Monday, September 15, 2014

Already Read 'Em, An Experiment

This is not my bookshelf. This is not my house. This is not my to be read pile. But it could be if I let it. Bibliophiles are a dangerous lot, always pulling in new books around us. We can't wait to read the next book, before we are even finished the current book.

There is a great scene/line in the remake of the movie "Cape Fear," where Max Cady (played by Robert De Niro) is getting out of prison. When he is sent to prison, he can't read. So Nick Nolte isn't worried about Cady realizing that he let him hang, so to speak. But Cady/De Niro teaches himself to read. And he reads like crazy. And figures shit out. And along the way he develops a collection of books, which he is leaving in his prison cell as he walks to be released. So he is walking out with the guards and another guard calls out:

"Hey Cady, what about your books?"

"Already read 'em."

The ultimate utilitarian. They have served their purpose. Later, bitches. A bibliophile, Cady is not.

There is a funny thing about my bookshelves and my books. I haven't already read them all. I'm a tangential reader--I'll have books lined up to read next and some stray thought from something I am reading runs me down a mental rabbit hole, I pick up a new book and the book that was next in line gets backburnered. Rinse, repeat.

So I own some kickass books that I haven't read. And it is time to read them. Because some of them are beyond classic. And they are already here, living with me, untapped.

Here is the experiment: no new books. No new books so that I get to, and stick to, reading some of what is here. My goal is to go for a year. That would be some shit. But I will try six months, and then take the experiment's pulse. The goal is not to read all of my unread books. That would take more than a year. The goal is to spend the next six months to a year reading only books I already own. No new books.

But it hardly limits my reading. I am a slow reader. I am not saying I will get through this list, or that I won't modify it by swapping out one book for another off the shelf. But with a little thought, here is what an opening salve:


"Ulysses," James Joyce
"The Old Man and the Sea," Ernest Hemingway (haven't read since high school)
"Far Tortuga," Peter Matthiessen
"Cathedral," Raymond Carver (short stories, have read a few of them)
"The Once and Future King," T.H. White (have read part)
"V.," Thomas Pynchon
"The Sound and the Fury," William Faulkner


"The Spell of the Sensuous," David Abram
"The Poetics of Space," Gaston Bachelard
"Travels with Herodotus," Ryszard Kapuscinski
"Forests," Robert Pogue Harrison
"The Golden Bough," Sir James George Frazier

A formidable list. I am first finishing Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian," and Tony Horwitz's "Confederates in the Attic," before embarking, but buying no new books begins today, Sept. 15, 2014. Vegas odds aren't good that I can complete this experiment; that I won't cave like a book junkie and have a book binge, but I am going to give it a shot.

The book selling industry may feel a slight pinch. And I guess there are at least a couple reasons behind this experiment. One would be not spending money I don't have to spend, when the riches are already here. It frees up more cash for craft beer :)

But I think the bigger point is that reading isn't always about reading the next thing or the new thing. If your mind is actively engaging what it is encountering, and adding its own thoughts and depth, then the right stuff finds it and even more mundane reading (which this list is not) can turn into big stuff. Sometimes it is the reader, not the book. Books are the stimulus, not the result. You are the result, what you do with or from or because of the stimulus/book.

And that isn't to reduce books, literature, or art to just being stimuli. But that is in effect what it is. A painting is experienced by a viewer, a book by a reader, who reacts to it. Who takes it in. Who studies it. Who feels it. Who relates it to their own experience. And in that respect, art, to the viewer, the reader, the audience, is to be experienced, to stimulate us. To make us think; to make us cry; to make us laugh; to make us create; to make us question; to make us wonder; to make us love.

We have to change ourselves. I have to change myself. The lesson, perhaps, is to look at what is around me, the things I already have, rather than continually looking for new and next. And I am excited for the books that are here.

And why not start with a literary mountain to climb? Next up, Ulysses. Let's talk, JJ.


Rain said...

I love the idea of looking around at what you have, instead of constantly looking for the next best thing. Great thought!

Every book on my bookshelves I have read, but of course it doesn't contain every book I have read. So my crazy new bibliophile kooky idea is that I want to start buying the books I have read and enjoyed that I don't have copies of. I figure if I pick up one or two every time I go the used bookstore I will eventually get them all...well probably not, but at least I could get most.

crazy right?

Michael Valliant said...

I like that idea a lot, not crazy! And I envy you having read every book on your shelf. I am trying to get closer to that point. But I guess there is something to be said for having new reading material already here. Like Christmas everyday ;)