Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Six months of reading

Last week marked six months since I started writing this blog. I've now written directly about forty-six books that I read in that time, and I've quoted from or referred to dozens of others that I thought about or dipped into. I've read five or six others that, for one reason or another, never made their way into the blog. To be honest, it doesn’t seem like that many books to have read in half a year, given how much of my time I spend in my chair in the sunroom.

Last week, on a work trip to New York, I got to visit a good friend I rarely see who writes about movies and is a publicist for independent films. We had a great conversation, but during it I had to confess that I don’t see nearly as many movies as I would like to. I read reviews, I think about seeing a couple of movies each month . . . and then they come and go, and I stay at home, reading. There’s just not enough time. My friend said he felt the same way about books.

I’ve felt the press of time, with varying degrees of intensity, ever since I left college. Some weeks, a forty-hour-a-week job is perfectly manageable: it supports me, but it leaves me enough time to read, see friends, cook, run, watch baseball. Other weeks, it seems an unacceptable imposition. But even in the good weeks there’s not really enough time. I think of this as the Living Arts problem, after the culture section of the New York Times. We can all agree that Living Arts doesn’t cover everything. It’s hit and miss, too trend-driven (and despite that, always a bit behind), and it takes notice of only a tiny portion of the art and culture being produced in America, let alone the rest of the world. But at base it’s a serious attempt to take stock of what’s worthwhile in our culture. And if a person limited himself, culturally, only to what was mentioned in its pages . . . he’d never be able to keep up. Music, movies, books, theatre, dance, painting, sculpture—it would be utterly impossible.

Another way to think about the problem came to me one day while reading The Onion’s AV Club. Now, I somehow knew that in certain hip-hop circles, people drink cough syrup for the lazy, cloudy buzz it gives. What I didn't know, but learned from the AV Club, is that there’s a whole subgenre of hip-hop, called "chopped and screwed," that caters to the stoned-on-cough-syrup crowd. Of course. Maybe it sounds a bit like super-slow dub? Presumably, before too long, the Living Arts section will casually drop references to chopped and screwed tracks. And the thing is, since I’m just as much of a genre slut with music as I am with books, if my friend Rory recommends a screw track, I’ll probably like it.

Good god, how do we operate in a world this full? How do we choose what to focus on? In my apology for starting this blog six months ago, I more or less explained that such abundance is one of the main reasons I could never be a proper scholar: there’s too much out there that I’m interested in for me to ever focus sufficiently on one topic. But even once I accept dilettantism, there’s still too much. I could—and probably will—spend whole months over the course of my life just reading War and Peace or A Dance to the Music of Time or watching The Rules of the Game or Yi Yi. Some works of art, like good friendships, are inexhaustible, deeper at each reacquaintance. Those would be months inarguably well spent.

But what am I not reading? What am I not seeing? I’ve already more or less written off whole areas of knowledge, accepting that I’ll never know more about them than I will have to in order to function effectively at work. Classical music, science, theatre, dance, and most visual arts, for example, I’ll probably never have more than a nodding acquaintance with. And most days that’s okay. But then I think of the few areas that I do tend to focus on—English lit, for example—and I see the holes that gape even there. I’ve never read The Faerie Queene. I’ve never read Tom Jones. The same for Pope, and most of Donne and Wordsworth. Much as I love Dr. Johnson, I’ve never read Boswell. And despite my fairly extensive acquaintance with twentieth-century English literature, I’ve never even cracked what many consider its crowning achievement (though I have trouble imagining myself ever joining that club), Ulysses. There’s just too much, way too much.

Yet most days that doesn’t bother me. So long as I have a couple of hours to read something interesting, I’m okay with the fact that I’ll only ever read a minuscule portion of the world’s offerings. I’ll enjoy what I do get to, and I’ll take recommendations from trusted sources seriously. I’ll keep thinking about what I read and drawing connections between it and other books and authors I know. There’s no other way. Accept limitations, love what I can get to, listen closely to people who tell me what to put on top of the stack. I can do that.

And I’ll keep writing this blog, at least for the foreseeable future. It takes time that I might otherwise spend reading, but writing about books makes me more careful, more attentive, a better reader. For six months, at least, it’s seemed worth the time to write. I hope it’s been worth your time, at least most days, to read. Thanks for joining me thus far.

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