When You Wish Upon a Book

I was scrolling through my Amazon wish list this morning over coffee. Much to my dismay, it’s 25 pages long with over 600 books, some that I listed as far back as May of 2001.

When I started it, I was in my final year of graduate school and couldn’t afford food, much less the luxury of any book that didn’t come with a due date. Nowadays, the only time that I really think about my wish list is when I add something to it. Today I added Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, Will Hermes’ account of the music scene in 1970s New York.

I’ll probably never read it. I know that because there are several other books about music on my list that I’ve yet to get around to reading. I did read Patti Smith’s Just Kids and Keith Richard’s autobiography, but neither of them was ever on my wish list.

In fact, I can’t remember ever buying anything from my list. Some people probably use their list to keep track of books they’d like to purchase or receive as a gift. I’m pretty sure that’s why they call it a wish list. When I want to read a book, I usually just buy it. My wish list seems to be the place where wishes go to die. And so it grows.

Perhaps the best thing about the list is that it dates each addition. I’m not sure what happened between May of 2008 and January 2009, but I added All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan and The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. Were those wishes or cries for help?

Other titles are more embarrassing. In April of 2009, I added Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. In the time since I listed the book, I’ve seen her TED talk and watched (read: suffered through) the movie. I need to delete that one. There’s also David Allen’s Getting Things Done, which had been sitting there since December of 2005 and is now deleted. No comment.

The very first book I listed was Michael Katz’s The Price of Citizenship: Redefining the American Welfare State, but I have no recollection of why. I don’t know how much it was when I added it, but the day I checked my wish list I could buy a used copy for about 33 cents (plus shipping, of course). But so much has happened in government and with the economy since then that the book seems terribly out of date. That said, removing it from the list felt unnecessarily judgmental and unkind, for some reason.

That wasn’t the cheapest book on my list that day; I could buy copies of Buzz Bissinger’s Three Nights in August for a penny. It covers a weekend baseball series in 2003 between the St. Louis Cardinals and my beloved Chicago Cubs. I probably will never read that one, either. Being a Cubs fan is painful enough the first time around; there’s no reason anyone should want to relive any part of it, especially from that year.

There are also books on my list that I’d long since forgotten about. In particular, I was reminded of Resilience: Queer Professors from the Working Class, edited by Kenneth Oldfield and Richard Greggory Johnson III, which I added a few years ago. I was excited to learn that such a book even existed—that there were other queer professors like me. Yet when I consider devoting time to reading a book, I think I might be looking for something that feels more like an escape than a journal entry.

In reviewing the list, I remembered that I had added books by my friends—Patrick’s book on revolutions and Joe’s on Alexis de Tocqueville. I hope next year when my book comes out they will return the favor and add me to their wish lists.

I was surprised to learn that my Amazon wish list is public. I’m not sure how I feel about that. For one thing, having everyone know such intimate details of my life seems sort of vulgar. Do I want everyone to know that I’ve yet to read The Jungle, Ulysses, and Heart of Darkness?

I’m also worried about giving my students a glimpse into what I know and don’t know. I teach a course called “Theories of Political Economy,” and Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom is on my wish list. Don’t we talk about him in class? Truth be told, I’ve read so much about the book that reading the whole text doesn’t really interest me. (I feel the same way about watching Forrest Gump.)

If you’re looking not only to make your list public, but to beat people over the head with it, there’s a feature that lets you share your list on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest—whatever Pinterest is. Hinting around for a Christmas or birthday gift is one thing, but this might be the opposite of that. Yet no one has ever bought me anything from my wish list, so maybe dropping it on them via Facebook is not a bad way to go.

I’ve also recently started using my browser as a sort of wish list. I’ve saved a couple dozen links to pages that cover books I’d like to read, including Ms. Mentor’s column suggesting “Novel Academic Novels” from last year and this year’s sequel. Indeed, the more you read, the more you find to read. Chrome now has an extension you can download and install that allows me to automatically save books that I find on the Web to my Amazon wish list. It’s never been easier to keep track of all the books that I’m not going to read.

I can remember a time when small book stores used to be among my favorite haunts, especially when traveling. Going to a book store has always felt like a pilgrimage of sorts. But now I basically use them to window shop. If I see a book I like, I’ll make a note of it on my iPhone and use Amazon to comparison shop when I get home. My change in buying habits is how I singlehandedly bankrupted Borders.

I can’t know for sure, but I’m quite certain that I’m buying fewer books but reading more—newspapers, magazines, Web sites, journals, blogs, e-mail, texts, Tweets. It’s constant.

Maybe I’d read more books if I had an e-reader. (A Kindle has been sitting in my Amazon shopping cart for months.) Now that the price has come down on the standard model, I admit to being very tempted. As someone who is habitually early and seems to have a steady circle of friends who are habitually late, I’ve learned never to show up anywhere without a book, and an e-reader would be easier to carry around.

But I’m not sure how I feel about being seen with one of those devices. Perhaps I could hide my Kindle inside of a real book. If nothing else, it would also give me a chance to not read a book in an entirely new format.

All in all, a wish list of books is curious thing. On one hand, as a list of books I’d like to read it’s highly aspirational. On the other hand, my reading energy has been spent elsewhere. The list might say more about who I’m not than who I am—a sort of bizarro library.

In either case, today seems like a perfect day to rescue one from it–or not.

This was first published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.