The Books I’m Not Reading

David Corbett

Due to a scheduling snafu, I had to swap days, and Alexandra graciously obliged. I’m taking her spot today, and she’ll be taking mine next Wednesday. So, if you’re disappointed Alex isn’t here—and how could you not be?—take heart, she’ll be here at the controls this coming Wednesday, February 8th.

John Updike once remarked that he realized early on he couldn’t be both a reader and a writer and he had to choose one or the other. As my career has progressed I’ve increasingly realized the truth of that insight, unpleasantly so.

Writers are readers first and foremost. But recently the onslaught of work has been so overwhelming my reading has come to a virtual standstill. The time it takes to write, pitch, research, keep up with the business of writing (with more research required), prepare for my classes, teach, network, do my volunteer work in the community—I feel like I’m skating across my days like a madman on black ice. More and more often I wake up with a jolt of apprehension clenched in my gut. I know I’m behind, I know I can’t keep up, I know the stakes.

Read? For pleasure? It is to laugh.

One sneaky outlet I always had was the High Crimes book group I lead at my local indie bookstore. I knew that I’d get to read at least one book I wanted to each month. But even that has fallen apart on me. During December I was supposed to be reading Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling. I loved the book, and was really enjoying it, but I got only halfway through by the time the group met to discuss it.

I promised to do better this month with Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, a book I again was loving, but I barely got past page 20. I’m not exaggerating.

This isn’t just irritating, it’s irresponsible. I’m letting my group down. Worse, I feel like I’m letting myself down.

I’m not one of those writers who can’t read fiction when he’s writing. I actually get inspired reading fiction I admire and relish when I’m working on my own book. I take care of the voice-infection problem, the possibility that what I’m reading will seep into my own voice, by going back over what I’ve written the day before as I begin working and tidying it up before moving on to new pages. But now that inspirational fertilization of my imagination, that spur to my creativity, is absent. And I feel it.

I know we all have TBR piles that seem overwhelming. My TBR pile became a box, then several boxes, then a closet, and now pretty much consumes a whole second office. In no particular order (who has time to prioritize what you’ll never get to do?):

The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter

Lucifer at the Starlight by Kim Addonizio

The City The City by China Miéville

The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer

Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

Spooner by Pete Dexter

The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell

Nothing to be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane

Dreamland by Newton Thornburg

Murder City by Charles Bowden

2666 by Roberto Bolaño

The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow

The Hidden Assassins by Robert Wilson

The Dead Yard by Adrian McKinty

Body of Lies by David Ignatius

Ash & Bone by John Harvey

The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst

He Kills Coppers by Jake Arnott

Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo

I’m just listing the ones in easy reach. There are so many more—including books written by my friends and my fellow Murderateros. And I have to reread James Crumley’s The Wrong Case for an article I’ve been asked to do, and I should probably reread The Last Good Kiss while I’m at it, and I’m reading a number of writing guides as I conduct my courses and write my own book on character, and and and…

It’s not just that I feel like a slaggard. I feel like I’m letting the most important thing, one of my life’s greatest pleasures, slip away. And in no small way, it’s killing me.

Warren Zevon wrote an anthem to life at full throttle: “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.” I’m beginning to think that’s when I’ll get some reading in.

So, Murderateros—what book or books have you been aching to get to but just can’t? What is it that’s swallowing up your days? Is the pace of modern life really accelerating or are we just becoming increasingly scattered and unfocused? And if we don’t read, who will?

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: Take a wild guess.

26 thoughts on “The Books I’m Not Reading

  1. David Corbett

    This is one of those raucous days for me. I'll do my best to chime in every hours or so, but I'll be scrambling — so please let me know your thoughts, and I'll get back to you as soon as I can. Thanks.

  2. Shizuka

    Since I'm not good at delaying gratification that's right in front of me, I don't have a TBR pile as much as a list.

    Hell Is Empty by Craig Johnson

    The second and third books in the Hunger Games Trilogy

    A Game of Lies by Rebecca Cantrell

    The Preacher by Camilla Lackberg

    The Statistical Probability of Love At First Sight by Jennifer E. Sight

    something by Robert Crais (have been meaning to try him)

    One of the realities of living in New York is that I ride the subway a lot. And that's built in time to read or listen to an audiobook so even on crazy days I seem to read for a good forty minutes. And when I run errands, I listen to an audiobook — antisocial, but it keeps me from going crazy on lines and that, I figure, is a public service.

