A Bookseller on Book Guilt

As a bookseller, I’m expected to read a lot of books and at least know about the ones I haven’t read. But you know something? There are a lot of books out there. So when customers ask me again and again if I’ve read this book or that author and I’m forced to answer some variation of “No, but I’ve heard it’s phenomenal,” it can feel like I’m failing a little bit. Every time I answer that way, I get this sinking feeling of guilt. I should have read that. I need to read more….

I know I’m not alone here. I can count on hearing it at least ten times a day: “I need to read more.”

People are always confessing in hushed tones that they haven’t read the book that everyone else has – or worse: They did read it and didn’t like it.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” a customer once told me, “but I got about two-thirds of the way through The Book Thief and I just gave up. I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.”

Nothing is wrong with that customer. She doesn’t need to love The Book Thief and neither do you. You don’t even need to read The Book Thief - or any other book for that matter.

We all struggle with Book Guilt and I’m here to give you permission to stop. Stop torturing yourself. Do you know how many books are published in the United States alone every year? I looked it up, and there’s no clear answer, but as far as I can find, the number is somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books. Every year. Even if you read a book a week, that’s only 52 books per year, which is at best 0.00009% of the books published that year. That statistic alone is enough to make me read only what I want to read. Life is too short for the “should”.

On top of what we should be reading, there is the added layer of what we should be loving. Spoiler alert: people are different, and we all like different things. It’s what makes life and literature so amazing. I love that I can pick up a book and have my world changed within just a few pages, but if everyone reacted the same way to every piece of writing, what would be the point? Take this essay, for example. Some of you are reading this and nodding along with me, saying, “Yes! You’re right! No more Book Guilt!” and some of you are reading this and thinking, “This is a load of crap. Who would write this? Who would publish this? Why is this out in the same world that I live in?” Some of you stopped reading ages ago.

All three of those scenarios are fine (although, I really prefer the first set of readers, if I’m being honest), and it’s what makes writers and artists produce better content in greater amounts.  

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of “should,” though, isn’t it? Someone that you respect really loves a piece of literature, and you want to be in on the conversation, right? Of course you do. We all do - and I’m not saying that we should all just stop reading books that people recommend to us. It’s good to try new genres or books or literary experiences, to push ourselves, and to be a part of the bigger conversations in literature. All I’m saying is that we need to stop disparaging ourselves (and each other, for that matter) when we don’t follow the crowd. Go ahead and put down that book you’re not really enjoying. Let go of the obligation. Pride and Prejudice might not be your thing, and that’s okay. Read what you want to read, and love what you love. You’re allowed. 

Emelie Samuelson is a bookseller, reader, writer, and overall nerd. She drinks more coffee than should legally be allowed. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram or at her blog, AwkwardlyAliveandPleasantlyPeculiar.com

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