The second (of two) volumes of the collected works of Loren Eiseley have arrived from the Library of America. These are both going into my list of A Thousand Books to Read Before I Die.
It is a pity to me that so many scientists who have seen fit to venture into the realm of philosophy have done so with deicide in mind from the outset. Eiseley approached science, the world, the universe all with a sense of curiousity, of wonder, and, ultimately, with an understanding of the limitations of both the scientific craft and the human ability to perceive the fullness of the universe.
I shall leave to others to rantings of anti-theists in lab coats, choosing instead to immerse myself in the musings of “the modern Thoreaus.”
Finishing Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France was a bit of a personal triumph for me, so bear with some short musings as catch my literary breath for a moment.
Despite a predilection for complex sentence structures and multi-page paragraphs, Burke is brilliant. At the very least, I walked away with an new appreciation of the French Revolution that contrasted with the neo-Jeffersonian interpretation of events.
Histories I had read emphasize the excesses of the Reign of Terror. Burke acknowledges and decries the atrocities but does not use them to weave a polemic. Instead he focuses on the fundamental shortcomings of the revolutionary government itself. He does not embark on the kind of ideological screed that fills political tracts today as much as he delivers a cogent practical critique of the revolution, and by extension all scorched-earth paroxysms of change. Progress is essential, Burke emphasizes, but change is not the same as progress. and while for true progress to take place there must be change, that change must be modest and incremental.
The phrase that hung above my head as I watched Burke dissect the National Assembly was “consequences unintended, unforeseen but not unforeseeable.” No doubt I will return to his work in the future, but other exponents of the matured values upon which Burke expounded, like Russell Kirk, Max Weber, Leo Strauss, and Irving Babbit, now call for my attention.
A final note: I find it fascinating that Burke, who stands at the center of the Anglo-American conservative pantheon, sounds less like a right-wing icon than he does a moderate conservative, and someone who might well be dubbed a RINO.
Sitting by the window at the Timberyard in Covent Garden, having a cheat meal of avocado toast and English Breakfast tea, and arguing with Oscar Wilde via margin notes in a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray.
A perfect way to spend a chilly Sunday in overcast London.
Thanks to ANA and Emunah Caterers in Hawthorne, one of the happiest parts of my trans-Pacific trips is the onboard Kosher mid-flight snack during the 12 hour flight to Tokyo. I pull up a novel on the Kindle, wash hands, make the turkey sandwich, and bliss follows.
I remember at a very young age rushing home from school with the Scholastic* mail-order catalog, and later riding my bicycle into Westwood to browse the shelves of B. Dalton or A Change of Hobbit.†
Drawing my inspiration from meeting Louis L’ Amour and having his wife Kathy give me a guided tour through Louis’ 7,000 volume library‡ when I was eleven, I have built a collection of something over 4,000 books. I built it one book at a time, starting in elementary school through my adulthood (even during my two decades living in China), and continue to build it today (in fact, a volume of Ross MacDonald novels has just landed on my Welcome mat from Library of America.)
To some, that’s a massive collection, the symptom of a compulsive acquirer, and to others it is a demonstration that I am a literary dilettante. (“A mere four thousand? Feh! Piker!”) They’re both right. Bookwise, I have been both an obsessive-compulsive and a glorified dabbler. My collection pales next to those of people like Umberto Eco, and my sole guiding principles in acquiring the books has been to buy books as long as I could afford them, and to buy whatever looked interesting at the time.
But time is the ultimate scarce commodity, and when you subtract the hours taken by work, sleep, family, friends, camping, boating, and all of the other things that are important in life, you are suddenly overwhelmed by the tiny corners into which a reader must shoehorn all of the world’s books. So the first step in deciding what to read is figuring out how much you CAN read.
Here is how I figured it for me:
I am 53. Looking at an actuarial table, I have about 20 good reading years left (I’m hoping for 30 or 40, but if I go with 20 and I wind up with more, I can add more books later.)
Based on my current reading habits, I can comfortably commit to a minimum of 1 hour a day reading.
My current plan is to spend the next three years shifting from a 63 hour workweek to a 20 hour workweek, opening up at least an hour a day (on average to reading).
Looking through my library, I’ve discovered that the average book on my shelf is about 400 pages long (413 to be exact.)
I read about a page a minute, and really have no desire to go any faster.
So 20 years, an hour a day, and a page a minute, that gives me 20 x 365 hours, which is 7,300 hours total, a bit less than four full working years.
Multiply that x 60 pages per hour and you get 438,000 pages. Divide that by the 400 pages per book, and that gives you 1,095 books. Round that down to be conservative, and you get 1,000 books.
Et voila! Do the math yourself and see what you come up with.
Next week we’ll answer the question “why books?”
* Scholastic deserves credit for at least two major contributions to reading in America beyond the obvious. First was getting my generation accustomed to ordering books sight-unseen based on a photo and a brief description. I am convinced they created Amazon’s critical early adopters. Second, of course, was for bringing Harry Potter to America.
† Both of those establishments have gone to the great book mall in the sky. B. Dalton was bought by Crown, whose idea of a good selection was something like 4,000 titles. The greater loss was A Change of Hobbit, the south-of-Wilshire establishment that looked and felt suspiciously like Bag End, albeit with higher ceilings, and was THE salon for speculative fiction. When I win the lottery, I will be reopening A Change of Hobbit, probably somewhere in Ojai, California.
‡ L’ Amour’s library grew considerably over the next 13 years. Truism: give a bibliophile a library that will hold 7,000 books, and he (she) will set about trying to squeeze “10,000 books and half again as many journals” into it.
What in G-d’s name motivates me to make my reading a matter of public record?
I ask this question because I have friends who, bless them, engage in unabashed literary exhibitionism that is both crass and off-putting. That is an outcome I am trying to avoid. I would like to think that I have reached a stage in my life and career at which pretending at an erudition offers little satisfaction.
That said, I will approach this with humility and self-deprecation. And if I ever start down the path of literary pretentiousness, I beg of you, call me on it. Harshly.
What I would like to accomplish with the Thousand Books posts is to share a process that I am working out as I go in an effort to help others achiece what I am attempting:
To understand why and how to be selective in my reading
To discover what works are or should be the most meaningful to me.
To choose my books well, based more on what those books will mean to me, and less on what THEY think I should read (whether THEY are my peers, the editorial staff at the New York Review of Books, the English Department at Yale University, or even the Recommended for You bots at Amazon.com.)
To share what these books mean to me, because in sharing I meaning I begin meaningful conversations about books (as opposed to conversations based in the hyper-Pilpul world of literary theory and criticism which, while no doubt fascinating to their rarefied practitioners, tend in my experience to suck meaning out of reading rather inject meaning into them.)
In short, the goal of my effort will be to develop a process by which people can select, read, absorb, and share books that are most meaningful to them.
I am the guinea pig. Please join me in the lab. You have aught to loose but your boredom.