloved favorites to dip into at will. I keep a stack of these on my bedside table, for dry spells.
Part of the problem is the pressures: of classics you ought to read; of friends’ books, written and recommended, that lie unopened—because what if you don’t love them? As long as you haven’t tried, you haven’t failed, and every unread book exists in a state of pure potential: it might change your life. It’s certainly powerful.
A sort of paralysis can set in. This is the dangerous moment. Do you risk it? Or do you wander a bookstore, looking for something perfect, stroking a spine here, tracing a title there, putting the book down before you reach the register and rushing out? It’s reassuring to be scared, still, after all this time. No matter how many books you’ve read, that sense of trepidation always remains.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.
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