so many books, so little time
So, I refinanced the house last month, cutting the interest rate by almost half and reducing the payment by a couple hundred, with a couple months’ vacation from making mortgage payments as a much-welcome bonus. I worked a lot of extra shifts in the meantime to make hay while the sun was shining. And, like I said in the last post, I got dropped by that company only to land softly on my feet in a better-paying, better-structured job with the new company.
It’s been a very good summer. I’d go so far as to say it’s celebration time, in fact. And how do I celebrate? That’s right, by buying a bunch of books I’ve had on my wish list for up to two years now.
Two more additions to the stack. This is just a fun-sized edition of ATBIDR…, you might say.
That tour guide last year tried to tell me that William Penn was the first to create genuine freedom of worship in the colonies. The jacket copy of Barry’s book says, however:
For four hundred years, Americans have wrestled with and fought over two concepts that define the nature of the nation: the proper relation between church and state and between a free individual and the state. These debates began with the extraordinary thought and struggles of Roger Williams, who had an unparalleled understanding of the conflict between a government that justified itself by “reason of state”-i.e. national security-and its perceived “will of God” and the “ancient rights and liberties” of individuals.
This is a story of power, set against Puritan America and the English Civil War. Williams’s interactions with King James, Francis Bacon, Oliver Cromwell, and his mentor Edward Coke set his course, but his fundamental ideas came to fruition in America, as Williams, though a Puritan, collided with John Winthrop’s vision of his “City upon a Hill.”
Acclaimed historian John M. Barry explores the development of these fundamental ideas through the story of the man who was the first to link religious freedom to individual liberty, and who created in America the first government and society on earth informed by those beliefs. The story is essential to the continuing debate over how we define the role of religion and political power in modern American life.
I haven’t really read much about Williams since my school days, so that should be interesting. As for John Gray, whose book I’m already half-finished with and enjoying as usual, I thought this interview with Nick Talbot was one of the better ones I’ve seen of his, with Talbot’s questions actually adding to the quality:
I was surprised to see you so often characterised as a conservative thinker – you certainly don’t hold any positions that characterise, say, the “paleo-conservative” American right. (You have identified strains of utopianism in free market neo-liberalism and liberal interventionism and your embrace of James Lovelock’s Gaia theory is anathema to most on the right.) Is your conservatism more in the mould of David Hume, perhaps? A sceptical caution over the human tendency to see patterns where there are none.
JG: I’m not sure it makes much sense to talk of conservatism these days. Certainly I share the view, often held by conservatives in the past, that there is such a thing as human nature, that it’s relatively constant and in some ways inherently flawed. (Thinking this way is one reason why I’m not a post-modernist.) It was this type of conservatism that the painter Francis Bacon had in mind when he said he always voted for the right because it made the best of a bad job. The poet T.E. Hulme said something very similar. But that kind of conservatism scarcely exists any more: Today conservative thinking oscillates between neo-con progressivism – a species of inverted Marxism – and paleo-conservative reaction, which amounts to not much more than a collection of ugly prejudices (racism, homophobia, misogyny). Both these versions of “conservatism” seem to me hostile to the conservation of civilised life. The genuine scepticism of David Hume is much preferable to anything that passes as conservative today.
At the same time I doubt if Hume’s rationalistic Enlightenment variety of scepticism is enough – for one thing, he had the good fortune to live before the age of militant political faiths and modern fundamentalism. Montaigne is a better guide, possibly the best, to living in a time of modern wars of faith.
…You argue that popular music’s trite language of self-realisation owes much to the Romantic movement’s emphasis on originality, but I see it as a logical result of the culture of individualism perpetuated by the New Right; instead of thinking how they can contribute to their community, young people have been encouraged to indulge egoistic fantasies. Is there any hope for encouraging a communitarian ethos in young people?
JG: I wonder if communitarianism means anything any more – think of Cameron’s big society. The prevailing individualism runs much deeper than anything owed to the New Right. Maybe we’re in a time akin to those in which the Buddha and Epicurus lived – in which it’s up to each individual, along with those they care about, to live as well as they can. To be sure, political and other types of collective action may be necessary to defend civilised values. But I don’t think any collective project can or should be viewed as providing meaning in life.
Hume, Montaigne, Buddha and Epicurus. Now there’s a dinner party to fantasize about hosting.
Who does that? Not me! After today’s Champions League final, I’ve got almost three months of hell-spawned weather to look forward to with hardly any fútbol to watch, so you better believe I’m going to get some book-reading done. Here’s the most recent additions to the stack since last time, which no, of course I haven’t finished, just like I hadn’t finished all the ones from the picture before that, because shut up, that’s why, I don’t have a problem, I am so going to get them all read sooner or later; here, quit harassing me and just look at this:
None of us, of course, will ever read all the books we’d like, but we can still make a stab at it. Why deny yourself all that pleasure? So look around tonight or this weekend, see what catches your fancy on the bookshelf, at the library, or in the bookstore. Maybe try something a little unusual, a little different. And then don’t stop. Do it again, with a new book or an old author the following week. Go on—be bold, be insatiable, be restlessly, unashamedly promiscuous.
Okay, the silver-tongued devil talked me into it. Here it is, as currently constituted, the alpha and omega, the first and last, the beginning and end of my “recently-read, currently-reading, still-yet-to-read” stack. The stars must have aligned just so for so many books from my wish list to become available all at once from my local library.
