You know what I’m talking about. Especially if you went to a college with a massive subterranean library that housed floor after floor of narrow aisles of teetering bookcases overflowing with archaic and rarely-cracked tomes.
These Ecoean / Borgesian libraries are the gathering fields of knowledge, both rarely-updated-Wikipedia-in-print type knowledge, and good old fashioned carnal knowledge.
Doing it in the stacks was one of the college experiences you didn’t want to not tick off the Unofficial College Experiences To-Do List.
But, alas, I’m not here to talk about sex. At least not today.
I’m talking the way I used to read. I’m not sure “promiscuous” is quite the right word, because I wasn’t indiscriminate about the books I took home with me, picked up on a Friday and spent the weekend with, fell in passionate but short-lived love with, devoured in bed, stayed up all night with on the couch, clutched at in the reclined front seat of my car, and passed out under after too much whisky.
No, I had my standards, alright: Dickens, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Faulkner, Conrad, Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Melville, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Nabokov, Foucault, Beckett, Joyce, Kant, Freud, Mailer, Proust, Bellow, Updike, Salinger, all the dead and dying white men you could think of (and just enough Kate Chopin and Elizabeth Bishop to impress some feminist-leaning dates). I was very consciously working my way through a very traditional conception of a Western literary/philosophical canon. It was an elite group, in my mind. Well-connected types. $5k a night types.
But still, really, I read for notches on my belt. I couldn’t shut up about what I’d read, either – not so much about their contents or implications or characteristics that made them unique from one another, but simply that I’d read it. I bragged about reading a couple novels at once, about how tired I was from staying up all night to finish off some slim, well-structured, kind of kinky South American novel, how my mind was being blown by this succession of Russians I was into, how I was breaking the bank to support this constant flow of new, strange books. I built cheap, crappy bookshelves and displayed my conquests in them for everyone to see. As Dylan sang to Mr. Jones (and though I didn’t know it, to me, too), I was “very well read, it [was] well known.”
And like a stereotypical male jerk, I forgot about them as soon as I was done with them. Those bookshelves may as well have been full of uncut pages a la Gatsby for how much what was on those pages meant to me (no wonder I liked ole Jay so much back then).
I’d remember their names and their general physical characteristics, like their size and weight and the feel of their paper in my hands, but about their interiority I’d retain almost nothing. For the most part, I’d absorbed almost nothing. I wasn’t interested in what was inside, beyond what it felt like in the moment and what it could do for me and my image afterwards. I went through some of the best literature ever written like so many B movies – a cheap thrill to get my mind off things. At the time, of course, I thought having read a lot of books made you great at reading. I thought I was being attentive, that I was engaged in something profound. I thought that quantity meant something – to me, yes, but especially to others. I thought if I got to some magic, unknown number of books read, I’d feel like I was alright. As if once I’d read everything of importance there was to read, I could, through osmosis or simply enough repetition, create that kind of magic myself. I thought that if everyone else knew how much I’d read, they’d be awed, and that awe would translate into something meaningful. I was operating under the assumption that someone else’s awe would make me a good writer.
And I was an effective narcissist. I had just enough natural talent – polished with charm and oiled with the fear of the shame of being found out – to come up with flashy arguments for well-researched papers to make decent grades. I acted the earnest student – I was an earnest student – and very openly fell in earnest-student love with my teachers. When I pushed things too far, I would cobble together what fleeting memories I had of those week-long flings and one-night-stands, leverage that love to the hilt, and stay in good standing.
