Read the first OED definition of desultory and see how it mutates: “Skipping about, jumping or flitting from one thing to another; irregularly shifting, devious; wavering, unsteady.” A butterfly flits, purposefully. Watch one moving from flower to flower, probing for nectar. Butterflies have evolved a proboscis resembling a coiled, retractable straw. Their flitting is methodical, not superficial.
Flitting among books is what some of us do every day. Sometimes the flitting is pragmatic – consulting a dictionary or other reference work. More often, we have several books going simultaneously, and one book inevitably leads to others.
For a long time, especially when I bought books at retail prices, I prided myself on doggedly finishing every book I started and never owning more than a couple unread books at a time. Parsimony was my guiding principle. I chose carefully which books to buy and ran my eyes over every inch of text between the covers. Once online shopping came around, I was exposed to a lot more suggestive algorithmic whispers from the shadowed alleyways of Amazon, but I stuck to the straight and frugal path, buying used-good as often as possible, usually after letting a book dwell in wish-list purgatory for a while to make sure I really wanted it. Nowadays, money isn’t quite so tight and I haunt library sales dozens of times a year, so I find myself willing to take a chance on a three-dollar-or-less book which might not have interested me in the abstract. Correspondingly, I’ve become a bit more willing to flit away from an uninteresting book rather than plod through like a tortoise, though I still feel slightly guilty about doing so. That Protestant book ethic is difficult to shake off.
Here’s the group of hitchhikers I picked up last weekend. I may have already read the Wodehouse stories, but since I don’t know of any convenient compilations of his plentiful works, I just grab whatever I find. I had the Lasch book on my wish list once, but it never graduated to a purchase. Epicurus, Horace and Erasmus sounds like one of those “ideal dinner party” scenarios. And I’m delighted to see the unjustly-maligned season of winter being honored with a sympathetic biography: