Guest Post: Tansy Rayner Roberts on Reading as a Luxury

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much for the next week or so. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two YA lit bloggers.

First up we have a fellow Australian, Tansy Rayner Roberts, who’s not only a fine fiction writer, but her reviews and blogging skills are second to none. After reading this post I was overcome with the urge to curl up with a good book.

Tansy is the author of the Creature Court trilogy (HarperCollins Voyager, beginning June 2010) and Siren Beat (Twelfth Planet Press). She can be found on Twitter as @tansyrr and blogs on her own website as well as the Last Short Story project and Ripping Ozzie Reads. Tansy lives in Tasmania with her partner and two young daughters, and has a doctorate in Classics.

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Reading as a Luxury

I haven’t been reading enough lately. (I read all the time, emails, blogs, gchat, ymail, webzines, short stories for review, facebook, twitter, even my daughter prefers an ipod app to a bedtime story some nights.) I can tell I haven’t been reading enough actual books, though, because the to-read shelf is starting to call out to me in a mournful voice.

Poor dear, how it suffers.

A chapter here and there is not satisfying me or the shelf. I need to swamp myself in a papery thing, possibly several papery things back to back, to immerse myself in medicinal literature by the kilo. (I need. To put. The damn. Laptop down. Though not before current writing deadlines are met, obviously]

Talking to Girlie Jones (aka Twelfth Planet Press publisher Alisa Krasnostein) recently about A Book of Endings, I realised that while I had read all the new stories Deb Biancotti wrote for the collection, I had done so in pdf form (I read over 650 short stories for review in e-format last year) and I’d never actually sat down to read the collection properly, beginning to end, the reprint stories mixed in with the new. (The book, in fact, is still wrapped in bubble wrap from when GJ posted it to me) I knew the new stories all blended nicely together, but I wasn’t even sure I had read them in the right order. I wanted the real, genuine experience of sitting down and reading them all properly. I knew how much work Deb and her editors had put into it, and I wanted the full effect.

Only my head went directly from ‘I must read that book’ to this place: ooh, some time Very Soon I will lie on the couch with a box of chocolates, possibly wearing a floaty 1940’s sort of sun dress, and I will consume the delicious and ever so pretty book slowly and voraciously, as nature intended prose to be consumed.

I do love my imagination, it is cruel but creative.

(To unpack the above: my five year old would eat the chocolates or beg more than half of them off me so I’d never buy them in the first place to eat in front of her, and besides the whole chocolate-eating-while-reading thing doesn’t work for me, I can manage a maximum of four before the sugar hits and I start craving something savoury like a vegemite sandwich or gravy, and that’s just not as poetic. Also, I don’t own that dress, or anything like it, well maybe one but it’s pushing it stylewise and there are moth holes in it. Also, every single time in the last three months I have lain on the couch to read a book, I have ended up napping rather than reading, because sleep is another one of those old necessities that now counts as a luxury, did I mention I had a six month old baby?)

Reading is many things to me. It’s a professional necessity, it’s a tool, it’s being part of a community. It’s a sanity-inducing moment of relief from my life of juggling demanding children and an at-times-more-demanding laptop. It’s an escape from technology, and being plugged in. It’s recreation. It’s a distraction. It’s a project, or a task to be completed.

Somewhere along the way, though, it has become a luxury. Something I promise myself, if I just – finish – those – fifteen – tasks – first. On the rare occasions during the week that I do get to read something other than Gossip Girl novels (which are lightweight enough in all senses of the word to be consumed while breastfeeding my baby and thus hardly count as reading at all) I have somehow lost the ability to say ‘yes this is something I need to do’ and so I barely get in a guilty twenty minutes or so to read a chapter before going to do something else.

Books I really really want to read, books I was so excited about that I pre-ordered them to get them early, are lying around unread, or partially read, stacking up against the walls and the chairs. Luxury, my brain tells me. Not now, my brain tells me.

I’m beginning to suspect that my brain and I are not on the same page.

