Editorial: Books are an existential crisis.

24 Oct

1.) A Problem?

NPR reported a story back in June titled “You Can’t Possibly Read It All, So Stop Trying”, and it was all about how you’ll never be able to read all the books you think you will. One must cull or surrender, i.e cull what you know you need to and want to read, and set it aside, or surrender and give up what you know you have no time for. And, while this is true, such a reality is bleak. So bleak it instigates paroxysms in my soul. Let me explain.

Like a lot of readers of this blog and contributors to Vouched, I have a lot of books. And, like you dear readers, I try to get as much reading done as possible. But life intervenes, yes. Also, it’s hard to feel like reading all the time. Eyes tire. Brains fatigue. The charm and shine of an author’s wit declines and fades. You don’t want the joy of reading to resemble a job.

So, of course, when I got married, my wife added even more volumes to the library. Dread crept in. The yawning abyss of shelves and spines lay before me. How will I scale this paper and binding monument of words? A profound bummer: I’ve not been able to read all of them. Probably not even a half; maybe I’ve gotten to a fourth. Ugh.

I’m such a fraud.

Every day the books hold court and find me wanting. Each book is a repository for years and months worth of knowledge and diligence and creativity. And I have failed them all. Which has made me succumb to whoring around with my library. The due diligence of regular reading has devolved into a mere fling I delude myself into believing is a full relationship. I browse around my harem, and I’ll peek inside at the cover, see what epigraphs the author has chosen. Read the first few pages, some from the middle, then—gasp!, yawn—read the ending.

I’m Twitterfying my reading habits. Reducing my intake to a 140 characters here, a 140 characters there. Everything calls my name: RSS feeds, blogs, aggregator sites. What wins? Mediocrity. What do I gain? Breadth of scope and lack of depth.

Of course, it’s my fault. I’ve not sharpened my post-post-modern skills as a new-fangled reader. Why do I keep buying more books? How can this add to my sanity? What’s the point? As my friend Greg once said to me, “I don’t want to miss out on the party.” Exactly.

Entropy is a real thing, people, and the signal to noise ratio is unnerving.

In the 1980’s science serial, Cosmos, Carl Sagan showed that if one was to read a book a week, and if that person was to live to an average age of 80 or so, one will only read a few thousand in a lifetime. This is a fractional percentage—a fearsomely minute number—of all that’s available out in the stacks. The trick, Sagan says, is to know which books to read. Alas.

The basic tenet of existential philosophy is that existence precedes essence. One can make himself through choices. So must a reader, book by book.

Thus: Don’t let the fecundity of the written word overpopulate your ability to be decisive, even brutally so. Don’t sleep with just any chapbook, novel, or pamphlet that comes your way, singing sweet songs and proffering roses and displaying a peacock-like cover. Don’t succumb to the Amazon Chain of Death—the name I give to the habit of following an idle curiosity of a book online and then into the ever-descending Inferno links of “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought…” This type of laundry-listing only engenders more despair, more angst, more self-reproach.

2.) The Why?

Do we not all know a boffin—an expert on one thing? Those who can attempt to relate any event in the world back to their study of choice. E.g. the man who can find the answer to any ontological question by bringing to the surface a leitmotif from Moby-Dick.

  • Ahab’s persistence is Satan.
  • Ahab’s persistence is God.
  • The whale’s reclusivity is God.
  • Ishmael’s wanderlust is global capitalism.
  • Queequeg’s bunking with Ishamael is Occupy Wall Street.
    Whatever the case.

There’s a refreshing quality to these folks. I’m more and more exhausted by people who have 37 Twitter feeds they have to follow and umpteen books they need to get through along with their magazine articles. Exhausted because the amount of content will only grow larger as the world becomes more literate and more writerly. And one way to counter this is to get esoteric on life’s ass. Pick your spot and dig in. Depth over acreage. There’s a profit and loss scheme to it, of course. But I think this isn’t terrible. Now some may claim that I am just advertising the opposite side of the coin. Though, I believe that the boffins have more fun. More fun than that reader who’s never able to keep up with all that’s coming at them. Boffins cull and surrender.

Books are an existential crisis because they force us to admit that there’s more to the world than we’ll ever understand. “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents” (H.P. Lovecraft). Books force you to face humanity and the limits of computation. I have to remind myself that even if I could read all that I wanted, there’s no way that I’m intelligent enough to remember it all, and then apply it: which is the definition of intelligence, knowledge with application.

And my library grows or shrinks as a statement of who I am. I build it as a piece of architecture to leave after my death. [How pretentiously grand!] Since I’ve moved over the years, the only bundle I care about and protect is my library. I keep thinking that one day I’ll stop. It’ll be enough. I’ll quit buying and begin reading, dammit. Then, with glee, I’ll reread. “One cannot read a book; one can only reread it” (Vladimir Nabokov). Doomed as I am never to get through them all, I can’t quite help sculpting: probably in vain. No, definitely in vain.

This is why, perhaps, older readers that I know are revisiting and slimming down their choices. Death approaches, and the only way to save face is to find the one book that speaks to you. A writer and teacher I knew in St. Louis, getting into her late 70s, was reading mostly two or three authors on rotation: Henry James, Dickens, and Conrad. She kept rereading and finding more. I imagined that she was hoping to find the one book out of all of them that she could reread indefinitely, where over time, the lines would all illuminate like some Celtic manuscript, and enlightenment drop down from above like heavenly manna.

