the thousand-track mind

Volumes in the Schuyler House, Albany, NY. September 2004.

I’ve just been perusing my library. (I curate it through LibraryThing, not GoodReads or the like. It’s an obsessive need to categorize every ‘thing’. I have mentioned this before. ) I’ve periodically jettisoned books which I presume I will no longer want, yet approximately 1500 books remain. Of these, 422 are unread. Another couple dozen are in various stages of being read: books I put down but mean to pick up again; books which are anthologies of marginal interest; but mostly books which are collections of works by favorite authors of which I have read but one of the works.

More importantly, of those 422 books, I have tagged 72 of them as “to read ASAP”. So, one in six. I do not read quickly. I subvocalize which slows down the reading pace but makes it more enjoyable for me. I don’t subvocalize when studying because I get bored with required texts no matter how interesting. It’s amazing how quickly you can work through a nonfiction text when you are just trying to get the gist out of it. This actually is the reason I rarely read works about sociopolitical topics. They state their case in the first few pages and one can just scan the rest of the work to see the supporting arguments–it only takes 15-30 minutes. But back to the library, and my point…

Due to this subvocalizing habit, I (sadly) read only 12-20 books each year. Books which are “good for me” but not written well take longer because late in the evening when I am most likely to read, they fail to capture my interest. Then too, my devotion to computers and smartphones has rewired my brain such that I expect instant gratification from a book. I generally have a rule to read at least 50 pages of a book before bailing on it. With Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum I gave it 100 pages since it was so incredibly long. (And I’m glad I did.) Lately I’ve had to increase all books to 100 pages because I lack the focus I once had. Right now I’m reading The Cold Millions by Jess Walter. I was ready to bail after 50 pages, but now I’m into it and will finish. But so what? There are those 422 books…

When I peruse the titles of those books, particularly the ASAP list, I want to read them all. NOW! The next book in Donald Harington’s collected works? Absolutely! Lawrence Durrell’s semi-travel-oriented work Prospero’s Cell? I must! “I can’t finish his autobiography without reading what he wrote at that point of his life!” Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy? I’ve been waiting years to read that! But what about the nearly one dozen unread books I have by Jim Harrison? Or the half dozen José Saramago books which I haven’t read yet? And how about what is likely the final book of Gabriel Garcia Marquez which I will ever read? What about all those one-offs that sound so good, which friends have recommended, which critics laud, which any literate person would have read by now?

I need that Matrix thing plugged into the back of my head to enjoy them all, NOW, before my literary ambitions explode within me. I need a thousand-track brain. Except…

Just because there are 422 books representing perhaps as many as 35 years’ worth of reading at my tortoise-like reading pace, and just because I have but 20-25 years remaining on this mortal coil, why should I worry about checking all those books off of the list? Isn’t there joy in the anticipation of pleasure? Doesn’t it heighten the overall enjoyment?

Some highly literate person, a writer and reader–I cannot bring his name to mind nor find it in my books–had just moved to a new house in Paris. The move consisted mostly of boxes and boxes of books. One of the movers asked, “My goodness, have you read all of these books?” And his reply was perfect:

“Of course not! That’s why they’re there.”

For us, the literate and always-reading, an optimistic, pleasurable future is measured in the books we’ve yet to read. As with so many things in life, not jumping to a hasty decision to read them as soon as we hear about them has helped us to avoid the casual, gee-I-wish-I-hadn’t-done-that feeling which marks the impetuous commitment romantics make with each new date. The elderly professor who guided my Junior Colloquium gently disabused me of my first choice of study for the colloquium: “Well, Steinbeck is an acceptable choice, but don’t you want to choose an author whose reputation is undisputed at this point?” This was 1982. Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath in 1939. I was 28 years old, and I didn’t understand that my advisor had actually lived through the events described in Steinbeck’s book. She had been about my age when Steinbeck published it. We settled on Machiavelli’s The Prince and the Discourses. I’ve taken her lesson to heart. Works which speak to generations, which command respect, which make a forceful commentary on human existence need decades to be sorted out.

I could whittle down the list to an acceptable number for the remaining years I have left, leaving a bit of room for books which enter my universe day to day. But I don’t want to “tidy up my affairs” before the end of my life. I want to leave a messy, tangled knot of good intentions and half-finished projects, and that includes my reading list(s). I want on my deathbed to say, “shit, I never got to read…..!” followed by an explosion of titles. I would like the names of these books to be whispered with urgency as I expire. I want to be still in the process of living.