Books are wonderful. I learned at a very young age that there is nothing better than a good book. Books were the things, besides the body, that seemed to transcend every transition in life. I married, had children changed husbands, launched kids, moved houses – but there were always the books. A mystified coworker (who could not believe I spent precious vacation time going somewhere to talk about books) once gave me a sweatshirt that said: “So many books, so little time.” Yes, indeed.
I thought you could learn anything from a book. My father may have been the culprit on this. He built his first house out of a book entitled Your Dream Home: How to Build it for Less than $3,500 – very popular with GI’s who came home after World War II. My father read the book and he built a house. He had some help and the house had its problems, but the book told him what he needed to know, and – more than that – it convinced him it was possible. In later years, he used books to teach himself to sail, play chess, and to build a fireplace with rocks that he picked up on the beach. I have a clear memory of all of us standing around the massive hearth, where misshapen rocks were held together with a little more concrete than you might see in more professional masonry, and holding our breaths as we waited to see whether it would draw smoke. And it did. Again, not perfectly, but well enough for the man who was so proud of it. You could learn anything out of books.
Over the years I used books for a variety of reasons. I wore out my Dr. Spock while raising children and I am on my second red Betty Crocker cookbook. I learned to knit and crochet with books; I taught myself enough French to pass the second-language translation test for a graduate degree I used books to plan trips, bake bread, grow roses, sew curtains, buy cars, set up a retirement account, research almost anything I was interested in.
Of course, the obvious extrapolation from all of this textual success was that the same vehicles that taught me information and crafts, that delivered me safely where I wanted to go and told me if my child had the chicken pox, could also teach me how to live a happy, peaceful life, could free me from irrational fears (hypochondria, catastrophic thinking) and rational fears (death and global warming), could help me adjust to old age. So, I read great books, self-help books, spiritual memoirs, important works in psychology and philosophy and popular works of psychobabble. I ran through subjects and authors. Still I could not read myself into faith or peace or self-acceptance. But I kept trying. If the original story were true, it was just a matter of reading the right book, wasn’t it? And I had always thought there could not be enough books, but perhaps we should remember what the Preacher says (in Ecclesiastes, one of my favorite books of the Bible): “And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”
So my faith in books had some holes in it. It is clear, while I have learned much on a “technical” level, there is something that books have not been able to give me. I have wandered and thirsted through Borges’ labyrinthine libraries and gathered all of the likely candidates. And still there were no answers to many important questions. (See this week’s story, “By the Book,” for a tale of bibliomancy, the belief that books can indeed answer specific questions.)
I ran across this passage from the ever-pessimistic Schopenhauer not long ago (and it is worth thinking about pessimistic vs. optimistic attitudes toward life and where they land us, but that is for another time):
…much reading robs the mind of all elasticity; it is like keeping a spring under a continuous weight. If a man does not want to think, the safest plan is to take up a book directly he has a spare moment.
This practice accounts for the fact that learning makes most men more stupid and foolish than they are by nature, and prevents their writings from being a success; they remain, as Pope has said. “Forever reading, never to be read.”
“The safest plan is the pick up a book….” Books are no different from other experiences in many ways, but perhaps inferior in being at second hand. And if – like other experiences – we do not take time to process our reading, make it part of us, love, criticize, accept or reject what we read, books are, at last, simply amusements and diversions. I will always love books, but I no longer believe they will save me. And I particularly cannot believe that the next one will be the jackpot – because there will always be a next one (ask the Preacher).
So, here might be the new story. There is a time in life to lean back and try to bring the reading and experience into synch – to enter into a Lady Slane (All Passion Spent) period of reflection. This may be one of the things old age is for. A moratorium on input and time for processing. I have not read every good book, but perhaps I have realized that I will never get to the end of good books. And if I keep trying to get to the end of them, I might never get to the bottom of them.