No one can afford to be that naïve.
But I’ll allow it.

3.) The Solution?

Not to leave this post simply as a gripe, let me offer a restorative, a philtre to reawaken and remedy this soul-sickness: The Communal-Seclusive Reading Camp. This is not merely a book group, that often ersatz reason to get together for a meal or cry together over the newest Times bestseller—the housewife’s Jonestown Kool-Aid. Rather, the Communal-Seclusive Reading Camp is a get away for the technology-laden reader and existentially hounded being who wants to soak up the grafs and suck the poetry in.

Say ten folks spring for a cabin in the woods, somewhere secluded with a village nearby for supplies. These folks decamp to a comfy space and simply…read. That’s it. Maybe affix a giant bowl in the center of the room to dump cell phones and distractions. The seclusion is a necessary no-brainer. The company is for reinforcement and accountability and conversation—and for drinking with after a long day of reading and thinking. It would be a myriad book binge, a way to counter the crawling moist hand of futility and mortality. Also, a real life “Customers Who Bought This…” algorithm. [I feel this is what Vouched is at its best.]

Revelry would win the day. Possibly at the end of such a night, while the wine and brew floweth and the chins are pizza-greasy, readers would cull all the best lines and images from that day’s harvest and share them with the group and surrender themselves to the life of the mind, and that grand existential body, joyfully made of books.

23 Responses to “Editorial: Books are an existential crisis.”

  1. Laura Straub October 24, 2011 at 12:15 pm #

    So….when can we make this reading cabin party happen?

    • Kyle W. October 25, 2011 at 8:03 am #

      Um, no joke. This needs to happen ASAPistol-Whip-fast.

  2. Amber Sparks October 24, 2011 at 12:35 pm #

    Kyle, I love this. (And I kind of want to be a boffin, tiring as such people are in actual everyday life. Unfortunately I’m just the opposite–interested in everything.)

    My husband and I swim under this flood of books and thus we’ve developed our own version of this solution: the reading vacation. We’ve done two of these so far, one in Cape May, and one at home. We devote all time except mealtime to reading, for a week straight. It’s glorious. (Well, unless you’re reading Dostoevsky, which I was stupid enough to last time–then you feel no sense of accomplishment because you’ve read like two books.) But still…I highly recommend it. Whenever and wherever you can.

    • Laura Straub October 24, 2011 at 12:42 pm #

      Amber- my husband and I do the same thing! (That’s actually how I accomplished a lot of my reading for the VouchedATL table.) It’s glorious.

      • Amber Sparks October 24, 2011 at 12:46 pm #

        Yay for spouses/significant others who also love books. I don’t think I could have married someone who didn’t. I’m too selfish with my time. 🙂

    • Kyle W. October 25, 2011 at 8:04 am #

      What would your area of expertise be?

      • Amber October 25, 2011 at 8:50 am #

        The birth of the modern era, probably. From the sinking of the Titanic through the Great Depression, how culture and art and society shifted and changed and the modern age emerged. With a special emphasis on the Lost Generation and the aftermath of WWI. Yes I am a dork.

        • Amber October 25, 2011 at 9:05 am #

          But like Christopher, I couldn’t, really. I’m also way too interested in everything.

        • kmwinkler October 27, 2011 at 12:03 pm #

          Have you seen Midnight in Paris, yet? Katie and I were suitably impressed. Total must see for a Lost Gen. groupie.

          • Amber Sparks October 27, 2011 at 12:28 pm #

            Embarrassingly, I have NOT seen it. I know. I have been told not only by everyone that I must, but I am a huge Woody Allen nut. I don’t know how this could have happened. 🙂 But I will remedy, definitely.

    • ce. October 25, 2011 at 8:42 am #

      I don’t think I could ever be a boffin. I care too much about everything.

  3. ce. October 24, 2011 at 3:41 pm #

    The Reading Camp reminds me of the evening we spent with our friends on the floor of my apartment years ago, drinking wine, eating pie, and pulling book after book from my book shelf, and reading to each other our favorite lines. Do you remember that night, Kyle? Do you remember the next morning, the hour long discussion about Aristotalian ideas of time and eternity?

    Thanks for this post, man. Let’s talk it up.

  4. Damian October 25, 2011 at 9:04 am #

    In the early Middle Ages (say 500-1000), it was possible for an educated person (almost certainly a monk) to read basically all of the western world’s collected wisdom. Of course they had a much more limited world view than we do, but it makes studying them (as I do) much easier.

    • Amber October 25, 2011 at 9:07 am #

      I have to say, that sounds awfully attractive.

      • ce. October 25, 2011 at 9:11 am #

        Except, then you couldn’t read Basho…
        The entire Eastern side of the planet would be unrepresented.

        • kmwinkler October 27, 2011 at 12:03 pm #

          But they wouldn’t know about Basho, so they couldn’t get discouraged. Though I take your point, Newgent-san.

    • Kyle W. October 25, 2011 at 9:11 am #

      I like how turning the “m” in monk upside down gives you wonk, which is close to a boffin. And the Celtic manuscript reference was for you, Damian.

      • Morgan Macgregor October 26, 2011 at 1:15 pm #

        I’m there. Wherever and whenever it’s happening, count me in.

  5. Kathy M Cook October 28, 2011 at 8:35 am #

    KM Winkler If you pull this camp together I expect an invite. Aunt Kath XX OO


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