Tuesday, November 24, 2020


There are few things in life I enjoy as much as acquiring books — maybe even moreso than reading them — but I've reached a point where doing so on more than an occasional basis can no longer be regarded as responsible. It's not so much the expense — like many people I should be economizing, but the world is awash in cheap used books — as it is a question of space and of what will have to be done with my modest horde after I'm gone. More fundamentally, it's a question of what the point is of accumulating additional books. I'm not a "collector" in any serious sense, and I can't claim to be rescuing and preserving material that isn't readily available elsewhere, so the personal library I have put together can only serve me, either for reading or for reference, and thus it all boils down to what I "need" to read.

When you're young the world unfolds with seemingly infinite avenues for exploration; only in time do those avenues close themselves off one by one, eventually leaving only the one narrow track you've chosen (or that is chosen for you). And so it is with reading. At first there are countless new books and authors to be encountered; gradually you learn which are most suited to your tastes and interests. You are solemnly instructed that there is a "canon" (or "canons") of sorts — books that one is supposed to read — and you read some of those and maybe never catch up with others. But eventually you realize that reading everything of merit isn't an achievable or even a desirable goal. You preserve an openness to the unencountered but you accept that the world doesn't actually care if you've read Proust (I haven't).

So now I find myself reading not in linear fashion, as if I were steadily checking off the list of books I am obliged (by whom?) to read, but in a circle, re-reading often, sometimes reading the same book twice in quick succession, and now and then incorporating things that I never thought of reading but reached for more or less at whim (New Grub Street). I love Dickens (and contrariwise have no desire to read Henry James again), but I would rather read Bleak House repeatedly than grimly force myself through Martin Chuzzlewit or Barnaby Rudge out of some mistaken sense of completeness or duty. Do I "miss out" in this way? In a sense, but nothing is subtracted if one is always reading something from which one gets joy, or enlightenment, or whatever it is one seeks as one turns the pages.

So like many people I keep a list of prospective reading, but I recognize that I'm never going to get around to most of those books, and that it doesn't matter. I'll get to some, will only think about others, and will live without the rest. And that's a good thing, because there will always be something good beckoning just over the horizon.


Michael Leddy said...

I like what the poet Ted Berrigan would say — that what you should be reading is whatever you’re reading.

Chris said...

Amen to that, Michael.

Unknown said...

When you are gone we will be using the books to build you a giant mausoleum guarded by six-foot tall cat statues made of cheese. -MKR