    With working for myself, writing, and some volunteering, time's a crunch and I don't get to read entire books in one day like I used to. But sometimes I take a "sick" day and spend it reading.

    Time-saving devices, etc. should make us less busy than our parents were, but
    we're expected to be constantly available and in-touch AND I think we expect ourselves to keep up with the world and the news in a frenetic way.

    One time-suck I've managed okay is social media.
    If I ever get published, I'll probably be a lousy self-marketer.
    Sometimes I don't check Facebook for weeks and I don't tweet or follow tweets because it's too hectic. I do read the blogs I love, like Murderati, but they're few and far between.

    And I try to know the major things that are going on — wars, Presidential elections, major crimes in my city — but I ignore most of the news. It changes too fast, there's too much, and who knows which of it is even semi-true?

    So maybe being a little cut off or disengaged is what gives me time to read.
    And that's probably a bad thing as a writer.

    BTW: Bel Canto is one of my favorites.

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Everyone here knows I've been catching up on my cable TV more than reading (and it occurs to me that I often do that in the last brain-dead stages of writing a book).. But I did get the chance to read Stephen King's massive 11/22/63 recently, and I have been inspired to reread Val McDermid after my recent Wire in the Blood TV binge. But most of my reading right now is non fiction with titles like Red Mafiya and McMafia.

  4. Steven Torres

    Well, I'm glad to see that none of my books are on your TBR list. I'm assuming they've been read already…

    As an English professor, I always have reading to do – sometimes it's Shakespeare, sometimes it's student papers. I was reading novels for a contest until the first week of January this past year. That's a killer. 300 books came my way. Good to know that there is a certain level of competence out there. If anyone tells you all that gets published is crap, I've got evidence that nothing could be further from the truth.

    And I've taken on the fiction editing at Crimespree Magazine. Quite a bit of work there.

    Reading a commentary on the book of Ephesians by Harold Hoehner for my own sanity. Does that count?

  5. David Corbett

    Shizuka: I think you're right about the news, there's a fast-food element to it that I think can be addicting but ultimately unfulfilling. Better to read non-fiction books than waste time with news. If you have the time, ho ho.

    To wit: Alex, I think McMafia's a great book. Haven't gotten to Red Mafiya. But that's exactly the kind of thing I'm reading, just based in Mexico: Murder City, El Narco, The Black Hand. When I get a free moment.

    Steven: I had a feeling I'd get more than one note like yours — Hey, where's my book? (Trust me, I'm gonna catch hell from more than one friend.) You see the problem. You were actually high on my list when i was researching DO THEY KNOW I'M RUNNING?, but I had to choose: Another book on Mexico or these based in Puerto Rico? I hate this. I wanted to read you side by side with Paco Taibo. Guess what happened? And I didn't even get to read more than bits and pieces of him!

    Also, I get inundated with books from publishers, and I can't say I totally concur with your assessment of what the major houses are putting out. It's not dreck, more like clever mediocrity. But there remain exceptional books coming out as well–like Sebastian Rotella's Triple Crossing and Tom Franklin's Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. (I'm sure there's more, but the excellent will always, by definition, be rare.)

    Alex & Shizuka: As much as I liked what I read of Bel Canto, I also feel that the omniscient narrator has fallen out of favor for good reason. Even with as lovely and rich a voice as Patchett's, it's still cool and distant and reflective, not immediate and dramatic. Now, that's a minor quibble for a wonderful book, but I found myself wondering: Why so much narration, so few real scenes?

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Well, you're only 20 pages into it, you said! But if you ask me, the initially cool narration is actually quite subjective – it's omniscient but it's also conveying the POV and emotional state of the main character, the Japanese businessman, who starts off the story as cool and dispassionate, with a secret passion that comes more and more to the surface as the he and the whole story and all the characters open themselves to a crazy mutual love. Patchett is really brilliant that way.

  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Hopefully, others will read the books, since we've taken our vows to be writers first and readers second. However, I am like you in that I have to read a book at all times, even (or especially) when I'm writing. I still try to read one book a week, although it has stretched to one every two weeks at times. And yes, I feel like my life is being swallowed up and I have to begin to say "no" at some point. But who wants to say no? We do this stuff because we love it. But it does sap our lives.
    I think the tough thing is when we agree to read books to blurb. Again, it's something we want to do – to give back. We know how much those blurbs meant to use when we needed them. Hell, it's an honor just to be asked to blurb someone's book. But it can get rough, trying to balance that with all the other shit we do, and there is so very little we actually get paid for. I wish we were all Leisure Class authors, just flitting about the English countryside writing what we want when we want. This writing to survive stuff is for the birds. But, back to your original question…yes, I wish I had more time to read.

