As I get older, sicker, and more beset with claims on my attention, I find myself dreaming up simple rules for gracefully consuming my way through the world. As a person reliant on deeply industrialized and entangled societies for money, food, medicine and entertainment, I find that simple tricks help me feel sane. Heuristics are useful when navigating complex systems, be it 21st century America or your personal ethics.
The following rules of thumb might help if you feel overwhelmed with the incomprehensible amount of interesting culture to eat and be eaten by. Because books are the media that I chase and covet the most, I’ll use them here. Altering the immortal words of Gale: “So many books, so little time.”
1. When in doubt, don’t read it.
Err on the side of omission. You might die tomorrow—hell, you might die tonight—and wouldn’t you regret it if you slogged through fifty more pages of some book that just feels serviceable?
2. If the author’s a bigot, don’t read it.
This applies to Mein Kampf all the way down to that writer that said “I just can’t fuck any more NYU students with Jim Morrison posters on their wall.” With so much potentially transcendent literature written by not-immediately-obvious-assholes just waiting in libraries and in book stores, feel free to judge with severe intolerance.
3. If it’s new, don’t read it.
Like evolution, time is a critic without aim, but there’s a lot of literature that has been retold, copied, salvaged and painfully rebuilt because it’s wildly powerful or innovative to most people that engage it. The newer the book you’re reading, the more likely it’ll be buried by the sands of time.* Lately, I’ve been reading mostly ancient literature and looming works from a few centuries ago, and I’m having trouble returning to contemporary stuff. But this difficulty feels nice.
From ABC of Reading
by Ezra Pound
‘Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.’
Dichten = condensare.
I begin with poetry because it is the most concentrated form of verbal expression. Basil Bunting, fumbling about with a German-Italian dictionary, found that this idea of poetry as concentration is as old almost as the German language. ‘Dichten’ is the German verb corresponding to the noun ‘Dichtung’ meaning poetry, and the lexicographer has rendered it by the Italian verb meaning ‘to condense’. READ MORE >
I read a little more than half a Louisville Slugger’s worth. Not included: the books I started and didn’t finish. Included below but not pictured: books I’ve given to friends. It was a great year, though, in that I read more books that I know I’ll reread than in any other. In mostly scattered order:
What’s your reading cessation policy for any given book, if you have one? Is it “I’m going to give this until page 25/75/150 and if I still don’t like it…”? Does anyone “slog through” books anymore, or is “life too short”?
And, although I’m sure we’ve asked before, has the internet affected your readerly stamina? Expectations?
I associate the “endure-it posture,” let’s call it–I will finish this book because I started it and because it’s an ‘important’ book for such-and-such reasons or because so-and-so adores it–with a younger self, a self I sometimes miss because she was more disciplined in certain regards than I am now. It’s also the posture, often, of the student, an entity that I am no longer. I withstood a lot of D.H. Lawrence when I really wanted to be reading Beckett in the bathtub.
I’ll say now: I read until I stop caring. But that’s a loaded statement. Has my care threshold been eroded? I’m really still mostly interested in my original question, and I don’t want this little thing to ooze into issues of what we like/don’t in a work , etc…but I’m wondering, tangentially at least, about our stop-and-go signals, and how they might be peer- or culturally influenced.
1. do you feel the need to finish a book you start?
2. what is the book by the author you read that book you’re pretty much done/you got that author down?
3. what book of poetry made you finally tolerate poetry?
4. what is the book you were reading and you thought, “I wish this book would keep on walking. I am blar it has ended, I am liquid-glandful and low. Keep going, book.”
5. what is the book (maybe assigned or some shit) you were reading and your serial bowl/crayonium went “Fuck I wish this book was over”?
6. what is the book you don’t want to see go electronic?
7. what’s the book people like but you doubt they read the whole thing?
8. what is the book you mark up with ink/lead/cur-ear (or did) the most?
9. what is the book you keep saying you’ll read but most likely will not?
10. what is the book you own the most copies of? one at your work, in the car floor, hollowed out for your secret letters/oregano, another in the kitchen junk drawer, one at your lover’s place, one at your spouse’s, one tonguing dust balls beneath the fridge, a page tacked on some old wall?
11. what is the book you’ve stolen the most from?
12. what is the book you are not returning–the one you actually stole?
Last week, I had a book launch for The Evolutionary Revolution, which came out a while ago, sure, but whatever. It was fun times. It was at a small, independent bookstore. I read in front of the cash register. The bookstore was packed, and I sold a good number of books. It was a “best selling” night for the bookstore.
But then, last night, I went to a friend’s place and met another writer who had his book launch over the weekend at Indigo Books (the Canadian equivalent to Barnes & Noble or Borders), and he told me for his launch, he didn’t read. O no no. They set up a table right at the entrance to the bookstore and had him greet customers as they came in. By the pure virtue of his being a writer—A real writer who wrote and published a real book! How amazing is that?—people bought! He sold more books than I did. And he didn’t even read.