• Random Thoughts About Reading & Death

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 59 comments

    Discussion questions: Are there any writers whose bibliographies intimidate you, and why? Are there any writers whose entire bibliographies you’ve read?

    How much of your reading consists of rereading? What do you get out of rereading books?

    What percentage of your reading would you say comes from a sense of obligation, a “should,” rather than desire? Where do you think that “should” comes from?


    I’m never aware of it in the moment, but on my podcast, I talk often of death.

    Death and reading. As in, “I have only so many books that I can read before I die.” This is from this week’s episode of Yak Babies, “Intimidating Bibliographies,” where I mention my hesitancy to read my first Joyce Carol Oates book.

    Fiction alone, Oates has published nearly ninety (90!) books. I have to imagine I would absolutely love several of those books. There are also many I would like, many I would shrug my shoulders at, and many I would dislike. But obviously I’m not going to read ninety JCO books to find out.

    And so, how and where would I begin? What if my first Oates is a real clunker? I’d not be excited to try another. Even worse, what if my first choice is a real winner? I might spend months, even entire seasons, of my life chasing that high, reading a ton of marginal fiction that I wouldn’t otherwise have spent precious time on.

    Because remember, time is of the essence. I’m going to die someday.


    When Philip Roth died, I’d not yet read any of his books. On our Philip Roth episode, I learned that Roth was the favorite writer of one of my co-hosts, and Goodbye, Columbus his favorite title. So I promised to read it, and then did.

    I did not like it.

    So now what?

    Well, “Now you don’t have to read forty-five books,” says our other co-host.

    And he’s right. It’s unlikely I’ll read another Philip Roth book. Even though there’s a very good chance there’s a Philip Roth book out there, somewhere, that would move me in a way no other book has.

    So many books, so little time.


    When I was younger I felt obligated to read certain types of books, and certain books specifically. The so-called classics, mostly. And if I started one and immediately disliked it, almost always I would continue on anyway, feeling it my duty to trudge through it. Even if, on my nightstand, was a stack of books I wanted to read.

    I no longer operate that way. I’ll still occasionally read a book out of a sense of “should,” but now my reading–and rereading! More on that later–runs mostly on desire.

    Oh and it’s so much better that way.

    On my deathbed, will I lament the fact that I read only one Philip Roth book? And (probably) zero Joyce Carol Oates books? Or Tolstoy books? Or Trollope books?

    Or will I instead be happy that in my life I found a handful books I loved so much–including Jazz and The Coast of Chicago and, hell, Johnny Tremain –that I read them each probably close to, or more than (if I live long enough), ten times?


    In your life, you will read amount of books. This is a fact.

    You don’t know the number x represents, but it’s there. It exists. Depending on your belief system–fate vs. free will or what have you–that number is either already set in stone or it’s ever-changing. But even if it’s ever-changing, it’s not forever-changing. Someday you will die, and that will bring a close to your books-I’ve-read list. (Hopefully ending with the book you chose for “Deathbed Reading.”)

    So every moment you spend with a particular book is a moment you’ll never spend with another particular book. You’re making a choice to read this instead of that. And for every this you choose, a that gets pushed off of your will-read-during-my-lifetime list. You won’t know what that that book is, but it exists.

    And every book you reread equals an unread book you will never read.


    In the mail this week came an advance copy of Kevin Barry’s novel Night Boat to Tangier. I dropped the other book I was reading. And everything else.

    Kevin Barry is one of my literary crushes. I’ve read Beatlebone five times, already. It came out in 2015.

    I’ve read one of his two story collections twice, and the other, three times.

    I’ve read his debut novel, City of Bohane, once.

    And I can already tell I’m going to reread Night Boat to Tangier as soon as I finish it.

    So by the time that’s done, I will have read Kevin Barry’s five books a total of thirteen times.

    By doing so, I’m excluding eight other books–forever!–from my life.

    The old me would’ve raged against that.


    “Where the hell are you going with this, Duhr?”

    I don’t know. Maybe I’m saying that if I were still choosing titles mostly out of a sense of obligation, of “should,” I would’ve missed out on a lot of the reading and, more importantly, the rereading that has so enriched my life these past few years.

    Or maybe the point is that the acknowledgment of my death–something I didn’t think much about through my twenties or most of my thirties–has given me the freedom to follow my own nose, instead of the noses of others.

    And because I’m more aware of my time limitations–aware that I’ll read only x amount of books from now until that final day–I want to choose accordingly. I want to make ’em count.

    Which means also coming to terms with all of the writers and books I will never read.