A case can be made that people who read a preposterous number of books are not playing with a full deck. I prefer to think of us as dissatisfied customers. If you have read 6,000 books in your lifetime, or even 600, it’s probably because at some level you find “reality” a bit of a disappointment…No matter what they may tell themselves, book lovers do not read primarily to obtain information or to while away the time. They read to escape to a more exciting, more rewarding world. A world where they do not hate their jobs, their spouses, their governments, their lives.
…None of this will work with a Kindle. People who need to possess the physical copy of a book, not merely an electronic version, believe that the objects themselves are sacred. Some people may find this attitude baffling, arguing that books are merely objects that take up space. This is true, but so are Prague and your kids and the Sistine Chapel. Think it through, bozos.
The world is changing, but I am not changing with it. There is no e-reader or Kindle in my future. My philosophy is simple: Certain things are perfect the way they are. The sky, the Pacific Ocean, procreation and the Goldberg Variations all fit this bill, and so do books. Books are sublimely visceral, emotionally evocative objects that constitute a perfect delivery system.
Electronic books are ideal for people who value the information contained in them, or who have vision problems, or who have clutter issues, or who don’t want other people to see that they are reading books about parallel universes where nine-eyed sea serpents and blind marsupials join forces with deaf Valkyries to rescue high-strung albino virgins from the clutches of hermaphrodite centaurs, but they are useless for people engaged in an intense, lifelong love affair with books. Books that we can touch; books that we can smell; books that we can depend on. Books that make us believe, for however short a time, that we shall all live happily ever after.
I was scrolling through my Amazon wish list this morning over coffee. Much to my dismay, it’s 25 pages long with over 600 books, some that I listed as far back as May of 2001.
When I started it, I was in my final year of graduate school and couldn’t afford food, much less the luxury of any book that didn’t come with a due date. Nowadays, the only time that I really think about my wish list is when I add something to it.
My own wish list recently bore fruit, as evidenced above. That’s the recently-read, the currently-reading, and the to-be-read, all together.
So, the People with the Books, They Went and Stood Up on the Mountain to Get Away from the People with No Books
Between you and me, I wish I’d been born much earlier, even long enough ago I’d be turned to dust by now. Because I’d rather not have lived to see all that’s happening. Words can’t describe how much I hate what’s being lost. Call me old fashioned, or backward, or whatever you’d like. Honestly, I don’t care. What I dread is the day I have a grandchild who grows up without need of a bookcase, because all s/he needs is a pouch to hold an e-reader.
I was talking to my dad the other day about the publishing industry, print media, and the like. In response to his asking me if I had any interest in e-readers, I said that I only saw a couple possible advantages to them — they could be useful for voracious readers who have limited living space or those who travel frequently. Being able to download a book instantly is nice, but of course that’s only a convenience, not a necessity. I always have enough to read at any given time that I don’t need that temptation, and I’m philosophically inclined to appreciate the wait for a book to arrive in the mail, anticipation being the sweetest part of acquisition, after all. Until that day comes when certain titles simply aren’t made available in paper-and-glue format, I doubt I’ll ever see the need to own one.
The irresistible force of my bibliophilic appetite runs up against the immoveable object of my slacker ethos, though, so I do buy a lot of my books from library sales and individual sellers on Amazon or Barnes & Noble so as to avoid penury. Personally, I appreciate receiving online recommendations based on my purchases; I’ve found many books that way that I didn’t know existed. But these last couple days, I had business to tend to that brought me within shouting distance of my local B & N, so I stopped in for old time’s sake.
I guess it’s been a while since I last did some serious brick-and-mortar browsing because, let me tell you, I was overwhelmed by how many fascinating books I found that I had no knowledge of. I mean, I read a lot of literary blogs these days, and I thought I was staying fairly au courant with new releases. Not only was I wrong, but my recent abstinence helped throw something into sharp relief for me: there just isn’t any substitute for browsing in the store. I’m serious, I was almost jittery/giddy with emotion. Quot libros, quam breve tempus! I just wanted to gather armloads of them up and scurry off to a corner of the store, snarling at anyone who dared disturb me. Were you ever told those possibly-apocryphal stories about Soviet citizens who would break down in tears upon coming to the land of freedom and encountering their first supermarket, struggling to believe that anything so wonderful could actually exist? It was sort of like that, only weirder, because I’m around books all the time. I guess it was just some sort of harmonic convergence, where I happened to be in the right frame of mind to be receptive to all the stimuli and have a transcendant experience.
What it was, actually, was a stark reminder that I’m one of those people for whom a “book” is a nexus of associations — the beauty of the cover design, the feel of the dust jacket, the thrill of an interesting topic, the smell of coffee, the sound of classical music. I stood there and gazed at the shelves and felt as profoundly moved as I ever have from viewing art. I glanced at a copy of Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists and laughed at the idea that this wasn’t a “religious” experience for being unstructured and private. I made a hastily-scribbled list of what turned out to be thirty-two books to add to my wish list, and I resolved to make this a ritual visit again.
E-readers are great for people who see a “book” as only a horse and buggy for transmitting information, to be unsentimentally phased out in favor of motor vehicles. Sacrificial offerings to the twin gods of speed and compact efficiency. I sympathize with Lisa, but there are too many things I appreciate about the Internet age to wish I weren’t part of it. I’ll settle for prolonging this unsteady balance as long as possible, for preserving some pocket, however diminished, where people like me can continue to indulge in books as something greater than that.