Reading Going Bovine in January, a chapter or two from the end and deathly afraid for the protagonist (as well as my own nerve) I found myself caught between needing to finish a book right now and, you know, getting my five year old off to bed on time, reading her a story, tagging my honey (or vice versa) to do the same.

The book won. For the first time in a very long time. And it felt awesome.

I admit the practicality of the e-book future that is hurtling towards us, and I even welcome it in theory, but I also rail against it. My hardwired memory of books is not just about the words and ideas, it’s about the whole product. The grey cloth cover of Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu, so beautiful that I could not leave it in the bookshop, not for one second longer. My beaten up old orange penguin copy of A Room with a View, and my brand new leather bound edition of the same. Purchasing battered, matching antique green hardbacks of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre as a nine-year-old child, long before I knew that I would love one and hate the other. Every cover on every David Eddings novel I ever bought with my own money as a teenager (possibly I was supposed to buy clothes). Leaving Terry Pratchett hardcover sleeves randomly around the house like fallen apple peelings. The flop. The spines. The end papers. The mysterious blank pages at the end of all my Famous Five novels as a child, which I treated as spare paper, drawing tiny graphic novels to myself. Mysterious inscriptions in second hand books. (To Buster, from Rupert. Is it really from Rupert? Rupert Bear? Why was Rupert Bear giving a book to Buster? Was Rupert temping for Santa that year?)

My reading time is already at such a premium. I compromise my preferred book principles in dozens of tiny guilt-ridden ways, purchasing mostly online (though no longer Amazon) because it’s hard to leave the house, picking up books from Places Which Are Not Cool Indie Bookshops because they’re there, or they’re cheap or, you know, they’re books. However awesome it might be to have an electronic device with several hundred marvellous books packed and ready for next time I go on holiday or have time to read for a whole year with no interruptions (hahahaha that would be twenty-never) it’s just another to read shelf, really. A bigger one, that might make it easier to hide extravagant literary purchases from my honey. And no good could come of that.

(“Honestly, that 100 volume set of 1920’s murder mysteries was on special!”)


  1. Trent Jamieson on #

    That’s exactly how I feel, Tansy. I don’t know how my too read shelf became so big! And it doesn’t help working in a bookstore.

  2. Tansy Rayner Roberts on #

    Hey Trent!

    I re-organised my to read shelf a few months back and it somehow turned into two shelves. They are very long. Okay, it’s an entire bookcase.

    Basically it’s a ‘to read’ shelf and an ‘archived to read’ shelf. Which consists of books that have been there three years or more.

    I think it’s very important that I never work in a bookshop.

  3. Paige on #

    My to-read shelf is actually a neat stack of books beside my bed that is currently serving as a nightstand.

    And now it’s calling me. Off to read!

    …After vlogbrothers.

  4. Gary Kemble on #

    I have had an awesome year this year. World War Z, by Max Brooks. The Strain, by Chuck Hogan and Guillermo Del Toro. Patient Zero by Jonathan Maberry. AND the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson. I’m now reading Horns, by Joe Hill.

    The trade-off has been less writing time. And given that I’m now cranking up my writing, I suspect I may have to cut back on the reading.

    Until recently the kids have required us to sit in their room while we get them off to sleep. At one point I was seriously considering buying night vision goggles so I could read while they went to sleep!

    But maybe a small book light would achieve the same. 🙂 (And possibly not freak out the kids as much)

  5. Sarah Rees Brennan on #

    *looks proudly at almost nonexistent to-be-read pile*

    *looks in dismay at to-be-lived life*

    Oh well, fair trade! I want to hear more about this disliking Jane Eyre but liking Wuthering Heights business though…

  6. Meg on #

    Trent: My “to-read” shelf has also become utterly unmanageable- stacks in front of stacks with paperbacks jammed into the spaces on top- never mind those books on my nightstand, window sill, and piled in front of the stereo I never use because I’m always sitting in front of my laptop with itunes opened. And I, like you, blame my minimum wage bookstore gig. The 35% discount can’t be beat, and I just can’t watch all those wonderful books hit the shelves every day without taking a few (dozen) home with me. It’s a real problem.