    Well, this kind of spun out of control. The original idea was the ask you guys about authors whose work you’ve never read because their bibliographies intimidate you.

    I guess, in the comments, respond however you wish. But here are a few questions as a jumping-off:


    Are there any writers whose bibliographies intimidate you, and why? Are there any writers you’ve decided you’ll never read, despite some interest? When faced with someone like an Oates, with an overwhelming amount of titles, how do you usually choose where to begin?

    Like my Kevin Barry and Zadie Smith, are there any writers whose entire bibliographies you’ve read, and (if they’re alive) will continue reading?

    How much of your reading consists of rereading? What do you get out of rereading books?

    What percentage of your reading would you say comes from a sense of obligation rather than desire, a feeling of “I should read this book… even if I’m not exactly jazzed about the idea”? Where do you think that “should” comes from?

    Let me know below!

    And, as always, thank you for reading and interacting. Without y’all, this blog would be pretty boring.


    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is fiction editor at the Texas Observer and co-host of the Yak Babies podcast, and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2019 writing project that you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coachingprivate instruction and writer’s block counseling services. Join our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”


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    Victor Hugo. I loved the Hunchback of Notre Dame when I was a teenager, and lately feel a desire to read Les Miserables, but nineteenth century novels can be tough to slog through. Such bibliographies are intimidating, I think, because trying to read and appreciate the works of classic authors (and some contemporary ones: James Michener) require a significant life investment. That’s probably why I’ve not read any author’s entire bibliography. Little of my reading is rereading, though that may change. I often stare at the volumes on my bookcases and consider what I want to reread. It’s a desire… Read more »

    david lemke

    While my friend who re-read books for the enjoyment never made a lot of sense to me, reading the first time for enjoyment and subsequent time to figure how he/she did it makes a lot of sense…Reading as a writer.

    david lemke

    Beyond some outrage at a nasty character’s behavior, anger satisfaction, fear, curiosity, puzzlement, thrill, sadness, surprise, some excitement and anticipation and some admiration when an author nails it, I don’t feel intensely while I read. I can’t say I cried when George pulled the trigger in “Of Mice And Men.” While music and movies can bring me to tears, I can’t say a book ever has. But then again, while I occasionally will read a classic or some literary, what I usually turn the pages of is usually more active; s f fantasy, mystery, adventure, horror, humor and suspense. Is… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer

    I love to read. With that said, I learned along time ago that have to reading isn’t all that much fun if it is a boring book for me. There are so many classics that I’ll never read because I can’t get into them. I loved Michener and have read every last one of his books. I also liked many of Dickens. I have 50 Shades of Grey and haven’t read it yet. I started the Twilight series and the Hunger Games….disliked both. I loved the Diana Love Belador series and Evalle is this great character. Loved Harry Potter until… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer

    Michener isn’t the easiest author to read, but I love history and all of his books are historically correct. Hawaii’s first chapter was boring but the book became good after that chapter. I can only hope to be as good as him in that respect when I write the historical book I’ve been doing research for over the past 3 years. If everyone liked the same books, a lot of authors would never have readers. Not everyone will like my books and that’s okay. I’ve only reread a couple of books (Other than those I read to my children). One… Read more »

    david lemke

    With the exception of “Green Eggs And Ham,” which I’ve read aloud for my kids lots of times, I’ve not intentionally reread a book. I’ve accidently re-bought a book or picked one up, having forgotten I’d already read it and reading through it again have a realization; this seems familiar. I’ve either stopped or just went on reading it again. I love to read, but I don’t think I get the same high you describe. When a friend told me that he, “re-reads this book every year,” I was surprised. I’d never considered it or had that desire. What I… Read more »


    David, do you think animals can reincarnate as people and vice versa?

    david lemke

    I’ve heard that that is possible, but have never read or heard of a specific example, never encountered one myself or anyone I’ve ever worked with


    Did you ever see the SNL piece where Jesse reads Green Eggs and Ham? Occasionally when I need therapy I watch it again on U Tube. Just priceless.

    david lemke

    That blew my mind, because just days before I saw that episode, I’d done just that. After that, I pushed it up to another level

    david lemke

    I try to do double duty when I read; enjoying it but re-reading a line or paragraph to see how it was made to work or generate the emotion…

    Elissa Malcohn

    I’ll get to the main topic eventually, but first some background. This will be another long post. “[S]omething I didn’t think much about through my twenties or most of my thirties…” gave me a little smile. I had been hit by a car when I was seven: both legs broken (the left a compound fracture), intestines ruptured. Was in critical condition for two weeks and in the hospital for ten. Lying in shock in the street and vomiting orange blood, I tried to convince my mother that I was going to die; fortunately, she won our argument. A neighbor later… Read more »

    david lemke

    While or tastes differ, Sue and I read some of the same authors Rowling, Brown, Cussler and discuss them. Recently there’s been a lot of Preston/Child.


