I envy readers who approach their reading systemically, readers for whom reading is a process of getting to the bottom of a few private obsessions. Systematic readers may not always know what book comes next—but they will at least be able to narrow it down to a few good candidates. I mean, if you’re obsessed with the Soviet erotica, there’s a good chance that your next book will about Soviet erotica. (I assume such a thing existed.)
Then there are also readers who read purely as an aesthetic experience. I hold nothing but admiration for these readers. There are some—or, so I imagine, because I am not like this—who view each book as an opportunity to, in the words of Walter Pater, “burn always with this hard, gemlike flame.” (How many moody undergraduate humanities students over the years have swooned to these words just before deciding to take on a lifetime of financial aid debt to pursue an MA in Art History?) For these readers, there’s a good chance you’ll be satisfied with some random 19th century Russian and French doorstop.
My approach to reading is neither especially admirable or worthy of envy. Though I have my interests and sense of beauty, my reading philosophy can best be summed up as “eclectic nerd.” There is a dutiful part of me—a smattering of Midwestern rectitude I inherited from my Ohio parents—that says that you do certain things because you darn well should. I feel this way about books sometimes. There are certain books I should read because, damn it, I should read something at some point by Balzac or Günter Grass or (I suppose) Joyce Carol Oates.
Eclectic nerds like myself want to balance reading something new with reading a classic they blew off in college with reading about world religions they find vaguely ridiculous with trying to finally figure out what the hell the Frankfurt School actually was with learning about what America has done to poor brown-skinned people in remote parts of the world.
As a result, putting down one book and picking up another for me can be a surprisingly difficult. Earlier this week I finished John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra. On my desk in front of me is normally a neat stack of books that I collected because they seem like books I really should read. I have been going through these books for the past two days, trying to decide what book I want to/should read next. The books are now clumped in scattered piles.
In the off chance you have an opinion, here are some of my options:
- I like the idea of reading Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier because it’s on the Modern Library’s list of top 100 books—and because I enjoy the fact that the author’s first and last name are the same. (I like William Carlos Williams for the same reason–oh, and his poetry’s pretty good, too.)
- I meant to read The Decline of the West when I was 21 and was ready to flush Western Civilization down the drain. But has anyone read this outside of a course reading list during the past 75 years?
- Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy appeals to me because maybe it will teach me to console myself with a little philosophy rather than single malt Scotch. Besides, I should probably know a little something about what it was like at the court of Theodoric during the sixth century, right?
- Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, because the publisher managed to slap a blurb from president Barack Obama on the cover.
- I’m wondering if Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road is close enough to being out of fashion again that I should finally bother with it.
- Nathaneal West’s Miss Lonelyhearts/The Day of the Locust, for some reason.
- The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Because maybe I’ll like spy thrillers.
- Vanity Fair was one of TS Eliot’s favorite novel (an endorsement you might consider a little dubious) but every time I look at its 10,000 or so pages I start seeing if there’s a book on my bookshelf with zombies on the cover. (Speaking of zombies, World War Z is also on my desk—Studs Terkels meets, uh, zombies!)
- Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. I am starting to wonder if I might be closer to an English Tory than an American Democrat. Then again: Margaret Thatcher.
- The Wisdom of Insecurity. Because I aspire to be the most restless/impatient/distracted Buddhist in history, coked-up Hollywood Buddhists excepted.