On the Books We Choose and Those We Don’t

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In this moving essay at LitHub, Steve Edwards reflects on how his reading life, specifically the books he chose and also the books he didn’t choose, has changed him over the years as a writer and as a person.

In my twenties the question was never “What do I want to read?” but rather “Who do I want to be?”—and bookstores were shrines I pilgrimaged to for answers. I didn’t have much money and had to be intentional in my selections. I’d pull a book from the shelf and study its cover, smell its pages, wander into the weather of its first lines and imagine the storms to come—imagine a wiser, wilder me for having been swept away by them. It’s something I still feel in my forties. I’m still dazzled by possibilities when I walk into a bookstore.

But it’s not the same.

Now when I wander the aisles, it’s not just some future self I imagine but a past one. There aren’t just books to read but books I’ve already read. Lives I’ve lived. Hopes abandoned. Dreams deferred. The bookstore is still a shrine but more and more what I find aren’t answers to questions but my own unwritten histories.

Choosing is always a sweet sorrow. I don’t mean to lament that fact only to point out that, as with rivers, you never step into the same bookstore twice. And while I remain dazzled by the promise and possibility bookstores offer, I’ve found myself becoming somewhat apprehensive of them. Who needs the reminder of all you never were? Or of all you were but won’t ever be again? At 44 I feel a pressure that wasn’t there in my twenties.

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