Mary Morris is the author of fourteen books—six novels, three collections of short stories, and four travel memoirs, including Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone. Recently her short stories have appeared in such places as The Atlantic, Ploughshares, and Electric Literature. The recipient of the Rome Prize in Literature, Mary teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Her new novel, The Jazz Palace, set in Chicago during the Jazz Age, was released this week from Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. For more information visit her website.
I have found a word in Japanese that perhaps most typifies my particular affliction when it comes to books. Tsundoku. It roughly translates to “someone who buys books and lets them pile up without reading them.” I suffer somewhat from this trait. I buy books because I just must have them and then they sit around, sometimes for years, before I actually read them. The books at my bedside flow over to the dresser and then out into several piles stacked in the hall. There’s a triage system going on here. The ones actually by my bedside are the ones I am probably actually reading at the time. The ones on the dresser are soon to be read or I’ve promised to read them. The ones in the hall have perhaps a sadder fate. It’s a kind of literary limbo out there. I’ve already read them and they are waiting to be shelved (and may never be). Or they lingered so long by the bed that I felt guilty and moved them out of the way.
At my bedside at any given time there is always a pile of books. Or perhaps several. They fall roughly into three categories but they aren’t organized in any particular way. There are the books I must read because I’m teaching them or as a favor to a friend, the books I’m reading because I’m doing research about something, and the books I want to read for pleasure (even as I ravage).
Right now beside my bed and beyond are The Diaries of Christopher Columbus (and they are fascinating), a book on the Spanish Holocaust, Claudia Rankine‘s Citizen. I’m reading around in Rick Moody’s book of essays about music called On Celestial Music, and savoring Maggie Nelson’s exquisite Bluets. Also Diaries of Exile by Ritsos. The book I’m saving for summer to read is Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and I’m still trying to read Molina’s Sepharad. Also for summer reading I have a copy of Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North and, for teaching, I’m reading Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, but of course I only teach books I want to read myself so it’s never really a burden.
I don’t think I can neglect my Kindle. As a married insomniac I plow through some books by the dim light of 4 a.m until about 6 a.m. I’m finishing Anthony Doerr’s wonderful All The Light We Cannot See and looking forward to reading Lily King’s Euphoria. Books I don’t feel I have to annotate usually make it into the Kindle.
I know it’s more books than a person should be reading at any given time. Yet I have to have these books nearby. All of them. Even if I only scan a few pages. John Gardner, who was a teacher of mine, once said that writers don’t read, they ravage. In a sense he gave me permission to do what I do anyway—scour books, newspapers, magazines for material. Everything becomes material. I don’t really think of myself as the literary equivalent of Attila the Hun. I feel that I’m more like a hummingbird, dipping into dozens of flowers, sampling deep, then moving on.
Hun, hummingbird, or something else? What best describes your approach to nocturnal reading?