I reached home the other day with a peculiar feeling – emptiness and anticipation all mashed up together – and it took me a while to realise it was because I was in one of those increasingly rare twilight phases: with absolutely no book-reviewing obligations, at least not for a couple of days, and so free to just pick up anything from the vast stack weighing down my bed (all the available bookshelves having long been booked).
Incessant book reviewing can take away much of the joy of reading and force you into doing things – speed-reading, skimming passages – you’d rather not do. It can also make you guiltily conscious of the whole "better to know one book really well than a thousand books sketchily" thing. I’m not, of course, knocking reviewing altogether. One of my most enthralling reading experiences in the past few months, for instance, came from M G Vassanji’s beautiful The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, a book I would almost certainly never have read if it hadn’t been shoved into my hands by our books editor.
That said, being free - even temporarily – from the cross of reading a book because I had to was empowering. But great power brings great responsibility, as Spiderman says, and so I looked around me with trepidation. What should I commit myself to, I wondered, always assuming that this reprieve wouldn’t last for long and I probably wouldn’t have time to finish more than one book before another deadline came-a-calling.
Do I reach for a favourite classic – maybe A Tale of Two Cities in the cheap Rupa publication I bought a couple of years ago? (Actually, I did reach for it, even opened and skimmed, only to discover that the print was fuzzy on pages 36 to 41. Enough to put one off.) Or maybe get around to reading the Moby Dick chapters I’d rushed through the first time, like "Of the measurement of a Whale’s skeleton"? Or an unread "must-read" that had been gathering dust on my bed, waiting for a time like this? Sebald’s Austerlitz. Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Don Delillo’s Underworld. Or should I make it easy for myself by turning to some short stories - still some treasures in the New Yorker anthologies pending. S J Perelman. Ian Frazier. Updike. Thurber.
It was only 10 o’clock, I had a good two hours at least of quality reading time ahead of me. I scanned the sea of options – the jacket spines, paperback covers, smooth Vintage covers, all waiting, begging to be read. And then, with an exasperated sigh, I conceded defeat and turned my attention to a cellphone game.