This book should be consumed within six months of purchase

I read a lot, but not as much as I’d like, or rather, not as many books as I’d like, which isn’t quite the same thing. New books emerge every week, I hear about old ones or get recommendations, and my To Read pile (which has now taken over the original cupboard and a small bookcase) keeps on growing. Inevitably some books get pushed to the back – I get a new one that attracts me more immediately, or I borrow a book so I only have a short window of opportunity. There are books on my shelves that I’ve moved off the To Read pile because I’ll get round to them when I get round to them, and they’re taking up room.

Which brings me to my current problem, which isn’t so much a problem as a pang of regret with a lesson attached. Some books have a Read By date.

By this I don’t mean some flavour of the month bestseller that wasn’t very good anyway, so needs to be read during the hype period while all your friends are insisting it’s ironic and subversive – so bad it’s bloody marvellous. What I mean is there are books you grow out of, and not just the ones whose puerile humour appealed at 14 and appalls at 40.

The book I’ve been slowly reading on my daily commute for the last couple of weeks is an abridged (but still hefty) edition of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I bought it, as far as I can remember, with a Christmas book token 13 or 14 years ago and had I read it then I’m sure I would have enjoyed it a whole lot more. I had more uninterrupted reading time, I could remember a lot more Latin (Gibbon assumes, no doubt perfectly reasonably for the time, that if you’re reading his book you must be educated enough to translate the Latin quotes and inscriptions, so he doesn’t patronise his readers by doing it for them), and I had more of an idea which order the Roman emperors came in and what each was usually remembered for. Even 8 years ago when I did a couple of open learning courses on the early middle ages at my (then) local university, I would have been immersed in the period though my Latin was already patchy.

The lesson to take away from this is: don’t keep shoving things to the back of your To Read cupboard.

Unless it’s: don’t buy more books than you can manage.

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