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.
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.
“Life is short. Books are many. What is an honest reader to do?”
I know I am not alone in facing this dilemma. Each of us who loves books and reading them realizes that we will never read all of the books that beguile us from our shelves. I have chosen to ignore that truth for a long time, buying and shelving books as though I would live forever.
Looming andropause reminded me last year that my time on Earth is limited, and if actuaries know anything, I will never read the books on my shelves right now. So what to do?
My choice, I realized, is simple: continue to live in denial, reading whatever suits my momentary urges, or choose to read books that are not only worthy in some objective sense, but that are also meaningful to me. I have chosen the latter, and in so doing have introduced a discipline to my reading that begins with a list.
The Thousand Books Project, once a blog and now a part of this one, is the chronicle of my effort to survey the entire corpus of books published in the English language, identify the 1,000 of those books that are most meaningful to me, read them, explain why I wanted to read them, and, finally to describe what they taught me.
This project is more than a list: it is a process, a search for meaning and beauty through the written word, and the chronicle of that process.
Which brings me to why you you should care. More about that in my next post.
Before I finish, though, a dedication:
I dedicate the literary journey of the last third of my life to my late mother, Valeria Jane Overman Blacklidge Barlow Wolf, who spent most of the last sixty years of her life improving herself through books, and in so doing made autodidacts of her children.
I am a bibliophile today because of what she taught me in life, and I begin this project in salute to the lesson she taught me in her passing: the clock is ticking, so make every remaining minute – and every page – count.
A little over a year ago I began a blog I called “The Thousand Books Project,” chronicling the project I had set myself to read 1,000 meaningful books in the next thirty-odd years (presuming, of course, that the Almighty allows me to live that long.”
Last week I realized that I could not sustain it as an independent blog – I’m simply not yet reading that quickly.
So, with your permission and indulgence, I am folding that blog into this one as a section or column.
Washington was a human being, and the cherry tree story was a myth. But behind the myths lies a man of profound character.
I am not sure I could or should emulate Washington in detail, but his character provides an outline, a rough template, that offers a lot to emulate.
The more time that passes since reading the book, though, the more I find that its examination of Washington, his life, and his character moves me. By bringing the General down from his marble pedestal, Ron Chernow has done us all a great service: he has shown us that greatness is less bestowed than it is found, less innate than it is built. It is a mantle that is not assumed: it is rather, conferred by others after long and careful evaluation.
And, perhaps most important, if the great are imperfect, then it is within the grasp of all who are imperfect to be great. The lesson Chernow teaches us, then, is that the Founding Fathers did more than democratize power: they democratized prestige, importance, and social standing, stealing it from the privileged, the noble-born, and the royal and setting it in the town square for anyone to earn.
Verily, we need to look no further than Washington’s forty-fourth successor to witness that there is a downside to the democratization of prestige. Yet one does not have to look for long to find among the heirs of George III evidence that hereditary monarchy is little better – and arguably worse – at selecting heads of state than our own system.
But if there is a failing in our system, it begins with us. In a democracy it is we who choose the great. Our failing is in holding the good men and women who would hold office to a standard even George Washington could not match, leaving us only with Potemkin heroes and abject scoundrels from which to choose our leaders.
Chernow’s lesson is, thus, most important when understood in this context. Do not demand or expect perfection from your leaders. Demand an expect only that they are good and trying to be better. Such was George Washington, and, I daresay, such was the lot of every man and woman who we today revere as Great Americans.