Over at npr.org, Linda Holmes has written an essay calling for all of us NPR listeners (and New Yorker readers, and so on) to recognize the fact that we will never be able to read everything we want to. Nor will we be able to listen to or watch everything on our cultural bucket lists. It is just plain numbers, she says. (How many books can you read in a month, how many months will you live if you live to be 85, what number does that give you? It’s not enough)
Holmes differentiates reactions to this realization into two categories: culling and surrendering. In the former, people take a determined stance to reduce what they consider worthy of attention: I will not watch TV, it is all trash. And while “The Real Wives of Orange County” is likely no great loss to them, they may have really enjoyed “Mad Men” or old Poirot mysteries on A&E or the Superbowl. They won’t know, though, because they have culled TV from their cultural consumption. Dale’s previous post on all the books he won’t read falls (somewhat shakily) into this category: Jane Austen is not worth his time. (Don’t throw things at him. I know she’s a good writer but I am also pretty convinced he can live a happy existence without reading Pride and Prejudice.)
Surrender is the strategy Holmes herself appears to advocate. In this frame of mind, we are completely aware that WE ARE GOING TO MISS SOME GREAT SHIT and we just have to be ok with that. So, for example, if Dale dies without having read Die Blechtrommel or Doktor Faustus (both of which he will not, he tells me, ever read), that does not make him a less-well-read individual. He just knows that there is a finite amount of literature he is going to ingest and he wants to enjoy what he does read and not beat himself about the head and shoulders for not reading Thomas Mann’s greatest novel.
Holmes reminds us that being “well read” is not a destination at which you arrive. It is a process. Are you interested in the cultural production of the world in which you live? How big is that world? I feel compelled to know a bit about what is going on in contemporary German literature, as well as on the US literary market. My desire for an expanded world reduces, in pure page volume, the percentage of what I can know of each. If your cultural wold is the American Midwest in poetry in the twentieth century, you can probably hope to read most of its literary output before you die.
As a professor of literature, I have a bit of difficulty with the surrender notion. We in black, with our Foucault oder Bhaba tucked under our arms, are generally more inclined to talk like the cullers: who me, watch sports? ick. Not worth it when I could be reading Kant. Surrender implies that we know that we cannot know everything and that someone out there will have read more of x, y, or z than we and then we aren’t experts after all and aaaaaaaahhhhhhh. . . . . . .
But deep down inside I have surrendered to the knowledge that I’m just not going to get to it all, nor should I try. I want to always be reading something and am very pleased that the past year or so has meant a return to pleasure reading for me. I’m working through the books that I bought at the MLA, as well as some genre fiction, and have started writing a story of my own. (shhhh) And, in solidarity with Dale, I will now list the Books I Will Not Read (with a healthy side dish of Books I Have Given Up On):
Tolstoy, War and Peace (I brought this with me to Hamburg when I spent my junior year of college abroad. My logic was: I will miss reading English but don’t want to pay a premium for buying British paperbacks. I’ll bring THIS GINORMOUS book and it will tide me over for months and months.) Unfortunately for me, I didn’t know squat about Russia in the nineteenth century and was totally confused about why they were all speaking French and how in the hell in Napoleon get there, anyway? I gave up about 1/4 way through it and know that I just can’t bear to trudge through all of those pages again.
And if I’m really honest here, I’m going to just clump all sorts of Russian literature together and say: won’t get to it. Someone told me to read The Master and Margarita a couple summers ago (blog post here) and I enjoyed it. But it didn’t make me yearn for more.
I’ll also agree with Dale on Faulkner. If any of you read my post on The Sound and the Fury, you’ll know why. Ick.
Autobiographies of any political figure, ever. Clinton, Bush, Bush, Obama, Rumsfeld, whoeverthehellyouare: I don’t care. Reading what you would have to say about the world would spike my blood pressure. I also don’t need to read Master & Commander-style narratives that talk about the political or military exploits of those who never got around to writing their autobiographies.
Any book with the words “chicken soup” in the title, unless it actually involves a dead chicken and a pot of water with veggies.
I am sure there are more. Oh yes, I am sure. But right now I’ve got to run and read more Sookie Stackhouse 🙂