    I am pretty sure that we can continue reading after death. There are the Akashic records and I think we get to see them. Also, my very own mother was the most voracious reader I have known, and she died about ten years ago. I can’t imagine she would have done that if she’d thought it meant no more books! So, anyhow, before she died she did, basically, found a library in a small town here and so she was known as the Library Lady. Well, I had a psychic reading one time since she died and, get this, I… Read more »

    david lemke

    People can come back to Earth after death because of altruistic reasons; as in the 14 Dalia Lama. However people usually come back because of needs, desires or addictions; drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, sex, their home, concern for family,( the last two explain hauntings; where they never left) unsolved life issues, experiences, love, power, wealth. I might come back if all my writing goals aren’t met and maybe to read all the books I haven’t had a chance to read. If I come back in China, it would solve the fact that I can’t read Chinese or books in just about… Read more »

    david lemke

    Susan,People can come back to Earth after death because of altruistic reasons; as in the 14 Dalia Lama. However people usually come back because of needs, desires or addictions; drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, sex, money or power. Some times people who have died won’t be able to leave because of the suddenness of their death or because of their home or concern for family. People also are pulled back to earth again because of unsolved life issues, experiences, love, or to complete a task or achieve a goal. I might come back if all my writing goals aren’t met and maybe… Read more »


    Very interesting. Thank you.

    david lemke

    Since it looks more and more likely that I’m going to leave my writing group. when I was taking classes with Writer’s Studio, beside the emails, there was also a chat room where we talked about the weeks assignment. We’ll need to hear Dave D’s take on it all. He mentioned making that the focus of another blog.

    david lemke

    Didn’t realize there was that much interest. Do we need to build a list; David William Lemke/Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery, Suspense/ Novels, short stories…

    Barbara Mealer

    I would definitely like an online group where I don’t have to travel 54 miles to meet with them, even though I like the in-person meetings. We normally make it a half day away with socializing and lunch. As enjoyable as that is, I have limited time to devote to writing, so those two hours of travel time takes away from what few hours I do have to working on my books. Yes, I’m retired, but I work 4 days as week with an occasional extra day(s) when needed.

    david lemke

    Back when I was studying at Writer’s Studio online course, we had an instructor who would give out an assignment, “Match the tone style and mood of this piece by Graham Greene.” with an in-depth explanation of what to look for. So the ten or so of us would do that and submit one or two pages that everybody in the class would get. Then most of us would write up a critique for as many as we could manage and the instructor would do an in-depth critique of each of our work. Never having done this before, I felt… Read more »

    Kevin Wozniak

    Hi David. I’m new here but I like what I see. I would be interested in joining a writers group too.

    david lemke

    Maybe we write them in the between and when we return for another lifetime, we feel inspired to write them down to share.

    david lemke

    That would explain why we are drawn to certain books outside our interests and why they strike us so strongly.


    And I love the idea of books written specifically for us. That could be another fun post, by the way, how would you design your own reading room? The psychic I visited was a member of the First Spiritualist Church, and she also gave me a book about their view of “Heaven”. They call it Summerland. It is a very fun and interesting view of the afterlife, and they believe that you do, in fact, design your own house. Since you no longer have a physical body, though, it’s not a house made of materials but an idea of a… Read more »

    david lemke

    First Spiritualist Church? Was that the one off of State St.? I was there for a bunch of years starting in 1996, gave messages, worked psychic faires, gave some talks.


    The one I’ve been referring to is in West Allis, but I think it may have been near State Street at some time. I think it was in the early 90s I did go somewhere in downtown Milwaukee and get a reading from someone recommended by my brother. I cannot recall if she was a First Spiritualist member, but she seemed to have the same beliefs and similar style and she charged me no money. She talked to me mainly in symbols. I felt like I was inside a dream with a guide.

    david lemke

    I can’t remember the name of the lady who ran the church. It was held in a Lion’s club building on a side street north of State. She took me aside and gave me a quick reading; that I was very psychic, a healer and a writer. I was impressed, She lead the church for a number of year the was some controversy about funds and she left, but she picked to women and made them minister and when she left they took her place. They weren’t very good and hardly knew anything about spirituality. In the short time I… Read more »

    Hans De Leo

    I hesitated answering this one, mainly because of the sense of finality surrounding death. When it comes to death, I grew up think I could kick the bucket at any given moment. A little scary, but when you’re taught to say your prayers before bed and there’s that little line about “if I should die before I wake”. My sense of indestructibility didn’t kick in until my teen years. Now as I get older, I think about death more, and I’ve decided that whenever it comes will be too soon. I’m planning on living until at least to 120, and… Read more »

    david lemke

    I’d rather drop a body and then pick up a new one rather than living really long, but getting decerped and loosing mobility and having all my friends dead.
    I bought the final Dune books today so I can finish that series.
    I’ve read some of Wheel Of Time but out of order. If I had them all I’d read ’em all.
    If you like David Weber, I recommend the Safehold series. it’s like nothing other.

