Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Modern Phenomenon Called the To-Be-Read Pile

I received a Kindle as a birthday present last year, and I wasted no time in downloading new releases as well as classic novels irresistibly priced at a dollar or less for the Kindle versions. I was lying in bed reading the other night when I suddenly had a mental picture of an archeological dig centuries from now, during which my slim white reading device would be unearthed by a team of professorial types. Of course, in my vision, all technological devices were backward compatible, so it took only a few moments for the content to be retrieved from the Amazon database archives.

Further examination of the downloaded content would reveal something odd about the reading
habits of the owner of the device: not every book stored on the device had actually been read. I can picture future scientists scratching their heads as they puzzled over this fact. Their initial hypothesis that the user had perhaps lost the device or perhaps suddenly perished after downloading several weeks’ worth of reading material would be swept aside as other, similar devices were discovered. As an entire community of such devices was unearthed, a common denominator would be revealed: human beings from this era purchased books they never read.

An examination of my bookshelves today only supported the conclusion future scientists might make about us with regard to our reading habits. I have a huge TBR (“to-be-read”) pile. All the selections I’ve purchased appeal to me, and I intend to read them all…eventually. The reader’s forums I belong to assure me that my habits are the norm rather than an anomaly. On social sites devoted to readers, a popular topic of discussion often begins with the question, “How big is your TBR pile?”

Curiosity about this common pattern of behavior prompted me to conduct a brief informal poll of people of different ages about their book buying and reading habits. I wondered at what point the acquisition of books become more important than the consumption of them. I discovered that people who grew up in difficult economic times (Depression era) tended to buy books one at a time and read them before buying another. One of my subjects, a woman in her 80’s, told me about having belonged to a book club in her youth and spending a great deal of time at the library to supplement her reading material. She claims to have never bought a book she did not read.

As an author whose debut novel (“Fire at Midnight”) was released last year and whose second novel (“Stolen Promise”) was just released, knowing that books are being purchased but not read leaves me with conflicting emotions. On one hand, any reader who has purchased my book or borrowed it from their local library has my unending gratitude.

On the other hand, the thought that my debut novel was purchased but now languishes in a TBR pile boasting far more compelling author names than mine leaves me with a lump in my throat and the uneasy feeling that readers might view my next release with indifference because they have not read my first release yet. Having a reader base eagerly looking forward to one’s next book is critical if an author hopes to keep their publisher interested, so for newer authors, I wonder if the concern is going to shift from whether the book is selling to whether the book is being read.

A number of potential causes for this behavior come to mind:

1-Most households have two working adults these days. The stay-at-home Mom is somewhat of an endangered species, although I’m not so sure she ever had time to put her feet up, eat bon-bons and read for pleasure in the first place.

2-Simple lack of time/opportunity. Full time jobs, child-rearing, community commitments, and so on all leave us less downtime. Reading is usually considered to be a downtime pleasure.

3-Activities other than reading take up the time that was once reserved for reading in the past. We have a whole slew of other things we can be doing now, like spending time on numerous social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, playing video games, texting friends, watching television, and so on.

4-We’re a material-based culture. Perhaps it’s more important to be able to say a copy of the book is owned than it is to be prepared to discuss its content. I’ve noticed my friends always have copies of the latest “book-du-jour,” but when asked for an opinion, they invariably haven’t read it…yet.

As a romance writer, I frequent many of the top romance website forums, and everyone always seems to be running out to purchase the latest “buzz” book, then commenting in a post months later that they haven’t gotten around to reading it…yet. Personally, I believe every book is purchased with the intention that it will be read, and every reader is looking for the opportunity to catch up on all those unread books.

Should I even be worrying about this? Probably not. Can I change it? No. Is it necessarily a bad thing? I’m not sure. I just find it a curious phenomenon, and an interesting comment on modern society, even though I haven’t yet decided just what it does say about us. What do you think?

Lisa Marie

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