The reading trap

Before Christmas, I swore an oath, that I would buy no books until I had read the stack by my bed. This stack consists of about fifteen books which have mostly been in my possession for at least a year but which I have never gotten around to reading because there’s always a new book I’ve bought that jumps to the front of the line.

After I bought Tom Bedlam, by George Hagen, I decided enough was enough. I would buy no more books until I had finished Ethics for a New Millennium, by the Dalai Lama; The Keep, Jennifer Egan; A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth; Charles Ives: a life in music, Jan Swafford; etc., etc.

To quote Adolfo Pirelli in Sweeney Todd: “You hear dis-a foolish-a, foolish-a man. Watch and see how he will-a regret-a his folly!”

Since then, I have bought (or been given, it was Christmas, after all):

  • Henry Green: Loving • Living • Party Going (three novels in one volume; one of those British novelists no one but great writers have ever heard of but who is adored by them)
  • Meg Rosoff: What I Was (new young adult novel)
  • China Miéville: Un Lun Dun (new children’s fantasy novel)
  • Rick Yancey: Alfred Kropp: the Seal of Solomon (sequel to The Extraordinary Adventures of A. K.)
  • Pink Dandelion (no, really): An introduction to Quakerism
  • Marcel Kuisjten, ed.: Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness (essays and research following up on The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind)
  • Louis Auchincloss: East Side Story (novel of manners, by one of Them)
  • Max Barry: Company (a satirical novel)
  • Charles Nicholl: The Lodger Shakespeare (a look at the lawsuit in which our friend Bill was a deponent)
  • Gregroy Benford: Deep Time: how humanity communicates across millennia (bought back when we Lichtenbergians were futzing around with the buried nuclear waste)
  • Ellen Dissanayake: Art and Intimacy (the “prequel” to Homo Aestheticus)

One is not only forsworn, but one despairs. This list is not counting the books I am reading:

  • Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: The Waste Books (bedside book)
  • Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace (more about which in a moment)
  • Ellen Dissanayake: Homo Aestheticus (which I’m discovering is hard to pick up after an extended absence)
  • Patrice Hannon: 101 Things You Didn’t Know About Jane Austen (bathroom reading)

What is one to do? It is ridiculous to think that I will clear out these thirty books soon, if ever. And always, always, there are new books. And bookstores. (While waiting for Ginny to finish worshipping at the new DSW shoe store the other night, I picked up the Austen and Shakespeare books at Barnes & Noble.)

So do I have a plan? No. I already had a plan: buy no new books. It failed.

Part of the problem is of course that I’m devoting all my free brain time to the symphony. I wish I could say that reading these books could provide a break from that, but that’s not realistic. Writing this blog post is taking a break, clearing out thoughts and worries from my brain; reading is an entirely additional commitment for the brain power/time continuum. So until the symphony is finished, or at least turned over to Stephen in 110 days, there will be no concerted effort at clearing out this stack.

I can and will take a stack with me to GHP to read. That is assuming of course I don’t get sucked up into finishing another movement or two of the symphony (which is, you will notice, already assuming that I’m not going to finish all four movements in the next 110 days) or the piano piece for Maila, or even the songs for Day in the Moonlight, which would be a kindness on my part. But I have been able to find time at GHP to read, believe it or not.

After the summer, I might have time to plow through some of these. But I am fooling no one, am I? This stack will never disappear. There will always be new books and new projects to keep me from reading them. I will die with a huge stack by my bed. I will probably die crushed by the huge stack by my bed.

War and Peace is a marvel. I’m halfway through it now, and it no longer feels like I’m scaling some virtuous mountain. Now when I open it, it feels like being in a warm, limitless ocean. I feel like the kids opening the wardrobe door to Narnia, returning once again to a complete world that is not my own, not without its dangers, but one that is strong and fresh and fascinating.

I’m at a curious point in the book, where all the themes and characters have been laid out like pieces on a chess board. It’s most like the end of The Two Towers, I think, where everyone is dispersed and heading off in different directions, seemingly. No one’s choices have worked out for the best, and it’s been so long since I read it before (35 years, maybe?) that, embarrassingly, I cannot remember who gets to be happy at the end. Other than Kutuzov, obviously.

