Instead of writing about writing, today I feel like writing about reading. To be more specific, reading what you like to read, as opposed to reading what’s good for you.
On this date 80 years ago, after several days of general rabble-rousing, college students across Nazi Germany carried thousands of “un-German” books to outdoor plazas and tossed them into large bonfires. Now, in 2013, I’m removing scores of books from my shelves – but for library donations, not firewood. I decided recently to dispose of a lot of the extra possessions cluttering up my home, and finally got around to my books. As I pulled volume after volume down into cardboard boxes, I was disturbed not only by the sheer numbers of books to go out (coming up on 400), but also by how many of them had never been opened.
Some were impulse purchases, but I soon realized that most of them were what you might call “appropriate” books: the works you would expect someone like me to have. I am a retired career Military Intelligence officer, now employed as a defense contractor. I am straight, white, male, single, late 40’s, American, raised in New Orleans, college educated. Fiction-wise, I enjoy thriller/suspense and science fiction. If all you knew about me were those few facts, which works would you expect to see if you dropped in on me at home?
If you guessed classics like Thucydides, Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, records of famous battles, biographies of great generals and obscure spies, John LeCarre, Isaac Asimov, Mark Twain and all the rest, you’d be right. They’re all there – and, with a few exceptions that have repeatedly proved their worth, they’re all going into the DONATE box.
Foremost among those exceptions is C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, which until recently was another one of my “appropriate” books — that is, not one that I acquired for its own sake, but because I had come to believe that it was the type of book that a cynical skeptic like me should have on his shelves. Not a complete work so much as a source of clever quotes about human nature, which I could weave into my daily discussions to show others how observant I was.
Well, I moved to a new place recently, and this was the first time I had to shift all those books by myself. There’s nothing like schlepping hundreds upon hundreds of heavy books by yourself, up and down flights of stairs in the summer heat, to get you thinking that maybe you’ve got too many of these damn things and it’s time to prune your collection. It was during a break from that moving ordeal that I absent-mindedly opened Screwtape and for the first time honestly comprehended what Lewis was saying. An hour later night had fallen, and I was still standing there in my old apartment, just running my eyes over the second-to-last paragraph of Letter XIII:
“The deepest likings and impulses of any man are the raw material, the starting-point, with which the Enemy has furnished him. To get him away from those is therefore always a point gained; even in things indifferent it is always desirable to substitute the standards of the World, or convention, or fashion, for a human’s own real likings and dislikings. I myself would carry this very far. I would make it a rule to eradicate from my patient any strong personal taste which is not actually a sin, even if it is something quite trivial such as a fondness for county cricket or collecting stamps or drinking cocoa. Such things, I grant you, have nothing of virtue in them; but there is a sort of innocence and humility and self-forgetfulness about them which I distrust. The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and without caring twopence what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the “best” people, the “right” food, the “important” books. I have known a human defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions.”
(For those of you unfamiliar with The Screwtape Letters, it’s a cautionary tale in which a senior demon advises a junior colleague on how best to capture an unnamed man’s soul by exploiting its most human characteristics. “The Enemy” refers to Heaven. Regardless of your faith or lack of same, Screwtape is perhaps the most perceptive collection of insights into humanity ever written. You can order it here, or get it here if you’re broke or selfish.)
So there I was, looking over my book collection in light of Lewis’s words, and finally realizing just how artificial and staged and pretentious it all was. It was like those “Books-by-the-Yard” dealers, where you tell them how much shelf space you need to fill up, and they come over and stock your walls with X linear feet of fancy-bound literary classics. How many thousands of dollars did I spend over the years on proper-but-uninspiring books, bookcases, insurance? Extra rent for two-bedroom apartments (one bedroom for me, one for the bookcases)? How much did you taxpayers spend for the Air Force to haul my ever-swelling book collection along with me from one duty station to the next? How much time dusting unread Old Masters that stood on shelves while I read my graphic novels and genre series and trashy art collections until they came apart in my hands? It’s not like I entertain all that much; just who was I trying to impress with my handsome library?
Enough. It ends now. Life is just too short to spend it reading anything other than what makes you happy. Unless I have fond memories of opening a book within, say, the last two years, it’s outta here. My folly can be the Alexandria VA Public Library system’s gain. I can use the write-off, and if I suddenly feel a burning need to bone up on The History of the Peloponnesian War, the library’s a short bike ride away. The same goes for you: the next time you find yourself scurrying to the bookstore to pick up the latest doorstop that everybody says you just gotta read NOW NOW NOW, give yourself and the trees a break. Pass on the Hot New Thing and crack open that book that’s been sitting unread and lonely on your shelf, ever since you brought it home way back when IT was the Hot New Thing. You might uncover something delightful, and – trust me on this – if the new Hot New Thing is really all that, there will still be lots of copies around weeks/months/years later.
So, I’d like to mark the 80th anniversary of the Nazi book burnings by calling on all of you to burst from your own literary closets, claim proudly the schlock you love, and cast aside whatever dreary lumps of prose you’re only keeping around for when the book club meets at your place. C’mon, ‘fess up: what are your “un-German” books? What shining masterwork is squatting on your shelf right now, with its sharp corners and perfect spine? And what dog-eared, smudgy scandal do you hurriedly kick under the couch when the doorbell rings?
Don’t be shy: a while back it was Twilight, now it’s Fifty Shades, a year from now it’ll be something else.
I’ll even go first.
What I Love: The Death Merchant, a series of fast-moving action paperbacks describing the adventures of a CIA assassin, who started as a Mafia hitman and wound up a master of clandestine wetworks. There were about seventy books in this series, and as a teenager I read every blessed one of ‘em, and then I brought them all down to the used bookstore to trade for other grubby little adventure series paperbacks. They’d barely qualify as fanfic these days. They were hurriedly written, simply plotted, cartoonishly violent, and delightful in all respects. I miss them terribly.
What I Hate, But Kept Quiet About Until Now: Game of Thrones. While I’ve loved the TV show, the books sit on me like an inch-thick, soaking-wet wool dog-blanket draped over my head. Right now I’m looking at a paperback copy of the first book in the series. I remember getting 248 pages into it, to the part where Catelyn arrives at King’s Landing, and then asking myself “Ugh, and there are how many more of these things still to go?” I’m just not doing this to myself anymore. Richard Kadrey’s latest Sandman Slim novel was queued up right behind it, and I wasn’t keeping the Sandman waiting any more. If you can’t wait to read Game of Thrones, swing by the Alexandria Public Library in a week or so and you can have my copy.
Comments? Titles? Hey, I showed you mine…