10.28.2012

what i'm reading: shoulds vs. wants

An ongoing theme in my life has been ridding myself of as many shoulds as I possibly can - or, to put it more positively, to spend my time doing what I want, rather than what some voice inside my head or some external pressure tells me I ought to.

We all have obligations. Work, family, exercise - there are always things we don't really want to do, but must do anyway. Then there are the obligations we give ourselves, the shoulds we add to our own too-full plates. Those are the ones I've been shedding.

Lunches with co-workers that I really don't like. Extended email conversations that I don't have time for. I used to see blockbuster movies that I had no interest in, because, for some strange reason, I thought I had to. And certain books. Like so many people who love to read, I never have enough time to read what I want. So why read anyone else's idea of what I should read? Whether they're the current hip books that people are talking about, or classics we think are "good for us" (whatever that means), or a book we dislike that we force ourselves to finish, many readers labour under reading shoulds.

Brad Leithauser, writing in The New Yorker, seems to have a lot of them.
If your bookshelf speaks to you, it’s likely to be uttering reproaches. Or so my experience runs. All those unread books! — the must-reads of last year, or the year before, hot d├ębuts of young novelists, frosty farewells from the aging and once hot, books whose catchy titles beguiled you into buying them, books that will (so their blurbs promise, or threaten) change your life forever. They address us in the voices of aggrieved friends, saying, Why don’t you call me? Or, Why don’t you ever pay me a visit? Or, ultimately, Why are you neglecting me?

But the bookshelf offers other voices of reproach — deeper and more solemn voices. These speak less like friends than like grandparents, whose stern, measured cadences will not be stilled by any jocular protests of good intentions. They ask you, When will you get serious? They ask, When will you grow up? These are the voices issuing from the weightiest projects in your library.
Leithauser lists some of the very weighty reads he feels he should tackle, such as Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", and others that he's impressively completed, like Proust and Trollope. Then he describes an equally impressive project that he's on the verge of completing.
My most recent big literary undertaking has been, in terms of sheer pages, the most sizable of all: Dickens’s complete fiction. It comes to something like nine thousand pages, and I’m nearly finished; only “The Old Curiosity Shop” and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” remain. I don’t know what to think on discovering that my favorite Dickens is mostly the world’s favorite Dickens. It feels appropriate, anyway, that this writer who so stoked and revelled in his international popularity should be fairly, representatively epitomized by his most popular books.
Now, I absolutely love Dickens. And I hope, in the course of my lifetime, to read his entire oeuvre. But I would never read them consecutively, all at once, and I'd never want to. If I tried to, I'd become bored and irritated, the books would all blend together, and I'd quickly lose touch with everything I love about Dickens.

Leithauser doesn't specifically say he read all that Dickens consecutively, with no other books in between, but I think he implies it.
Those foot-soldier readers who successfully march through all of Dickens’s fiction may wind up feeling like David [Copperfield] at his journey’s end, with shoes in a woeful condition (“the upper leathers had broken and burst until the very shape and form of shoes had departed from them”) and skin powdered “white with chalk and dust, as if I had come out of a limekiln.” Reading projects of this old-fashioned sort are the equivalent of a long pilgrimage on foot. The pace and the proddings of modern life, forever segmenting one’s existence into smaller and busier intervals, counsel against them. On the other hand, those patient, reproachful, grandpaternal voices continue to mutter on your bookshelf. And they say, Start walking.
One modest goal of mine is to read everything George Orwell ever wrote. So every once in a while, I read some Orwell. I want to eventually read all 26 Shakespeare plays. And so, every once in a while, I read one or two more. I can't imagine anything that would kill my love of Shakespeare faster than trying to read all 26 plays, consecutively, with nothing in between.

I am not entirely free of reading shoulds. I read and loved the first two volumes of Taylor Branch's history of the US civil rights movement, wrapped in a biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., often called "The King Books". In the third and final volume, Branch's dense, somewhat difficult writing style became impenetrable. Gleaning any information from each metre-long, convoluted sentence became a trial. Halfway through book three, I gave up. That was in 2007, yet I remember that I haven't finished the series, and I still intend to finish that book. (I notice that almost a year later, I was still mentioning it in "what i'm reading" posts.) I have one other similar should, also the final book in a trilogy in which I lost interest.

In general, though, life is too short, reading time so much shorter. Here's my take: read whatever you like.

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