Right, then. I’m going to update my reading pages, and then I’ve got a symphony to write.

12 thoughts on “The reading trap

  1. Of course, I’m not as bad off as Jobie, who actually has a blog about what he’s reading, which he hasn’t updated since December. I laugh bitterly every time I check the RSS feed and am reminded of the blog’s name: Time Enough at Last.

  2. “I will probably die crushed by the huge stack by my bed.”

    Ha, I can relate, my friend!

    I was going through my storage building back in Calhoun this weekend. I am amazed by the thousands of books I’ve accumulated that I have no room for (or time for). Too many library book sales.

    All I have at home, currently, are the highly specialized Native American and early Georgia volumes, which take up most of my reading and research time. I do love it so, but on a rare occasion I do miss the days of apiring to become a renaissance man. More power to you.

  3. I laugh.

    I laugh some more.

    I laugh because I understand. The paper-bound monsters that haunt my nightstand are not of the same intellectual caliber (on the average anyway) as the stuff in your list smells to be, but they terrorize and multiply just as effectively. I have polished off a couple so far this year, just the same. One of which was “The Golden Compass”. I believe I owe a post of my own on that one. I’ll tease to say I was disappointed. I’m still working on The Brothers Karamazov, which I like but has yet to command my full attention.

  4. Our solutions to obsessive book hoarding evolve, don’t they? I, too, used to try for the Renaissance Man accumulative approach. Now, of course, I say “forget literature” and go for speciality volumes. Can’t make headway as a generalist, so I try to fortify my niche. Besides, literature forces me to feel things, and I’m a little too child-like in my responses to such feelings; can’t keep perspective. My appetite for Lacan books has been curtailed, thank God, though I am still tempted if a former teacher publishes something. Right now the itch is relieved by books on Chess and Go. These are practical acquisitions, I tell myself. Such stuff sits at my bedside along with one piece of pot-boiler crap to cradle me as I doze off at night. The copy of Franzen’s The Corrections I got for a dollar at a library book sale sits there as well, just so I can pass it over consistently, muttering “Vanity, vanity…”

    Is Jobie making a conscious reference to The Twilight Zone episode?

  5. A comment appropriate for this post. I was storming through the house after return from Lyles-Honea mountain trek and grumbling over having to fix some cable and phone problems caused by a house-sitter who should not have been trying to “fix” my old PC, when I discovered I had left a book in the Lyles’ van. I experienced a moment of panic and I almost tried to blame members of my family for not grabbing the book as we were unloading (I was unloading from the back). Fortunately, I had some presence of mind and held my tongue. But this panic was comical and interesting. I had no intention of reading this particular book (a primer on Chess strategies) any more that evening; I had been reading it a bit in the van during our return. Just knowing the book was out of my immediate reach was…frustrating. I wanted to be able to place it at my bedside with the other books I took on the trip, to be able to restore my little nest, even though I would not actually make time to resume reading the book for a day or two. Even as I write this my agenda is in part to communicate my dilemma to Dale so he can make sure Ginny brings it with her to work tomorrow so MF can return it to me. It’s insane. It’s classic obsessional anxiety involving a book.

  6. I know how you feel, Marc. I now have way more books than I have shelf space, and certain books have been relegated to stacks beside the couch or lying on top of books on shelves or various tables and nightstands around the house. My wife has been trying to convince me to box some up and store them away in the closet, which I simply can’t stomach. Even though many of the books have rarely been touched, I can’t bear the idea of not being able to immediately grab one should I, for whatever reason, need to put my hands on a copy of The Egyptian Book of the Dead or the complete works of Raymond Chandler at a moment’s notice.

  7. It’s an obsession with Lichtenbergian echoes for me. I often imagine that THE GREAT WORK will proceed in an environment full of books ready to hand. Whether I see myself at home or in some library, I imagine myself “consulting volumes” for facts, ideas, quotes, reference, etc. You never know when you will need to dip into The Egyptian Book of the Dead or Raymond Chandler. Feathering the nest, pumping fluid into the womb, pick your metaphor.

  8. How I respond to that link will tell everyone what kind of person I am at a fundamental level. I withhold a response.

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