Staring down the TBR pile


Standing before a tower of unread books, feeling a bit queasy but also defiant.  These are books that have bedeviled me for months, years, decades.  Tomes I know will be excellent, enlightening, life-enhancing…as soon as I find time to read them.  Others are volumes I read many moons ago and want to revisit.  Some big, fat, brain-building Pynchon titles, a few of the early Cormac McCarthys; works I read when I was young, stupid and trying to impress everybody.  Now when I read them, I’ll be a helluva lot more worldly, slightly smarter and apt to grasp more than I did during that initial encounter.  Can you really comprehend the magnitude of Gravity’s Rainbow or Marcel Proust’s convoluted, gorgeous prose at nineteen or twenty?

Never in hell.  I’m convinced human beings don’t start developing adult-sized brains until they’ve turned thirty and have popped at least one kid.  A teenager reading War and Peace is like handing a mandrill an iPad. Seriously.

This past week I was visiting The Big City and had occasion (okay, I lurked) to listen while a couple of teenage girls discussed their school reading assignments.

“This book,” one said, stabbing a livid finger at Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, “ought to be banned.”

“Did you read The Englishman’s Boy?”

“Only the chapter I had to.”

“Me too! Catcher in the Rye sucked too. What’s the big deal? The Outsiders--”

“That was half decent.”

“It was o-kay. But the main guy is such a whiner…”

And so on.  Book club night at the Stephen Hawking residence it was not.

What were those gals doing, hanging out in a book store?  Waiting for the rain to subside?  I wonder what sort of books they actually liked?

* * * * *

I must do something about my To Be Read pile. Make that piles.  It’s getting scary.  We’re running out of space.  Books are double-stacked on the shelves, some even (gasp!) relegated to the floor.  Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, essays…good God, things have gotten completely out of hand.  I catch my wife looking at me, her expression cagy: pondering involuntary commitment? What are the legal hurdles?  How much can she get for all these fucking books?

And now that I’m hooked up to the library system through the internet, I can log on and troll for more books, secure them free, via inter-library loans.  If three weeks pass and I need more time, I can renew the tomes in question with a few taps on my keyboard.


Or perhaps not.  It’s like having after hours access to the world’s biggest bookstore.  I get messages as soon as another book is ready for pickup at my local branch.  Can’t wait to get down there, scoop it up and bear it home…

Understand, I already have dozens, scores of books—wonderful books, classic books—waiting to be read but I’m still ordering more.  Isn’t that weird?  Isn’t that, well, nuts?

It’s called bibliophilia, folks, and I’ve got it bad.

I’m a collector on the verge of becoming a hoarder.  When I find a good bookstore, especially a good used book store, my hands get clammy, my stomach churns and I feel light-headed, like I’m suffering from some kind of sugar deficit. I kid you not. I’ve heard junkies say similar things when they find themselves in the vicinity of dope or paraphernalia. A feeling of anticipation that leaves you weak in the knees.

Have to say, when I visited my last big box book barn I didn’t experience anything like that.  The “New Release” shelves didn’t turn my crank at all—the majority of the fiction seemed to be geared toward women, and particularly stupid ones at that. The most dreadful shite. Spotted a number of offerings in the history section, including David McCullough’s bio of Truman, but the prices scared me off. After all my browsing, over an hour in the store, I came away with one thin volume, a beautiful little Penguin edition of Stefan Zweig’s novella Chess.  That’s it.

Pitiful, ain’t it?

But, of course, it isn’t just books.  I’m no longer part of the desired demographic, and that goes for music, movies, television, you name it.  I’m an old fogie with a critical brain and a handle on his spending.  Not exact a walking advertisement for consumerism.

No, the ones the advertisers, viral marketers et al are after are the 16-25 bunch, the gamers and mall crowd, armed with credit cards and completely lacking impulse control.  Unmarried, no kids, disposable income, too much time on their hands. The morons that have kept Michael Bay, JJ Abrams and Bill Gates filthy rich and reduced the popular arts to public urinals.  Thanks, kids!

We have them to thank for the current state of publishing/bookselling.  The explosion of graphic novels, the flood of zombies and vampires and knock-off fantasy and franchise novels, and media tie-ins…can you say dumbing down?  That extended period I spent in the big box store was most educational.  It told me that in their efforts to cater to their sought after demographic, traditional publishers won’t just go for the lowest common denominator, they are willing, nay eager, to debase the language, alienate their traditional clientele and reduce an art form to mere commodity.  The rot is evident in every genre—what little “literary” fiction out there is getting harder to find, forced off the shelves by establishments that offer whole sections devoted to the excremental writing of James Patterson, Jody Picoult and the like.

