It’s no secret that I have a book problem, right? I mean, I accidentally ended up in the remainders section of Gower Street Waterstones today and came out with a PG Wodehouse and Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo Papers – and I only have about 40 books in my to-read pile.
It’s also no secret that many of us in the 20–40 age bracket in the western hemisphere have what might be termed a ‘personal branding’ problem – the essentially automatic editing-presenting of the bits of our lives we choose to present to the world via social media in a way that reflects our sense of ‘us’.
In my case there are certain things I’m ‘proud’ of – a general eclecticism in my cultural tastes, that takes me to McBusted one day and the ballet two days later, with the same amount of joy – but like all such things, it comes with a worrying amount of snobbishness about the things that don’t fit; sometimes a snobbishness about some bits of popular culture, and sometimes a snobbishness about over-intellectualism; and layer upon layer of complexity. This thing here, this thing there, this in that situation, that in this other situation. It’s not even exhausting, it’s so innate – but it is, I think, limiting. I might make a big deal about not wanting to get stuck in my box, but really, unless the right person at the right time acts as a voice of authority, recommending me something that might not naturally cross my path in such a way that makes me take a chance on it (say, making me watch One Direction videos until I can identify all the members of the group…), I’m probably going to end up staying in it – or rather, in my set of boxes, because like most people, I have a collection of interconnecting boxes.
A lot of the time, with my, this appears in my reading. What I read, when and where I read it, where and what I talk about – what I admit to, and what I don’t, and where. I pick books for commuter journeys, long train journeys, and holidays around what I feel like reading at that point in time, and on what I want to be seen reading. I love my kindle, partly because I don’t have to limit myself to the books that will fit in my bag, and partly because I don’t have to make these choices in the same way, but in many ways, the lack of that framework makes it significantly harder for me to choose what to read next. Yes, I know.
This continues on, into the choices I make about the books I keep, and why. For example, my copy of The Da Vinci Code, read in an attempt to understand what all the fuss was about and a desire not to reject something just because it was insanely popular (one which may have backfired, as I am now deeply sceptical of the insanely popular book in large part because of wasting my time on The Da Vinci Code), is now stashed somewhere in my parents loft. I refuse to have it on my shelves – and I have no desire to re-read it, so what would be the point? But equally, I refuse to give it away in case someone else wastes their time reading it. And I’m not into burning, or even pulping, books. That’s ridiculous, right?
Meantime, in my ongoing attempt to reduce the number of books I own by being realistic about what I’m going to re-read, or lend out but want back, I am continuing to refuse to get rid of my copy of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. I do not dislike SSTLS. But nor do I love it. When asked if I would recommend it, I um and ah about it, and make noises about how I think it’s very good and very smart, and worryingly on the nose about the kind of world we live in and the future we’re creating – and also about how I didn’t really love it, so maybe you should read it, if you think you might like that kind of thing. It really doesn’t need to stay in my possession. I’m not going to read it again. But – and here’s the thing. I like being the kind of person who has read Super Sad True Love Story (and has some opinions about it, obviously) – I have a picture in my head about the kinds of people who have and would read it – and I like it remaining on my bookshelves as a testament to me being one of them. It is also, sadly ridiculous, because honestly, who cares – and why do I care if they care?
I’m not sure that there’s any shame in developing a sense of identity, or making choices about the person you want to be – or in that being reflected in certain cultural choices. But I worry that this becomes so natural that it dominates us – or rather, in my case, I worry that it’s orientated the wrong way, towards making the wrong impression on the wrong people for the wrong reasons. I probably need someone in my life with a claxon to call me out on my nonsense. To run their eye along my bookshelves and toot a horn and say, ‘Hannah, this is the wrong kind of pretentious display, GIVE THIS ONE UP NOW.’
That’s kind of scary, for me. But let’s start with this: if you want a copy of Super Sad True Love Story, let me know, and I’ll arrange for it to reach you.