I love reading. Like many people (though perhaps a dwindling number), I find no greater stimulus for the imagination than reading a good novel. Yet each time I finish a book, I face a problem—what will I read next? The problem stems from the fact that the older I get, the longer the list of books I want to read gets, but the time I have left to read them is inevitably getting shorter. So each time I start a new one, it means that something on my list has to be cut out.
This might sound as if my book list is meticulously managed, though in reality I never actually write down a list, and frequently new titles jump to the top of the list in my mind, reflecting a shift in my interests as time goes on. For example, I’m currently reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, having previously read a couple of her earlier books--The Little Friend and The Secret History. Six months ago I had never heard of Tartt (an unfortunate name, as in British English a ‘tart’ is a loose woman, a whore), but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed her books, principally because she has such a knack of forming rounded characters. All her protagonists are youngsters who come from dysfunctional families and struggle to make sense of the world, which must strike a chord with many teenagers today.
Though I once studied a speed-reading course in order to get through huge book lists on academic courses, by nature I’m a slow reader, perhaps because I love to linger over evocative phrases or go back to re-read a paragraph from earlier in the book. This means that it can take me a month or more to finish a book. When I extrapolate the maths, it’s scary. Ten books a year? Maybe 20 years more on this planet if I’m lucky? Maximum 200 books. If I wanted to torture myself, I could probably list 500 books right now that I’d like to read, but I won’t.
So what’s my current book list? I never let it get long, but a few I’m eager to get into are…
Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh. The last in his trilogy about the opium wars of the 1840s. Coming out in May 2015! If you haven’t read them, I can highly recommend Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke, the first two in this series.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Another historical novel that’s had rave reviews.
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler. The latest offering from one of the great storytellers.
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. I’m forever trying to plug gaps in my reading of the classics, and this story of greed and corruption seems like it probably still has relevance today.
William Morris by E.P. Thompson. A biography of one of my heroes that’s been gathering dust on my bookshelf for far too long.
Though book lists have been around an awful long time (probably since the first book was printed), bucket lists are a relatively new concept. The term was popularized by the 2007 movie The Bucket List, starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, and refers to a list of things people want to do before they ‘kick the bucket’, or die. The etymology of ‘kick the bucket’ is unclear, though various theories have been proposed. One suggests it came from people who commit suicide by hanging themselves and kick a bucket from beneath them to complete the act. Another claims that in the 16th century, a ‘bucket’ also referred to a beam that was used to hang pigs from when they were slaughtered, and no doubt these beams received a few kicks from the unfortunate porkers.
Whatever the origin of ‘kick the bucket’, bucket lists have become hugely popular these days, and now you can even buy guide books with titles like Make the Most of Your Time on Earth, which list thousands of options from which to build your own personalized bucket list. While I enjoyed the movie (Nicholson’s mischievous grin never fails to excite me), their bucket list of visiting the pyramids in Egypt, the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal in India seemed little more than an excuse for including a host of different locations in one movie. Then again, I guess that’s what movies are for, so the rest of us can get vicarious pleasure out of others doing what we can’t.
I haven’t yet written my own bucket list, and I doubt I’ll ever get round to it. It seems to me that if I do, it will consist of unattainable goals that I’ll regret not having achieved when I’m on my deathbed. But who knows? Maybe I’ll end up like Morgan Freeman, sharing my last days in a hospital next to a Nicholson-like billionaire who’ll make all my dreams come true. Now where’s that pen and paper?
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.