The room is dark. I lie flat on my bed. My breathing is deep, fast and measured, like I’m working my way through a panic attack. And while I can’t see it and it is totally silent, I know it’s there – judging me, taunting me, waiting for me. It knows I’ll see it again when I turn on the light and feel the gut-punch of failure, the heartbreak of an opportunity missed, an ocean liner sailing off into the horizon with my true love aboard it. My life is being made a misery, my sleep patterns destroyed, my bedroom a prison. And all because of a pile of books – I am being haunted by the ghosts of books I have yet to read.
What am I thinking, I sometimes idly wonder, as I peruse the shelves of my nearest bookseller or the crowded, noisy pages of Amazon? Where do I think the time to read all these books is going to come from? I’m the ultimate spoiled brat with eyes bigger than my belly, reaching out for the biggest ice cream, my tongue lolling out the side of my mouth. I’m the lonely insurance salesman in the hotel, convincing himself he’s the kind of man who could maybe have a one-night stand behind his wife’s back.
Seduced by their covers, wooed by the cutesy little cards featuring “staff reviews” and ratings out of 10, totally taken in by the feel and the smell of them, I take them home and find, in the cold, unforgiving light of my cluttered flat, that maybe I don’t need to get down to business right away. Maybe we can just… talk? So away they go, to the pile of books by my bed, or on my dining table or, the ultimate injustice, on the arm of the sofa bed in the spare room, until they stack so high, groaning like a pile of washing-up in a bachelor pad, that they have to be crammed into already straining shelves, or filed away into boxes I know I’ll never open again. My shame, locked away.
I would like to lie and tell you that I have a really busy life and no time for reading, or that as a writer myself, I find I’m too easily influenced by others’ witticisms or turns of phrase, that I’m worried I might accidentally plagiarise the work of someone I adore. And while there is a grain of truth in that, I have to be honest with myself: I’m reading less because I’m dicking about on social media too much, or reading comment pieces online and having mild, irrelevant outrages about them, or drinking, or collapsing in front of the sofa and watching TV. Whatever I’m doing too much of, it certainly isn’t reading.
I miss it so much. Because I work from home, I no longer suffer a daily commute, but back in the day I would look forward to getting reacquainted with my book each morning, picking up where I’d left off the night before, praying I could be a stop farther away than I actually was. As a child, books were my escape from mundane, endless summer holidays, or school bullies, and I never forgot how they were always there for me. But now my attention span has dwindled to a degree that would make a gnat look like a scholar and, to my huge regret, the act of sitting on the sofa and curling up with a book feels like it would be a chore. I worry I’ve forgotten how to read, like really read. Too many years glancing at a scrolling screen has driven a wedge between me and my once-beloved printed page.
I realised just how bad things had got recently when a friend bought me a book for Christmas. It was a book I was dying to read, but the sheer weight of the task ahead – it was hardback and a pretty hefty one at that – terrified me. I began to feel overwhelmed by all those words, all that story just waiting to unfurl. Just as the idea of committing to a boxset of a long-running TV show strikes me with dread, books now too make me feel like I just won’t be up to the job.
So why am I still buying books? Why do my shelves glare back at me with pristine, uncracked spines from end to end? There’s something so satisfying about buying a book, isn’t there? You feel like you’re going on an adventure. The sight of it slipping into a carrier bag – don’t forget these things are 5p in the UK now, so it’s an even bigger investment – is joyous. It’s an old cliche about “new book smell” I know, but sometimes cliches are true, and it really is beautiful. My intentions are always good. I promise this time it will be different – but life, and laziness, tend to intervene.
But things are changing. My brain needs me. Others need me. Over the last few months, friends who’ve written books have been sending me review copies of their work. For reasons best known to themselves, they want my opinion, they want my eyes on their prize. And I take any duties very seriously. I still feel the angst when I hold the books in my hand, but I know I have to do it. Scrolling screens won’t feed my vocabulary, or my imagination, or my book-loving soul. So I’m back, I’m reading. I can do this. I can be one of you again.
Stare all you want, overfilled bookshelves. Loiter with menace if you must, pile of books by my bed. You won’t be safe much longer, I am coming for you. Your perfect spine is mine. Time to open up.
The Guyliner is a writer and editor from London. He writes about dating and gives relationship advice to readers of Gay Times magazine. And he promises he's working his way through the pile of books