No More Books--Nyet!
I don't need any new books. I don't. I told myself three years ago that I wouldn't buy any new books until I'd read the ones I had on my shelf. None. What's the point, I thought? Ok, maybe, a new book can function as a kind of reference or SOS book, as for example. N.T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God. But have I read it, Nick's volume 3? Two years later no. But it looks sharp on my shelf.
And that's the problem.
There's this disease that plauges a specific social group: the smartypants. I've tried for years to get into the group--since my sophomore year in college. Growing up, I wasn't a reader; by "reader" I mean a person who read books because they wanted to, not because they had to. I only read books because my teachers assigned them. That was it. The rest of the time I was playing sports and getting into trouble with the Sanford brothers, Matt "Malox" Henry, Terry "T-Mat" McDonald and Jake Sawyer, the kid from Louisiana. I didn't start "reading" until I was 19, by which point it was too late.
I arrived at my Plan II (the liberal artsy, smartypantsy program at UT) English Lit class and realized I was screwed. The twenty other kids sitting around the seminar-styled tables were creatures from another planet. They were from planet private high school. They were from planet nerds and SAT monsters. And some were even in sororities, so they were doubly intimidating: babes and brains in one. I distinctly remember thinking that I was like a horse at the racetrack goofing around in the gate. My goofing consisted of memorizing NCAA football player stats, playing Canasta, and cultivating the hots for Susan Jacimore.
Then suddenly I woke up. I looked around. And I saw lots and lots of horses running! And they'd been running lap after lap after lap, learning all sorts of things about Rousseau and William Butler Yeats, and they understood principles about a thing called rhetoric, and they used big words like The New York Times Book Review, and I would never be able to catch up.
I determined then and there that I would devote the rest of my life to catching up. One day I was naive and happy, the next I was driven. I became a boor to people closest to me. Soon after, I abandoned my faith all together. But that's a story for another time.
The good news is this: I got a C+ for the fall semester of my Plan II English Lit class. Prior to that, I hadn't known the letter existed on report cards. Needless to say I was horrified, in a very angsty Poe-ish way. I begged and pleaded with Dr. Norman Farmer. I pleaded obsequiously with him to let me do whatever it would take to improve my grade. He listened to my pitiful pleas, but he yielded no ground. He was merciless. And again I see it as one of the best things that happened to me in college. That C+ haunted me the rest of my college career.
I learned a lesson however that I'll never forget: writing well is hard, hard work and you've gotta want it bad if you want it right.
Like getting a vaccination from a vampire, my time in Plan II implanted within me the pathetic desire to impress. And what better way to impress people--the people whose opinion mattered to you--than to have lots of impressive books on your shelf. Smartypants books. I now say, Damn the whole thing. It's such a crock. Who gives a rippin' flip what books you have on your shelf. I've met so many people with vast collections of books whose attitude was either obnoxiously full of themselves or embarrassingly insecure. Specifically intellectually insecure people rarely have space around them for anyone but themselves. What does it profit a man, we say, to have read all the "right" books and yet still feel the need to go out of his way to prove to you that he (or she) is an important person? Who cares.
I could feel myself turning into that grotesque creature all throughout my twenties. I became increasingly self-protective, ungenerous, and felt the constant temptation to wow.
Now I'm at Half-Price Books. It's the ginormous one off of Lamar and 2222. It's 8:30 at night and I'm looking for two books in particular. I find neither. So I go wandering.
I wander like a man doomed to buy books he doesn't need--right now. I buy John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath because I was never made to read it in high school or college and I want to read something very otherly from my middleurbia life. I buy a book that was twice recommended to me over the past month, the oddly affecting Life of Pie by the Canadian author Yann Martel. I wander over to the dreaded Christian section and, for no reason, grab a copy of Madeleine L'Engle's Walking on Water. I don't yet own a copy. I turn to the title page to see how much it costs and I find the following inscription: "To Melissa Scott--a song on the walk--Madeleine L'Engle." The price is $5.98. My last purchase is a tall book. It's a 1948 Pantheon Books hardback copy of Dante's The Divine Comedy. I've no idea if the translation is a good one, but the book comes with illustrations by Dore. How can I refuse. It costs me only $9.98.
