On The Terror of Picking the Next Book

I finished reading The Lathe of Heaven last week. I had never read Le Guin before (I know, I know. I’m fixing it, I promise), and I absolutely loved it. That book moves with determination through increasingly complex and what could be onerous scenarios, but Le Guin’s beautiful prose and really excellent character(s) blah blah blah. You know how good she is, and I’m never going to do her justice with my hackneyed review of what seems to be a classic in the field, so let’s move on.

It’s not really what I want to talk about anyway. After finishing The Lathe of Heaven , I put it back on my shelf and spent the rest of the afternoon thinking about how good it was. It was nice, just reflecting on the story holistically, getting to submerge myself in the full effect of the book. But then came the inevitable storm of questions.

What am I going to read now? What could I possibly read that could follow up such a great book? What makes sense to read after that? Should I read more Le Guin? Should I find a book that’s similar but written earlier or later? Should I read something in the same genre/subgenre? Should I read something from a completely different genre/subgenre so as to balance myself out?

Every time I finish a book, I’m struck by an-often crippling panic about what I should read next. Part of it, I think, is the years I spent in school studying English literature. Anyone who’s taken an English lit. class knows the deal: you get a syllabus, which, theoretically, gives you a narrative to understand stories (and the cultures that produced them). Your class is about the rise of the novel? Cool. Maybe you start with Behn’s Oroonoko or Cavendish’s The Blazing World or Richardson’s Pamela, and then you move on to folks like Horace Walpole and Henry Fielding and Frances Burney and Jonathan Swift and Jane Austen (and, if you’re lucky, Laurence Sterne). Each novel you read is part of a larger puzzle, one that you’re working on filling in. And sure, you’re never going to fill the whole thing in; any narrative you create using these books is going to be partial and skewed and subjective. But at least there’s a logic there–there’s a thread connecting all of the books that makes each new book feel like the next, natural part in the sequence.

I miss that. I know there’s joy in striking out into the vast world of books and picking something unconnected and random. But there’s a real excitement, too, in knowing what to read next, in knowing that the next book is explicitly, to greater or lesser degrees, in conversation with the one you just read. Sure, I can always make those connections myself from any book to any other book, but you can’t deny the pleasure in reading something like Tristram Shandy and knowing that Sterne is totally fucking with the rules the novelists before him, the novelists you’ve already read, were trying to set up. That’s just cool. And it feels intentional and progressive in a way that my random reading sometimes doesn’t. Even if you don’t agree with the narrative the syllabus sets up, even if you want to contest it, the overarching connections give you something to push against, and that’s just as useful and productive.

And so now, as someone who teaches English but who no longer has a syllabus dictating what to read, I get freaked out when deciding what to read next. I once watched a video, one I can barely remember, in which someone (a famous author maybe?) was talking about how she has to be really careful with the books she picks because she’s getting close to dying and there’s only so many more that she can read. And that freaked me the fuck out. It still does. My to-read shelf is not a shelf but an entire bookcase sitting next to my bed. And there are books that need to be in that case but can’t fit. I’m never going to get through all of them, because for every book I read from the case I want to put three or four more in.

So picking a new book is not just a matter of trying to negotiate the ubiquitous shadow of syllabus cohesion past, it’s also infused with the terror of knowing that if I pick a bad book or the wrong book, I’ve just dropped my very finite number of total books readable by one.

There’s no really happy end to this post, no hopeful platitude or liberating sentiment that I totally believe in to pull us up from these dismal anxieties. I’ve had this problem for years, and I get that it’s dumb, that it takes away from time that I could be reading, that spending a night wringing my hands and doing the pick-up-put-down dance with thirty different books is not a great way to spend my time, but I can’t help it. It’s the only way I know to move from one story to the next.

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