I turn on commercial radio, flip through the TV channels during a rare hotel visit, check on-line movie listings for anything that might look promising and I feel old.  Nothing in the entertainment world speaks to me these days.  I don’t look forward to the summer movies or check to see who made the Oscar shortlist.  Ignore the bestseller lists, rarely buy a magazine or new book…and we’re the last family I know of who still don’t have cable TV.

I’ve been a reader all my life.  Forty years with my nose in books.  Books have always offered me comfort and consolation.  In childhood, they were a security blanket, helping me escape the depredations of reality.  As I got older, they became my primary sources of learning, as well as steering me down spiritual/mystical paths I might otherwise have missed. Without books, I would not be the person I am today.  I would be one of them:  mall zombies, semi-literates, half-simian.

All this might go a long way toward explaining that ever-growing TBR pile. I never stop seeking out new Masters, new teachers; men and women who can perform alchemy with the printed word, transmuting it into something more than mere sentences on a page.

A casual scan of the pictures reveals not too many of the books are of recent vintage.  Most picked up from thrift shops, secondhand places or on-line purchases; heavily discounted, showing the effects of their time in remainder bins or battered about in the mail.

New and old enthusiasms:  Samuel Beckett, Walter Kirn, Ken Kalfus, Richard Powers, Robert Stone, Raymond Queneau, Roberto Bolano, Fernando Pessoa, J.M.G. Le Clezio, Denis Johnson, Tom McCarthy, Terence McKenna, Georges Perec, Jorge Luis Borges, Gert Ledig, W.G. Sebald…and that’s just scratching the surface. These Jpegs hardly do my TBR pile justice.  It goes on and on…

When am I going to find time to read the gorgeous edition of Don Quixote Sherron picked up for me at least five years ago (translation by Edith Grossman)?  How about the three volumes by the incomparable Louis Ferdinand Celine that are only an arm’s length away from where I sit, typing these words?  Will I ever tackle Madame Bovary, War and Peace or the 1,000+ pages of The Collected Short Stories of J.G. Ballard?

Not as long as I keep adding to that pile.

How many titles are on the “Wishlist” I’ve kept in the same steno pad for the past twenty years?  Two hundred?  Three hundred?  The roster constantly revised; one title acquired and crossed off, three others added…

I’m a sick man.  Addicted to the printed word.  Always seeking out the best of the best, authors who present fresh perspectives, re-ignite the language, push the envelope thematically and stylistically.  Just when I think I’m making headway, someone mentions Ben Okri or Joseph McElroy.  How could I have missed them?  Fabulous, unprecedented talents, my collection incomplete without them.

The kind of authors no longer being published by the trads and, thus, increasingly unfamiliar to today’s readers.

Creators capable of composing work that ennobles us as a species, presenting an alternative to the superficiality of the processed, plastic universe the corporate types are peddling, the reassuring sameness one is sure to find there.  Our souls would be impoverished without these artistes, our “culture” reduced to inanity and tiresome cant.  A nightmare I hope never to endure, a history I pray we avoid.

Photos by Sherron Burns


  1. mikecane


    >>>The morons that have kept Michael Bay, JJ Abrams and Bill Gates filthy rich and reduced the popular arts to public urinals.


    Second: I used to be like you. Then I had to move multiple times. What that did to my back is permanent. Never again. I HATE paper. It is e all the way for me now.

    Go get yourself the software Kindle for PC or Mac and read the Kindle Nation Daily site for the freebies and you can be like me in a few months: over THIRTEEN HUNDRED eBooks waiting to be read. And if I ever have to move, I don’t even have to touch them and put them on a microSD card. I can just redownload from Amazon.

  2. Cliff Burns

    Mike: we’ve lived in the same house for almost 15 years but the strain is starting to show. Always in need of book shelves, a huge swack of non-fic kept in the basement where it’s not too damp but on muggy, wet summers like this one…well, sooner or later those tomes are going to start smelling like last week’s bar rag.

    The thing e-readers and books have in common is that neither is worth a shit once they’re left out in the rain. Hahahahaha!

    Always a pleasure, Michael…

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