    Hans De Leo

    I agree with my Uncle Jim, who says: “I don’t mind getting old, it’s the decrepit part I want to avoid.”
    Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll definitely check it out when I have time.

    david lemke

    I just felt goosebumps… consider what may happen when we as a writer’s group, critique and talk shop and what it may do to our writing, our voices and style. this would have never been possible in any of the writing groups I have been in. I was standing in line for lunch at a writer’s conference, UWM Milwaukee when I overheard the smartest, most in-depth conversation about writing I’d ever heard, so much so, that I asked to join them after telling them so.

    Kevin Wozniak

    I’ve tried to read entire bibliographies a few times…I usually hit the wall. Even writers I really love will have works that are just…blah. I loved Harlan Ellison as a teenager, but rereading some of it now…I feel like screaming “Ok, ok! I get it! Stop beating me over the head with The Profound Theme You Need To Mercilessly Reiterate Because The Reader Is Too Dense To Get It The First Eight Times!”. But some books are like old friends that offer you a familiar type of comfort. I have reread “A Canticle For Leibowitz” every few years for years.… Read more »

    david lemke

    In the early 70s, I’d have a houseful of people. I often read aloud. One I remember reading is “I have no mouth and I must scream.”

    Kevin Wozniak

    He was a sort of moral compass for me as a teenager. “Memos From Purgatory” was a very important book for me then. Shame that his obit was headed, “Star Trek Writer Dies”, which was exactly what he didn’t want…

    Jose Skinner

    Actually, I sometimes feel bad about NOT rereading a book I admired. I fear I haven’t given it its due, missed something, etc. However, when I do, I sometimes notice flaws I’d missed the first time. Ya can’t win.

    Jose Skinner

    Glad you guys are fine. I’m enjoying these WBN posts quite a bit. You’d be amazed, or probably not, at how much your east side ATX barrio has changed. This is becoming a megacity, for better or worse. We might move to Uruguay!

    Jose Skinner

    After Herman Wouk’s recent death, I began to wonder about writers who I thought long dead but weren’t. Does anyone remember Herbert Gold? Didn’t think so. Anyway, he’s still kicking, living in a rent-controlled apt on Russian Hill. Interviewed for Paris Review last year. Friend of Baldwin and Ginsburg and Beats, heir to Nabokov’s seat at Cornell, but today agentless, though he still writes. Agentless but not ageless, since most of his books appear to be out of print. Doesn’t sound too bummed, though his social life seems to be mostly going to funerals.

    Jose Skinner

    I inherited a book club when its founder moved abruptly to England. So far have been playing it fairly safe, to stanch the inevitable attrition of members, compromising on award-winners and such. I liked Overstory (too long, though, even for the tree-huggers among us), The Milkman, The Friend, Less. We’re reading 10:04 now. I didn’t like Untamed State so much, even though I wanted to, since Gay chose one of my stories for the BASS “distinguished stories” list, lol. You have any recommendations? We’re soon gonna have to choose next year’s books. Contemporary fiction—last 20 years or so. And, no,… Read more »

    José Skinner

    Well, 10:04 is an autofiction, with all the limitations thereof, but I found the narrator’s comments on art, the urban landscape, the exchange economy, etc., super sharp.

    Don’t know Barry, will look into. King of Mississippi sounds great. I generally like satire. Except The Sellout, which had too many gags for my taste.

    Ohio, yes! We chose it for the Texas Institute of Letters first novel award. The other two judges were like me: Wow, this is this guy’s first novel? Nothing to do with Texas, but he was born in Lubbock, so–you win, pal!

    José Skinner

    Well, you have to really look to discover Markley’s a Texan. He doesn’t advertise it.

    LOL, that story’s a cautionary tale. It made me look up “unit of alcohol.” That’s just, like, a third of a pint! Groan. You’re only supposed to drink 14 units/week.

    Send me another when you have time. In turn, I recommend Victor Lodato. He has a couple in New Yorker.

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