  8. Allison Davis

    I am at work so I can't begin to go down the stack of books on either side of my bed, spilling out by the couch or stuffed into the bookshelves. Maybe I can just list the books that are actually laying on my bed. I must finish Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson and Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America. I'm reading a book about Mercury by Dr. Jane Hightower, a SF internist about mercury in fish. Robert Crais new novel is sitting there but only because it was the last one received, The Shirt On His Back (Benjamin January Mystery), and two others .

    I always joke that in an earthquake I'd be crushed by my TBR stack. The only time I can really read is when I take a few days off from work. Over the holidays I read The Help finally all day and into the night, it was luxurious. With the world as it is, instant, quick, right now, taking time to bask in a book is hard.

  9. David Corbett

    Alex: Point taken. (I actually made a bit more of an inroad yesterday afternoon, and I'm hellbent on finishing it.) And I do love how she establishes Hosokawa, who is a fascinating character, as is his translator, Gen. But given the musical nature of the theme, I was kind of expecting sooner or later a little accelerando from the andante. My inner writer clock was going: Okay, time for a scene. But she has a different clock.

    Stephen: The worst part about it is that I know reading makes me a better writer, and I can't get to it. I don't need to read everything, but there are some books I really do feel, by not reading them, I'm diminished somehow.

    I wish I had days off from work, Allison. And I know yours are few and far between.

  10. Gar Haywood

    David: I'm feeling you on this post big time. I've always thought of myself as a reader first and a writer second, and the absence of time to read for pleasure now is killing me. And God, there are so many great books out there to read. Some of the titles on your list alone are making me salivate. I've read Wilson and Furst before and love their stuff.

    I don't know about you, but I'm going to start using the tough-love approach in this matter and MAKE time for reading. Set thirty minutes aside every day for doing absolutely, positively nothing else.

    I'll let you know how that goes…

  11. Larry Gasper

    Taking one of your classes is putting me in a time crunch with my reading, David. I can't imagine what it's like teaching more than one at a time. Between work, the class and reading for the book I'm working on there's not a lot of time for purely recreational reading. I'm putting Robert Crais' new book off until the class is over.
    What I have been reading for fun is a lot of short story collections on my Kindle. I can read a whole story without getting immersed in the world and find the whole evening is gone when I look up.
    I've recently read Gar's "Lyrics for the Blues" and really enjoyed it, as well as "West Coast Crime Wave." Good story you had in there, David. Next up is Reed Farrell Coleman's "The Brooklyn Rules."

  12. David Corbett

    Larry: Imagine what the crunch would be if we had 12 students in the class. (Or if I had 12 in both classes.) Thanks for the attaboy on the story. It is, without a doubt, one of the oddest stories I've ever written.

  13. Susan Shea

    You've nailed this, David. Isn't it crazy that the very thing that propelled us into writing is so hard to squeeze into our lives? I know it's not good for me as a writer to be isolated from so many other voices, especially now that our writers' group has disbanded. I have piles next to the bed, on the table in the living room, crowding out space on my desk, plus stacked two deep on the floor-to-ceiling bookcase here in my study and in the big one in the living room – fiction, non-fiction, even a little poetry. This can't go on. But I had to buy Stuart Neville's latest because The Ghosts of Belfast was stunning, and The God of the Hive because I have a soft spot for Laurie King's Mary and Sherlock series, and three books by my Ladykillers co-bloggers and, and and…If I were churning out novels of my own, I could deal with it better, but the weight of all this undone work is even dragging down my own productivity. Something Must Be Done! (like what, she says?)

  14. Zoë Sharp

    Interesting post, David. Interestingly, I just finished Don Winslow's THE DAWN PATROL and thoroughly enjoyed it – nobody does present tense quite like him.

