How do I get excited about the books on my shelf?
October 7, 2021 2:26 PM   Subscribe

When I get a new book these days, I read it almost immediately--even if it's not something I'm super into (like a well-meaning but misguided gift). But when I think about reading one of the dozens of books I haven't read yet that are already sitting on my shelf, I can't bring myself to crack them open.

To be clear, these are books I was excited about at one point and simply wasn't able to immediately read when I first got them (anywhere from one to ten years ago). And I still want to read them, I think--I just have a weird mental block that keeps from actually doing so.

Any ideas why this happens and how I can fix it?
posted by Bambiraptor to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (17 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
This happens to me as well. The few times I have been successful, i've gone back and read reviews of the books to remind me of why I might have been hyped for them. I also try to remember my unread books when it's time for a mood shift. I will often go through periods when all I want to read is pop-science, or math history, and others when i want a period piece, or a beach read, and knowing that i have some ready unread books in those categories sometimes does the trick.
Sooner or later I decide that I no longer have any desire at all, and I trade them in or donate them, but by that time there is no remorse.
posted by OHenryPacey at 2:32 PM on October 7, 2021

I have this problem as well (and waaay too many books on my to-read pile... piles), and personally I've found changing locations helps. Until recently I would usually have a "couch book" I was working on, and a "cafe book" and a "bar book" and maybe a handful of others for when I wasn't feeling any of them. It felt weird to pick up the bar book and read on the couch, but I whenever I would go out, I would bring it. Once I formed that association I found I would follow through pretty consistently.

Of course that sort of location swapping isn't as easy now, but perhaps there's another way you can make these books attached to a certain day or activity — coffee or tea or a glass of wine, a lunchtime book, an album you put on, etc.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 2:35 PM on October 7, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Would you consider setting up a "new book" shelf for stuff you haven't read yet? I experimented with gathering unread books in one place, and made it my go-to spot when I needed something new to read. (It worked, and made it easier to get rid of the books I wasn't going to read after all.) Something about having the options concentrated in one physical space worked really well for me.
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:37 PM on October 7, 2021 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Giftwrap all your unread books (or better yet, ask someone else to do it for you) and then pick one at random when you need to start a new book. Whatever it is, it will be a pleasant surprise!
posted by tangosnail at 2:37 PM on October 7, 2021 [8 favorites]

When I get to feeling this way, which is when my To Read bookshelf grows to about 150 volumes, I go through it and ask myself if I'm really excited for book X or if I just think I should read it. By the time I'm done the bookshelf is back to under 100. Perhaps you have some winnowing to do.
posted by panhopticon at 3:33 PM on October 7, 2021 [3 favorites]

Counterintuitively, you might be able to get excited about them by making them harder to get. Make them the books that just got away. In this case I would take all those books on the shelf and donate them to the nonprofit of my choice, or Little Free Libraries, to make space on the shelf so the damn books can stop taunting me. I would keep a list of them and if I one day get the burning desire to read one, I will check it out from the library. Having just one book from the library, with a due date a couple of weeks in the future is a great way to get me to read it.
posted by oxisos at 3:56 PM on October 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

Had an English teacher who told us to read the first 50 pages of a book before we decided if we liked it or not. So in terms of time investment, you could tell yourself to only read the first 50 pages of the next book in line, if you don't like it, feel free to donate it or give it away.

I keep a short stack of unread books on my nightstand, along with a separate stack of "already read" books, and another larger stack of already read but not recently books on the floor. Once in a while, I'll go through those and decide if I think they warrant keeping or not. Really special books get put into a glass fronted cabinet, such as The Street of the Fishing Cat, which I now read once a year, usually during the winter.

A relative sent me a bunch of their used books last winter, and tho' they weren't to my taste, I did read them. Some I might have skimmed, one was really gruesome subject matter, which stuck with me a long time (stories of war prisoners in Japan during WWII).

I will give anything a try, for at least 50 pages, tho'.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 3:57 PM on October 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

This is a little different because I rarely buy books at all, but whenever I purchase a book it becomes an obligation to me. Books from the library feel like a sort of happy accident and this more interesting. Books I’ve paid for seem like something I “should” do.

In the last few years I’ve also become a lot more willing to to give up halfway through. That again relieves the pressure dog something I “should” do rather than want to do.
posted by raccoon409 at 3:59 PM on October 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

I conquer this by lending the book(s) to a friend with similar tastes in books, who I trust will return it. Then I ask them if it's anything interesting, and that usually sparks my interest; or I know it's safely donate-able.
posted by mightshould at 4:06 PM on October 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

If you aggressively get rid of the mediocre books, eventually every book on your shelves will be amazing, and you'll then despair even more of ever reading them all.
posted by mecran01 at 4:52 PM on October 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

This happens to me too, so a few weeks ago I pulled out everything from my shelf that I hadn't genuinely read, and interlaced them with the new purchases in my "to read" pile.

From top to bottom (obviously, the other way would be a nightmare), one of the "to reads" goes in my work bag for reading on the morning or afternoon bus or (rarely) at lunchtime.

If I haven't been been gripped by it within two days, either out of a sensation of interest or of obligation, it goes into the donate pile, and the next "to read" is selected.