I leave the store with my pile of un-needed books and wonder where I'll have to go to find a used paperback copy of Blue Like Jazz and The Da-Vinci Code. I really only want to have to pay 25 cents for Dan Brown. I heard Donald Miller speak over the weekend so it'd feel uncharitable of me to want his book for cheap. I can always check it out of the library.
I know I've broken my half-hearted vow not to buy books I don't need or won't read immediately. I'm weak today. But I comfort myself with the thought that my book-buying experiences are a lot less stressful than they use to be. And thank God. Now I buy books because they make me content. I can love books for what they are, gifts. Just that, honest to God gifts.
And in the case of good books, they can become gifts for the enrichment of the soul, the instilling of virtue, the reminding of what's true and even beautiful, and most especially needful today, as the author Louis Cowan reminds me, the appreciation of the fullness and complexity of reality, which in the case of my reflections on the last ten years comes as a reminder that grace, thank the Lord, has followed me all along, grace for my many weaknesses, grace for my puny but persistent efforts to put one step in front of the other in the direction of a more contented life, and perhaps even a holy life.
This entry actually burned my britches. All I'd wanted to do was to say, I went to Half-Price, I bought some crazy books, isn't that crazy, not a trace of Dan Brown anywhere--isn't that crayzay. Instead it turned into this ridiculous confession. I don't often tell my C+ story. In fact I've told it only twice over the past four or five years. And now it's freakin public property.
I went bed much later than I had imagined. So stupid.
By the way, using an "a" isn't very fair. I mean, "a" could stand for anything, scary things even. Didn't you read the little note right below this comments box? "This blog does not allow anonymous comments." Not a single one. Nope. Not even from "a"-nonymous persons.
I'm so tired right now.
Hey Milton, have you ever read Twain's Joan of Arc?
If it makes you feel any better I had this one boring art history class at 4:00 in the afternoon. I used to sit in the back and sleep. I guess I slept through the announcment when they changed the date and location of the final cause I show up on the published date and no one was around. Big F for Jimbo!!
Jim, I read Shusaku *Endo's Silence* a few years ago and felt like I'd stumbled on a hybrid of Graham Greene and Asian meditation. It's such a deeply moving novel.
Anybody want to start a once-a-month book-reading club? :-)
In January I made a list of all the unread books on my shelves: 43. I didn't include short story or essay collections that I've read pieces of. The list is down to 41, but the call of new books in always very strong. HPB does not help.
"Those who aspire to the status of cultured individuals visit bookstores with trepidation, overwhelmed by the immensity of all they have not read. They buy something that they've been told is good, make an unsuccessful attempt to read it, and when they have accumulated half a dozen unread books, feel so bad that they are afraid to buy more. In contrast, the truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or their desire for more."
Doesn't it feel good to be a C student for once in your life! :-)
My big stress is periodicals, especially poetry ones. I felt so relieved when my poetry prof, the same one of the malevolent notes, said that yeah he sort of read the thirty-some-odd poetry magazines he subscribes too (publishes in most of them, too, but he modestly didn't mention that!), but he really didn't find anything good in them. Some insecurity inside of me said, Whew, you mean I don't have to like those poems in order to be OK? To be a poet and OK, both? That's great!
But, notwithstanding, I subscribe to or have sample copies of or borrow copies from friends of several poetry magazines, and I'm afraid the glass coffee-table-top won't hold many more in the must read now before you read anything else! pile. I read them over lunch, usually, but at an average of 3.5 poems per lunch, it'll take ages to get through even one issue of the book-length Poetry Ireland Review. And then my dear mother-in-law sends me another before I can get through the first, ack!
But I still keep buying books. The best day of school is the day I get all those lovely Amazon.com boxes on my door step, and hand out all those shiny books to my big-eyed students. Ah, paperbacks.