Italo Calvino begins his magnificent tale-within-a-tale, If On a Winters's Night a Traveller..., by imagining the hapless reader in a bookstore, about to stumble on the very book he has just started reading. Before finding the new work by Calvino, though, the reader must survive a veritable onslaught of silent reproaches from row upon row of books across the store. The Books You Haven't Read are prominently displayed at the entrance, and their accumulated critical acclaim weighs heavily on the conscience of those seeking to keep up with Literature. Around the corner lie the Classics, thick Greek, Russian and German Masterpieces which no self-respecting reader can do without. Then there are the specialist books of one's profession, promising new insights, and more diffuse categories, such as the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books That Everybody's Read So It's As If You Had Read Them Too, and my personal favourite, the Books You've Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It's Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them.
This mixture of excitement and of guilt, even shame, is probably familiar to avid readers the world over. There is the joy at finding a new work by a favourite author, the smell of freshly printed bestsellers, the visual onslaught of trendy contemporary covers, and the blessing of celebrity authors gazing down from their monumental photo portraits. And yet inevitably the gaze is also drawn to that which one really should read if one only had the time, to that which everyone else has read and raved about, to reprints of perennial classics one has vowed again and again to tackle. Titles and covers also conjure up the piles of unread books languishing by the bedside and the pristine editions tucked away in a far corner of one's library.
The truth that relentlessly bears down upon one is that there are simply too many books and too little time. A few stolen evening hours, the occasional lazy Sunday, those two days when it was pouring down in Paris, these snatches of reading time cannot even begin to weigh up against the combined efforts of imaginative novelists, politicians with beans to spill, skilful chroniclers of our time, the confessed excesses of celebrities, and scientific theories masterfully rendered in layman's terms. The hapless reader is simply no match for ambitious publishers and skilful marketing, for a veritable mountain range of books with grows to new heights each passing day.
The mathematics, when contemplated, are unforgiving. Even the corner bookstore has more titles than one could read in one's remaining years, were one to do nothing else. More interesting books are published every single day than can possibly be read in a year. The accumulated store of the world's literature and knowledge is so vast that even limiting oneself to one in a thousand would overwhelm one's senses and one's life.
Although any visit to a well-stocked bookstore seems inevitably tinged with shame and regret, an unwelcome reminder of one's limited time and the shortness of life, the profusion of available books, the overwhelming sensation of there being so much more than one could ever take in, is also a blessing. Indeed, the sheer inexhaustible, continuously replenished stock of writing assures us of never wanting for something exciting to read. There is more than enough for every taste, there are mountains to consume for lovers of magical realism, of sarcastic travel writing or autobiographical psychobabble.
The pile of unread books which grows taller alongside every tome that we do finish, our falling further and further behind in our attempt to keep up with what's new out there, are in effect the best indicators of plenty. All the unread masterpieces and novel perspectives, all the stories and tales which will be left untold, are a sure sign of wealth. The blessing lies in the reality of standing amidst a overflowing fount of thinking and writing, of being able to pick and choose, and yet still be assured of excellence. The more we can afford to leave untouched, the more wealthy we truly are.
And upon reflection we discover that this is true not only of books, of course, but of all the things we encounter in life. The corner travel agent will be able to send us to more destinations than we can manage in a lifetime, and yet it is precisely that overkill which allows us to revel in the feeling of being able to go absolutely anywhere. Our portable player coyly informs us that it will take two hundred and sixty days of continuous listening to hear all that it contains, and yet that information makes us appreciate the track we do select even more.
We are surrounded on all sides with more than we could ever hope to handle. There are more possible encounters and conversations to have with those who cross our path everyday than can fit in our lifetime, and all that abundance makes any walk down a city street into a delicious profusion of possible and unused opportunities. The paradoxical truth is that the larger the pile of unused experiences, the greater our wealth. We are truly living in the age of plenty.