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Jeff Jacoby

A book lover’s lament

Why can’t we read books as fast as we buy them?


Beaches aren’t my thing, and reading on beaches even less so. I’ve never understood how anyone can enjoy a book in the midst of all that sand, glare, and greasy suntan lotion. For reading ambiance, I’ll take an easy chair in an air-conditioned room, and leave the damp swimsuits and gritty beach towels to those who appreciate them.

On the other hand, I love the special summer reading lists that newspapers and magazines publish as beach season approaches each year. I love the expanded book sections that appear before the holiday season every winter too. For that matter, I love perusing book reviews and leafing through publishers’ catalogs and nosing around in bookstores. And as my wife discovered when she met me, my idea of interior decoration is books on bookshelves, preferably floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall. (Her preferences run more to lovingly tended plants, clustered together with rain-forest-caliber density. Negotiations are ongoing.)


I’ve been a book reader for as long as I can remember, but until I was in college most of the books I read came from — and went back to — the library. The books I actually owned as a kid were relatively few. With disposable income, however, the world changed. I realized that the pleasure of reading books was amazingly enhanced by the pleasure of owning books. I liked seeing around me books I had already read; I found it gratifying that my encounter with a book continued even after I’d finished reading it.

But above all there was the delight of anticipation. I snapped up books that intrigued me, that I thought would be good reads, that got great reviews. Alas, I was like a kid whose eyes are too big for his stomach: I kept helping myself to more than I could possibly finish. It didn’t help that the older I got, the less time there was for pleasure reading. Or that my ability to acquire books faster than ever — hello, 1-Click! — didn’t come with the ability to read them any faster.


Ah, if only I could read books as fast as I acquire them! Even half as fast would be a blessing. Even a quarter as fast.

On the floor next to my desk as I write is “Peace, They Say,” Jay Nordlinger’s new history of the Nobel Peace Prize; “Surviving Hell,” Leo Thorsness’s account of his years as a POW in North Vietnam; and Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.”

I really want to read them.

But I still haven’t gotten around to “At the Edge of the Precipice,” Robert Remini’s book on Henry Clay and the Compromise of 1850; “All Other Nights,” Dara Horn’s historical thriller about Jewish soldiers in the Civil War; and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoir, “Infidel” — and I really wanted to read them, too.

I suppose it’s time I faced reality: I’ll never catch up on my must-read list. How can I, when they keep publishing books I’m so impatient to read?

William F. Buckley Jr. once described the experience of entering a well-appointed home in which something seemed out of order. It took him a few moments to realize the problem: There were no books. It was jarring, Buckley wrote, to be confronted with the fact that there are people in whose lives books play no role whatsoever.


In my life, by contrast, books increasingly seem to play the role of those falling geometric shapes in Tetris. That’s the classic video game in which you either clear out the shapes efficiently as they fall, or they stack up so high that no space is left — and you lose.

It’s an old lament of mine that I’m not a fast writer, but to paraphrase Tevye the Dairyman, would it spoil some vast eternal plan if God had made me at least a fast reader? Theodore Roosevelt was able to read, on average, a book a day; when he compiled a list in 1903 of the books he’d read since becoming president two years earlier, it ran to three single-spaced pages. Over the course of an exceptionally busy life, he read thousands of books, many in foreign languages. And, his biographer Edmund Morris notes, TR generally remembered everything he read. Dear Lord, what I wouldn’t give for reading prowess like that.

I might even be willing to read on the beach.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at Follow him on
Twitter @jeff_jacoby.