An Anatomy of Lists

“One must always be careful of books,” said Tessa, “and what is inside them, for words have the power to change us.”

– Cassandra Clare, Clockwork Angel

Late last year, I began writing a list. I should have known better. My lists have a history of evolving from a few bullet points to life-consuming catalogues that never end.

It may already be obvious I am an avid book lover, and that most of what I read is speculative fiction. My attitude is, what’s the point of reading about ‘real’ life when I have a real life of my own to put up with? I want to change reality. I want to wave my fingers, or at least a pen, and conjure dragons from the clouds, portals from bare brick. But I also have a wide-ranging sense of curiosity, a feeling of obligation to the classics, and an unshakeable optimism that comes with the arrival of a brand new calendar. All this resulted in an unmanageable accumulation of mental notes on what I wanted to read in the new year. I set myself the challenge of venturing into unfamiliar genres, diving after anything that caught my fancy. 2012, the year of broadened horizons. The list would get me there.

The thing is, I still haven’t finished writing it. I can’t stop adding things. By now I’ve got a backlog literally numbering in the hundreds. I couldn’t get through that many within the space of one year if I abandoned all other pursuits and did nothing else but read. Which admittedly sounds nice. Someone will recommend an old favourite, or I’ll see an interesting blurb in a bookshop; my local library keeps sending newsletters of fantasy and science fiction. Much loved authors release new books, or I find out they’ve written books I haven’t read. Then there are the classics that all cultured and intelligent people are supposed to know. This is no longer just a list. It’s a physical embodiment of personal ambition. I want to get all the references, understand all the hidden jokes. I want to uncover worlds I didn’t know existed and explore their secrets. I want to build myself Daedalus wings from the pages of every book I encounter and fly beyond the horizons of my limited knowledge. I want to add a thousand incandescent strands to my personal web of reading.

What I want may not be possible. There will be books on the List I may not be able to find, let alone stomach; books I will abandon halfway through because they’re boring or depressing or there’s something else I want to read more. There are books on that list just for the challenge they represent. I may hate them. Once that might have been enough to make me turn back for safer waters, but not any more, or at least not right now. Everyone is reaching for a personal horizon – to paint that picture, reproduce that recipe, run that marathon, play that song. I want to read those books. So here I am, at the end of 2012, with the list unrolling away from my metaphorical feet like a road of words.

When I’ve read them…well. Who knows what they will make me want to do next?

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