    I've recently been trying to work through my TBR shelf, including Jim Fusilli, Susan Hill, Steve Berry and Quintin Jardine, but finishing the latest WIP has been eating into reading time. And now I have to read the entries for a young writers' award I'm judging again this year. The TBR shelf doesn't seem to get any emptier …

  15. David Corbett

    Gar: I think you've got the solution. Unfortunately, it's also my solution for exercise. (I used tor ead at the gym when I did my cardio, but now I ride my boke and that time is gone for reading.)

    Susan: See Gar's solution. (I really do believe that "tough love" is the right way to think about it and the only way to go about it.)

    Zoe: No, there is a physical law in the universe — TBR piles can only expand. Einstein proved this, I think.

  16. Susan Shea

    David, I read for 30 minutes every night before bed, but I'm not a fast reader, I guess, or Einstein's proof works in my house. If I stayed offline for an hour a day, however…that's probably the next step. Need that software you mentioned!

  17. David Corbett

    Then software is called Freedom, Susan. Ten bucks. I turn it on in the morning to make sure I get uninterrupted writing time.

    With the net, we're our own worst enemies.

  18. Lynn in Texas

    David, I've been practicing what Gar suggested for YEARS now, and learning how to say no to things and people. I MAKE time, and try to enjoy life more, as it can get overwhelming! (Yes, I often stay offline and do other things, then it's kinda fun to catch up.)

    Like Susan, I make it a habit to read before bed almost every night, even if I wake up with "book face", and sleeping on my reading glasses!

    As to the video, I hope Warren's enjoying his nap now. Well deserved. (Somebody had to say it!) 😉

  19. David Corbett

    Lynn: I try to read at night but the nod-off factor limits me terribly. Kudos to you for making it work, but I have to carve out some QT time for reading, not just BT.

    And I knew I could count on you to appreciate the vid.

  20. KDJames

    David, reading your list all I can think is it's a damn good thing we don't share living space because none of your books are on my TBR list and I'm fairly certain none of mine are on yours and, well, that makes for one hell of a lot of books in a place. Although more and more of mine are ebooks these days.

    I have to read pretty much every day or I go a little bit (more) insane. Usually it's how I end my day. Unfortunately, I tend to become engrossed and not stop until I realize it's some ungodly hour of the near-morning. That said, I've been reading a lot of fluff lately. Books that don't require much thought. And yes, also some really good thrillers. I tell you, between the day job and the writing, there isn't much brain power left at day's end. Although, now that someone has expressed a rather emphatic interest in reading my ms once it's done– well, probably it would be in my best interests to finish it. Soon. So even though reading is the antidote to a day spent crunching numbers, I imagine there will be less of it (and more writing) in my near future.

    I can only hope there will be one or two people left in the world who still have time to read, if it ever sees publication. Because if it's just going to be a coaster or a doorstop, I'm done right now. Hmmm…

  21. David Corbett

    KD: I think I'm hearing a refrain from many of us that reading is what we look forward to at day's end. But many of us are so exhausted by then we don't have time to enjoy it as much as you clearly do — at the expense of sleep, though, form the sounds of it. I envy you. I drop off then wake up at 3 AM, then try to catnap till 5 when I get up and put in my writing time. But the candle's getting burned on both ends in your case and mine as well, and as we all seem to have said — sumthin's gotta give.

    And yes, keep on plugging at the MS. Get something done every day. It may seem like small effort some days but those daily increments add up. And it's really hard to maintain focus if you don't go at it every day. Best of luck — one dedicated reader is all you need to find out what works and what needs work. Best of luck.

  22. KDJames

    Thanks, David. I'm working on the final (god, please) draft. I have several dedicated readers/friends and they've been cheering me on for years now. They are invaluable. And patient beyond belief. But this latest interest comes from someone more accurately described as an industry professional. So, yeah, the sense of urgency has been ratcheted up. Just a bit.

    Hope you find a balance that allows you to replenish the well even as you draw from it. We all need that balance. And sleep. Sleep is good. So I hear.

  23. David Corbett

    KD: That's great news. Let it excite you — not paralyze you. The interest wouldn't be there if there wasn't merit to what you're working on. Gain inspiration from that. And yeah, the rumor is that sleep is good. But nobody knows for sure.

  24. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I'm very concerned about all these people who don't seem to be sleeping. No sleep, no dreams. No dreams, bad writing.

    I highly recommend melatonin. I'm a 3 AM waker too, but just one milligram (the regular pills are 3 mg.) at 3 AM will get me those extra hours with no side effects in the morning. Lifesaving. And it's miraculous for jet lag, too.

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