    And Tansy, I so relate to the romantic attachment to books as objects. I just can’t interact with ereaders the same way I do with books. I realize that the same text can be contained in a Kindle/nook/ipad, etc. etc., but part of the romance is that the text of, say, Lowry’s The Giver has its own unique home inside the same binding I cracked for the first time in sixth grade. It is its own self-contained entity, not only as a textual work, but as an object (as opposed to a file that one may or may not choose to access through white a piece of plastic with a hard drive and a wireless connection).
    Incidentally, I, around the same age, also discovered a green hard-back antique copy of Jane Eyre, illustrated with reprints of wood etchings. And I keep meaning to get around to it…

  7. HeatherL on #

    You hit it exactly. I was reading your post and (metaphorically) nodding my head appreciatively. And I love your use of parenthesis- I can see you’ve read Terry Pratchett, you use them like he uses footnotes.

    My to-read shelf is both a list in my head and scattered around random bookstores that I stepped into and picked up a random book (which I never finished). Oh books, I miss you. Too many scholarly articles lately- interesting, but not the same.

  8. Sally on #

    Can’t you just make time? If you really want to read you shold read. That’s what I do now. Less time online euqals more time reading.

  9. Tansy Rayner Roberts on #

    Gary: I think you’ll find that ebooks are the solution to that particular problem! I also do a nightly vigil and I have daughterly permission to read from my laptop or iPod.

    Sarah: Heh that might be worthy of a blog post all on its own. I have already attempted to explain the Wuthering Heights love ( but I think I may need to think harder upon the Jane Eyre hate before I come up with something more profound than “I wanted to slap her.” After all, the same could be said for Catherine Earnshaw, but in WH it’s a feature, not a flaw.

    Heather: Ha, you should see my book lists. My to-read shelf mocks them.

  10. Anna on #

    I very much resemble some of this, although as my eldest is nearing 12, my too-read pile has morphed from the small pile it was when I had pre-schoolers to a bookshelf that takes up an entire wall in the back room (paperbacks) plus a double stacked 6’*3′ bookshelf (hardbacks). I dream of time to go into the back room and not coming out except for basic health/survival needs, which probably doesn’t include chocolate!

  11. bookwormchris on #

    Oh yes. I don’t have a bookshelf here, so most of my books are in my desk (not much else in the desk) and the rest are stacked next to the desk. I had something like a dozen books to be read, and then I bought a bunch. Sigh.

    I try to get in a pleasure book every week or so, beyond the several others I read for class.

  12. Kaia on #

    It’s not for nothing that I’ve dubbed Tansy my Book Fairy. Just saying.

  13. rockinlibrarian on #

    Breastfeeding time is the only time I get to read too– make the best of it! Use pillows to prop up bigger books, so you can read whatever it is you really want to read! Of course, then the baby’s done and you want to keep going, but hey, surely you can at least finish the chapter you’re on, right? And then, whoops, I accidentally read the first sentence of the next chapter, now I need to finish this one… and there goes big brother pushing little sister off the couch…. You’re right. I’ve squeezed in a lot of reading using the nursing-then-finishing-chapter method, but it’s still not the same. I should stop reading blogs of the small-child-less– I hate them for their reading marathons…

  14. Krystle Shore on #

    This is so true. Working at a library, surrounded by books I have on a wish list a couple of miles long and wish I could read, with stacks I have to climb over to get to bed at home still unread, reading has become a luxury. I heartily agree with this statement.

  15. Carl V. on #

    What a wonderful post! Your description of actual tangible books and their sentimental value is one of the main reasons I rail against the ebook format. I am currently reading an upcoming short story collection online and although I am really enjoying the stories I find myself turning longingly towards the actual solid, hold-in-my-hand books that are scattered all over the house waiting for me to read.

  16. Tansy Rayner Roberts on #

    Don’t get me wrong, I love the convenience of e-books. And I have lots of them uploaded on my iPod – so nice to not have to fit a paperback into my handbag ever again (though of course I will). But it’s not my preferred option, and even when for instance I have a free review electronic copy, if it’s really marvellous I want to own it in paper form too.

    I have so little reading time anyway, having something non electronic is a nice rest for my brain.

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