Thoughts on the nature of books

At the beginning of this year, I started a project of keeping a list of all the books I read during the year. This was partly inspired by various bookcrossers who were discussing their reading aims for the year – I have no interest whatsoever in trying to meet some sort of target for my reading (reading is supposed to be a pleasurable experience, and having an aim to work towards would remove that for me), but some of the figures they were aiming for (like 50 books) sounded low to me, so I was interested to find out just how many books I do actually read in a year. The other impetus was the realisation that being such a voracious and often indiscriminating reader, many books I read seem to leave no imprint on my consciousness – I know that I’ve read them, but a few weeks later couldn’t tell you anything about the book at all. So I had a vague hope that by actually recording the books I’d read, and where possible making journal entries for them on Bookcrossing, the process of having to actually think about each book after reading it might help me remember it, and if not, well at least I’d have an aide memoire in the form of the list of books.

Of course, as Heisenberg pointed out, the act of observation changes the thing being observed, and this has proved to be true of my reading list. I’ve noticed myself reading in a different way since I started keeping the list – for a start, I found myself thinking more about books as I read them, with a corner of my consciousness already starting to compose the journal entry I would write about each book even as I started to read. The effect of this depended on the book – sometimes it was a useful tool, helping me to appreciate the book on a deeper level, and look more closely at what the author was trying to achieve (arrgghhh, I’ll become an English scholar yet!), at others it was just an irritating distraction from my enjoyment of the story. It changed the type of journal entries I was writing too – sometimes the extra thought I’d put into reading was reflected in a thoughtful journal entry, at other times by the time I’d come to actually write the review down I’d re-written it so many times in my head that I was completely bored with the idea, and the resulting journal entry would revert to “I liked this book” banalities. Another result of keeping the list was that although I wasn’t trying to meet any numerical targets, the satisfaction of seeing the numbers grow meant that I often found myself choosing shorter books over longer ones, and often rejecting other types of reading material (like magazines or newspapers) because by reading them I was somehow “wasting” reading time that I could be devoting to books. Once I realised that I was doing this I was able to stop, but it took a conscious effort to go back to selecting my next read purely on the basis of what I felt like reading, not on how quickly it would increase my total.

Early on in the exercise, I hit a philosophical problem: what exactly do you count as a book? It seems simple enough, everyone knows what a book is, but I quickly found that the edges of the definition are a bit fluffy. For example, what about e-books? They aren’t a physical book you can hold in your hand, but the text is exactly the same as the print edition, it’s just in a different format. You still read them. But then what about audio books? Again, the text is exactly the same as the print edition, but now instead of reading it, you’re listening to it. But you end up with the same information passing into your brain as you would by reading it, it’s just come through a different sensory channel. To me, that counts as a book I’ve read, so I thought maybe I needed to extend my definition of books to be things that have a print version (although where does that leave films of books? I wouldn’t count seeing the film of a book as being the same thing as having read it (even where the adaptation has been totally faithful to the book), but what’s the difference between a film and an audiobook?) And recently, inspired by a lecture series I attended, I’ve read a few hypertext novels. They don’t have a print edition (in fact, for most of them a print edition would be impossible to conceive of), but they’re novels, so it seems natural to add them to my list (and we won’t even get into the question of when you can be said to have “read” a hypertext novel, which by their nature are often completely open-ended, with no set beginning or ending, and which can be completely different on every reading – one definition I heard said that you’ve finished reading a hypertext novel when you feel like you’ve got as much out of it as you wanted to). At the other end of the scale, there’s things that physically are definitely books – they have pages, covers, ISBNs – but somehow don’t seem like *real* books – things like books of cartoons, children’s books (and where is the cutoff point for a children’s book being a real book? Hairy Maclary isn’t, and Harry Potter is, but where do you draw the dividing line between them?), art books… And then there’s things like playscripts, books of poetry, textbooks… the list of doubtful cases is endless. In the end, I took the coward’s way out and listed everything I read that could conceivably be considered a book, and just accepted the fact that the final number is pretty meaningless, really.

So, how many books have I read this year? No idea. But so far I’ve read 168 things that may or may not be considered as books, depending on your point of view. For today, you can peruse my reading list for the year on my diary’s index page. Tomorrow, I’ll probably move it to a diary entry so I can start my list for 2006…

Currently reading: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

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