I just left my local bookstore, Longfellow’s, empty-handed. That is significant and speaks to the current state of my mind. I finished reading a book last night and didn’t have one in waiting. That is unusual. It appears that I’m at a reading paralysis, brought on by irrational fears of mortality. Allow me to explain.
But first, the book I finished last night was the latest by Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending. It is a beautiful little book. I sat down and read it straight, stopping only to refresh my bourbon, also straight. (It was a marathon reading. I needed my electrolytes!) It is a novel of ideas, filtered through a simple but clever story. The first-person narration steadily works up to a crescendo, albeit muted. I liked it very much, but am puzzled that it won the Man Booker Prize. Geoff Dyer wondered too, saying as much in a review in the Times a few months ago. Even without Dyer’s echo, I could not but wonder at the scope of the work, or lack thereof. A prize like the Booker or the Pulitzer calls for a bigger canvas in my scheme of things.
Back to my mental state.
Reading is so important to me that I’ve become trapped by it. The problem specifically is absurd and in telling you I am revealing more than my nature usually permits. Perhaps breaking down the fourth wall, as they say in theater, is just the thing.
Do you ever worry, that should you die tomorrow, the last book might not be the right “last” book? Wouldn’t you want it to be something big and profound to send you off? Like Moby Dick, perhaps? That would be a good one. (Not an option, I just re-read that last summer.) Or Ulysses? Or Proust? (I simply don’t have the discipline to wade through those again–at least not while in such a fragile mental state.) Getting my drift? I told you it was absurd. The “next book” used to hold such promise; now it seems a dark test.
At fifty-six I am starting to plan for the end. Morbid? I think not. Just being prudent. What haven’t I read? What do I need to read? And I’m not just thinking titles. I’m thinking genres. Science, literature, philosophy, history and so on. The bigger question–and this is the important thing–the bigger question is: as a person who has gained most of his knowledge through books, what do I want to know next?
I’m curious by nature and I’ve spent a lot of time attempting to keep curiosity alive. Curiosity is an expectant little beast that needs attending to. Ignore it and it will die. Give it too much attention and you will die. It’s a balance. Moderation, said the Greeks and the Buddha. Where is my moderated curiosity leading me? And to that question, distressingly, I don’t have a solid feel-good answer.
As a side note, Philip Roth famously stated last summer that he no longer reads fiction. That created quite a stir in the lit community. Now, this morning, in a piece at The Daily Beast, Cormac McCarthy is quoted as saying, “I haven’t read a novel in years.” I don’t know what, if anything, to make of this situation.