If I am gripped by it it gets finished, then I ask: Will I ever honestly read this again? If no, it goes into the donate pile as well. Two I just finished, and recommended in another thread as worthwhile reads, are in the donate pile. They were fine and gave me what I needed and they won't be touched ever again.

So I've culled a dozen news and olds and kept a half-dozen news and olds over the past few weeks and it's all been very effective and rewarding.

Possibly one day I'll regret some of the culls and cull some of the keeps. Oh well. I have a finite bookshelf with finite space and am not going to buy another bookshelf, so I have to work with what I've got.

My personal desire for general life and possession decluttering would have me suggest that you limit your book space by downsizing your bookshelves, but there are a lot of external circumstances that my personal desires will never be able to encompass so chances are that might not work. But it might! But it might not.
posted by turbid dahlia at 5:26 PM on October 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

I have a whole bookshelf of these books. They are pretty much all ones I got off free tables and Little Free Libraries....for a reason. Once in a great while I try to purge them. Once in a great while I decide I'm going to force myself to try one, and you know what? Um....there's a reason why I'm not reading these books and it's because they are not very good, as it turns out. I try about 3-4 of them in a row, read that 50 pages, and then get fed up and they go back to the Little Free Libraries and I go read a book I actually WANT to read.

So....that's probably why you aren't very hyped to read them. You got them in a "eh, it's free, what the heck" feeling rather than "I've been waiting all year for this to come out and paid full price and pre-ordered!" excitement.

I really should get rid of mine, right?
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:56 PM on October 7, 2021

Ten years?! Set those books free. If you wanted to read them, you would have done so by now. If you want to read them in the future you can find another copy.
posted by momus_window at 6:10 PM on October 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This is a huge issue with me as well and has gotten exacerbated during COVID times. The issue for me is that I like to bring home books from the library. I also have a pile of books at home (not a ton, but maybe 20-30) which I got from places like gifts from friends, bought at a book sale, that kind of thing. And I read in a very specific way (non-fiction in the am, fiction in the pm) where things need to be available at the time I am looking for them, so if I have a fiction book on my "to read" pile I tend to miss it because when I am looking for fiction I am already in bed. Obviously, this is ridiculous, and I have taken to getting a bit more merciless about the "to read" pile and either moving on with the books I just seem to never be getting to, or deciding I am going to dive in. I actually read a book that had been on my "to read" pile for years and it was really great and I don't know what I had been waiting for. Sometimes you need to find the right moment.

You might also want to force the issue by maybe going on a one month no-new-books fast or something. You know you have books in the house you want to read, you know getting new books is keeping you from reading those, try to change it up a little and see what happens.
posted by jessamyn at 8:24 PM on October 7, 2021

Moods change, and things you were interested in x years ago might not be things which light your fire today. I used to collect All The Books just because they were books on topics that seemed interesting. As I've gotten older it became clear that life really is too short to read All The Books (much to my chagrin) and consequently I found my enthusiasm for a lot of what was on my shelves dwindling. They just weren't high-priority enough. This was exacerbated by finding that at least 2/3 of the books that I read that weren't in my usual reading oeuvres didn't meet the 50 page test, thus lowering my expectations for what else was on my shelves.

Aside from a firm and realistic winnowing of the collection, what helped me was deciding that I would read every night before bed (even if it was just a couple of pages) as a stating point to get through them. When I needed a new book my rule was that if I couldn't choose a book, I had to start at the top left of the bookshelf and pick the first book that I had never read, no matter what the subject matter or author.

I still ditch around 2/3 of the books that I read, and a lot of those at the 50 page point - the realisation that life is too short to read boring things still grips me - but I've been enthused and delighted by quite a few of the remaining 1/3, which wouldn't have happened without this system.
posted by underclocked at 11:09 PM on October 7, 2021

Last year I made a spreadsheet to keep track of both books I have read and books I own (or will soon buy) and want to read soon. The books-to-read list currently has about 40 rows, in rough order of how much I am excited to read them in the near future, and includes some books that have been sitting around on my bookshelf for 20 years. When it's time for a new book I scan through the list and see what I'm in the mood for. The system has been a rousing success; in 2021 I've read a bunch of big novels I've owned for decades that I had always meant to get to some day, because continually seeing them near the top of the list gave me the prompt I needed to actually get around to them.
posted by dfan at 9:01 AM on October 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

When I'm no longer excited by books, I stuff them in a box and put them in the back of a closet for six months or a year. When I've mostly forgotten about them, I pull out the box. With some of the books, I'll be excited about them all over again ("Oh wow, I forgot I had this! I think I'll go ahead and read it"); those ones go back on the shelf or in the reading pile. The rest get discarded.

I think what you're experiencing is pretty normal. You've already satisfied your desire for the book by buying it, so actually reading it becomes this superfluous and even burdensome chore. If you want to get fancy about it, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek has a whole theory of "interpassivity" that covers this. The classic example is how people used to get enjoyment out of recording movies on their VCR, even if they never got around to watching them -- as if the VCR was watching the movies for them. It's the same with buying books.
posted by Gerald Bostock at 9:12 AM on October 8, 2021 [2 favorites]

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