The Book Binge Conundrum: What Drives Us to Excess?

The twenty-first century is, well, different. So many books are available online – more than we could find at any physical bookstore. Now I have access to all of Thomas Hardy’s books, including The Dynasts: An Epic Drama of the War with Napoleon (a verse drama). Yes, the faded old hardcover copy sits on my shelf, very dingy and uninviting. My husband says, “You are never going to read that.” He is right, but I can’t weed it, either. I have read the rest of Thomas Hardy.

The question is: when did I decide I must read the complete works of favorite writers – even their worst? In general, it used to take a long time to find all their books. One read an author’s complete oeuvre over several months or years. Of course, I did binge on Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest series. And over a period of years, I have read all of Dickens, Mrs. Gaskell, the Brontes, Cyril Hare, Ngaio Marsh, Ovid, Margaret Drabble, Marge Piercy, and Penelope Fitzgerald – and most, if not all, of multitudes of other beloved writers.

My fanciful theory: our brains clicked into binge mode at the beginning of the new millennium. The speed of Wifi gave us the capacity to trawl the internet faster and faster, and discover more books than ever. One friend at a small online provider wished publishers would take a year off from publishing so she could catch up! And then after we got Wifi, we found out about even MORE books. Too many, really.

Is this internet bounty the fount of bingeing? Today the word “binge” dominates popular culture. Books, films, and TV are lauded as “bingeable” or “binge-worthy.”

In 2016, NPR ran a three-part series, “Read, Watch, Binge!” In 2019 at Mashable, Chris Taylor wittily related his experience of binge-reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy in 24 hours (“Lord of the Binge”). This is a common kind of internet whimsy. Naturally, I read with fascination, because I wanted to know how he kept awake.

At The New York Times in 2005, Julie Salamon wrote an excellent article about rediscovering Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd novels. (Dragon’s Teeth won the Pulitzer Prize in 1943). She had loved the series as a child, as had her mother, and in 2005 reread all 10 books over a period of several months. She inspired me to read them (not all ten, though). And Salamon’s rediscovery of the books was not a 24-hour binge; it was a labor of love, without a quick deadline.

At Goodreads, blogs, and other social media, avid readers plan the future. The groups list the books they plan to read months in advance. This isn’t my way, but in 2016, after Anita Brookner’s death, I decided to reread all her books. I perused four or five before realizing this is probably not the way we’re meant to read her. I admire her art and style, but best to space the books out. By all means, binge if you want to, though.

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