Anyway, over the last several years, my approach to reading has begun to change. I was hesitant to admit, when I first began to suspect it in my mid-twenties, that I’d mistreated so many good books, disrespected so many good writers. What did it say about me that I’d wham-bam-thank-you-ma’ammed my way through The Brothers K and In Search of Lost Time? It meant I was a shallow jerk, obviously. A fact which a lot of people, I imagine, were on to long before it ever occurred to me…
But, thank Godot, I’m beyond that now, or starting-to-get. I still have the temptation to tear through novels and Read It All, but the motivation for doing so is changing. I know now that no amount of reading is going to make me a Great Author. It might help me with my writing, but it’s not going to do it for me. It’s not going to substitute for learning how I write. There are, of course, innumerable lessons to be learned, and the more I write, the more I realize this, and the slower I read. I have less time to read the more I write, yes, but I also take longer per page. It’s as if the perfectly obvious idea, usually as subtle as a flying mallet, finally hit me and I realized that these books were labors of love and genius, and that in fact I had to pay attention if I wanted to learn from them. And so over the last three or four years, it seems like I’m just discovering how to read. I dislike that expression, “I know less now than I did XX years ago” (if that’s true, what have you been doing with yourself?), but the sense of it is apropos.
And it’s extremely exciting. Looking back on my teens and early twenties, when I was so sure I already knew all there was to know and just needed to ingest more quantities of it, I see a closed-off, static, rigid mind. I remember being discontent, I remember that feeling of inadequacy and spite that under-girded my arrogance and my desperate, pathetic attempts at mattering – to myself, to everyone, to anyone. And now it’s as if the whole world is opening up, and there are so many good books and there are so many possibilities.
It’s a shame that I more or less missed out on all those books I tore through back then, because I’ll never have time to reread them all. Some of this ability to “understand” literature (whatever that really means) has been somewhat retroactive and I’ve realized things about Anna Karenina and Don Quixote upon recalling them that I wasn’t aware of at 16 and 20, but most of the stuff from back then is gone from my memory bank. But I also realize no one cares whether I’ve read all those books or not. When I remember that nobody cares – and not just about what books I might or might not have had occasion to read – I’m a lot better off. Then I can do the thing, whatever it is, for the sake of doing it. Nobody cares that I ran X miles, or surfed at X beach, or met such-and-such author at X coffee shop, or meditate X minutes a day, or work out X times a week, or write X words, or take my girlfriend to X for dinner, or go to Y with my friends for kicks.
And when nobody cares, I care a lot more about doing the thing than having done it. And I become more interested in what other people are doing – not to care or compare what others have done, but because if they’re doing it, it might be worth doing myself. And then I’m just a little tiny part of this big ole interesting world trying to add some color to the mosaic, instead of an insignificant nothing existing painfully outside of it and waiting impatiently to get on top of it by hook or by crook.
And that, for the time being at least, is my secret to life.
It occurs to me that a lot of this is probably a simple result of growing up and getting a little older and getting a little more perspective on myself and the world around me. I read everything now – well, not everything, I still have no-50-Shades-type standards, but Grunberg, Soroush, Thiong’o and McGuane made up my last book order – and the wider I read, the more beautiful and wonderful and approachable the world seems. And while I may not get back to all the books I read back then – especially the philosophers (spare me the Germans especially, these days) – perhaps I’ll reread some of them. Come to think of it, Faulkner read Don Quixote “every year, as some do the Bible.” He said, “the books I read are the ones I knew and loved when I was a young man and to which I return as you do to old friends: the Old Testament, Dickens, Conrad, Cervantes.” What a testament to the richness of these books, right, that Faulkner eschewed contemporaries to revisit only them? How wonderful to know that those old friends and lovers, to whom I gave pieces of myself without even knowing it, whose memories sometimes jar me from sleep and leave me to stare heartsick and nostalgic at the dark ceiling – how wonderful to know that all I have to do to taste that particular flavor of perfection once again, or to sample some as-yet-unknown promise of untold rapture, is to rise from bed and tiptoe across the room to the bookcase and slip out a book – a book that, these days, is sure to reassure me that all of life’s secrets and all the assurances I’ll ever need that life is just as it’s supposed to be are here and now, in the ground beneath my feet, in the pen in my hand, waiting for me in that warm bed that I stole out of for a little bit of cold, old comfort.
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