My Book Purgatory

I’m a recent convert from IRL reading to e-reading, and I’m already finding that my iPad replicates the original experience so closely that I’m starting to accumulate a digital book purgatory, just like my IRL book purgatory.

What’s a book purgatory? It’s the land of books that are waiting to ascend to the state of having been read. If you’re a regular reader, you have one—real, digital, or both.

My digital book purgatory only has a couple of inhabitants, and I’ve at least started both of them: David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, which demands the kind of tolerance for the detailed description of life’s minutae that I can only rarely summon; and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which reads like a children’s book where people get eaten by giant vaginas. American Gods will probably at some point get polished off—I mean, come on, giant man-eating vaginas!—but I’ve accepted the fact that I may go to my own grave without ever having finished The Pale King.

I’ve been working on my IRL book purgatory for a lot longer, and it contains…I don’t even want to count. Hundreds of books? Maybe thousands? I keep most of them hidden away at my parents’ house, where they can’t stare me down. How did they all get there? How did I come to own so many books that I’ve never read, and probably never will? Well, let’s see...

Gifts. Woody Allen fans will recognize The Denial of Death as the thick paperback that Alvy Singer awkwardly presents to Annie Hall. Jay Gabler fans—I know you’re out there—may also recognize it as a book that’s been sitting on my shelf since some time in the 20th century. It was a gift from my uncle, who found it meaningful. I would genuinely like to read it, but…whew. Then there are the gifts I asked for, like the companion volume to Matthew Barney’s Cremaster series of art films. I’m not throwing it away! Ever! Someday I’ll read it! Really!

Sales. DAMN YOU, HALF-PRICE BOOKS! You make me spend money on books I want to read, but never will. Now I have less money, less shelf space, and more guilt. And yet you sit there on Ford Parkway, taunting me! Why are you still in business? Oh, that’s right…BECAUSE I’VE SPENT LIKE FIVE MILLION DOLLARS AT YOU. On books I’ll never read, and never throw away.

College classes. Anyone else still have that history of the world from 1500-500 BCE that they paid $45 to buy for that one class freshman year, but never read because you were watching Nightmare Before Christmas and staying up all night trying to throw pens through the hole in the billowing curtain? I mean, it’s probably a really good book! Right? It’s not like I’m just going to throw it away.

Short-lived interests. I used to be really into sci-fi. I also used to be really into classical music. Then there was that time I was really into short stories. And wow, there were those years when I wanted to learn everything I could about art history. Classic young adult fiction? Yeah, that was a thing with me for a while. And I still have all. Those. Books.

Hand-me-downs. I’m not just going to throw away my grandfather’s books, right? I could give them to another family member, I suppose, but would my cousins treat them as well as I do—cherish them and occasionally dust them and never, ever actually read them. 

Series. If you get one volume of Isaac Asimov’s autobiography, it’s not like you’re going to wait to actually read it before you buy the other two volumes, right? Because that would just be silly.

So there they all languish: all the beautiful, fascinating, endlessly patient inhabitants of my book purgatory. They may remain there until the end of the world…but on the bright side, a lot of people say that’s actually coming pretty soon!


Guest  blogger Jay Gabler is arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet and an editor at The Tangential.

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