Stress-Purchasing Books When You’re Surrounded by Books

Note: I wrote this for a specific column, Stress Purchase of the Week, and it was kindly turned down. I elected not to revise it (much) before repurposing it here.

Pictured: my to-be-read pile

My stress purchase last week was books. Of course it was books. What’d you think it would be? Clothes? The other night I wore a sweater I bought off the Banana Republic clearance rack in 1998. That sounds like an exaggeration because that would mean it is twenty years old, which seems far too old for an item of mass-produced, biodegradable clothing, but it’s true. I was a junior in high school, and I bought it with the money I made working weekends as a tagger at the dry cleaners. It’s a men’s sweater, which means it fits well and lasts forever.

Anyway, last week I bought books. Even though there are (I just counted) 133 books in my To-Be-Read pile. And by “pile” I mean “overflowing bookshelf I designated just for TBR books.” Part of the reason I am stressed out enough to buy more books is this pile of TBR books. When will I ever have the time to read them? I do not know. STRESSFUL.

The pile (or, as I now think of it, THE PILE) hasn’t always been so wildly out of hand. Last year, I began writing book reviews. It started slow, with a few commissioned reviews for friends. Then I joined an online group for book reviewers and started responding to requests for review from authors and presses. I started receiving ARCs in the mail. It was all very exciting, and the idea that I was fancy enough to receive ARCs made me feel like somebody. As if my writing life, which for ten years I’ve dragged behind me like a beautiful, invisible, very heavy dress train, was starting to hum and hover under its own power.

In September I reviewed one book. In November, two, and in December, three. And so on. I started using a spreadsheet to track release dates and joined the National Book Critics Circle. In April, six reviews appeared and I filed seven more. I’ve accepted assignments for June and beyond and am starting to get messages from publicists asking if I want this or that. Even as I’m thrilled, dreaming that the ultimate conclusion to all this whirl is the birth of a mighty empire and me ruling over it, sitting on a throne of books upon books — I also don’t know how this happened so quickly, and I feel like a small person with one brain and two eyes and limited time, and all the books look so good and maybe the throne is actually a kind of shelter? Used for captivity? Which I think is sometimes called a prison?

So. Usually, when I feel worried about my life I buy books. Last week I ordered Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story and Jacob M. Appel’s The Mask of Sanity. Back before my life exploded in book reviewing, I’d read Nothing Holds Back the Night, de Vigan’s prior genre-bending book. I had Opinions about it, and had been looking forward to her next installment. As for the Appel, psychopaths are a special interest of mine. I have no explanation for this special interest that doesn’t make me sound weirder than the admission itself, so let’s just keep skating.

But these purchases arrived at my door, one at a time, mixed in with more and more ARCs, from Dzanc and Graywolf and Unnamed, presses I love, whose work I want to (want to) read and enthuse about in tidy paragraphs with sufficient quotes. There were so many. There are so many. I’ve tried scattering THE PILE in multiple locations around my apartment, partly to avoid the eventuality of being crushed by the stack when it topples. But I am not fooled by my own subterfuge. The mini-piles make me feel as if there are books everywhere I turn, and not in a good way, as I used to feel.

I’d ordered de Vigan and Appel under stress, but books mean something different to me now than they did the last time I made a stress-book purchase. Instead of books being a balm, instead of looking at books piled around me and feeling happy about all the worlds they represent, lives I get to borrow, emotions I get to feel risk-free — instead of the joy of reading, I see deadlines, bad but necessary math about pages per minute and hours per day, guesses about what outlets will want my take on a given title.

I see THE PILE, not the pile.

This morning, I got up and wrote a review of a forthcoming anthology from C&R Press, and made a 50-page dent in a thriller from Ecco. Nagged by my phone, I did a seven-minute workout, panting and staring at the books I’d left on the coffee table the night before. Books I’d brought home from a reading in Chinatown: Emily Skillings and Joanna Novak. Now part of THE PILE. Buying them hadn’t made me happy, because I knew I wouldn’t get to them anytime soon, but I wanted to support their authors and the venue. I should just stop, I thought. Just stop buying them altogether. No more books for any reason, until this whole reviewing thing is under control.

Outside, on our shared lawn, a child began laughing uncontrollably.