by James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 24, 2015
I no longer read to kill time because I’m running out of time to kill.
This essay is for bookworms who are getting older. I’m not sure younger readers will appreciate what I’m going to write about unless they are trying to anticipate getting older like I am now. I’m discovering in my sixties that things are changing once again, adding to that illusion that every decade of life is different.
Getting old is fascinating. You expect your attitude towards life in your autumn years to feel the same as it did in your middle years when you planned your retirement. It hasn’t worked that way for me. Even my relationship with books has changed. I assumed I’d get to read more books when I retired, but I’ve discovered I should intentionally read less. I want to read more, the hunger is there, but the urge to read parallels my sex drive; my mind is still horny but my body has lost it’s enthusiasm. My motto for aging is, “Do more with less.”
I wish I could read a book a day like super-bookworms Liberty Hardy and Eva at A Striped Armchair, but I can’t. Those women are in their twenties. There were a couple phases in my life when I read a book a day, but reading was about all I did. Now, that I’m 63 and retired, I have plenty of time to read, yet I find I can only read so much before my brain gets mushy. Don’t get me wrong, I can still read all day long and finish a book in a day, but I must tune into a reading mode where words flash by mind like a ticker tape—I’m entertained but I remember little. Imagine a diet of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream for every meal and snack. Such fare will keep you filled up but will it give you any lasting nutritional value?
I’ve read 49 books so far this year. I was on a two books a week pace until July. If I hustled, I could speed back up and finish 102 books in 2015 if I wanted. I still have the vitality to do that, but something has changed. Knocking back book after book just doesn’t feel right. I can’t imagine reading 300-400 books a year like Liberty Hardy. Here’s the rub, now that I’m starting to age, what I want from books is changing. The thrill of quantity is flagging. When you’re young, you want to do it all, and you’re sure you can. Now I’m starting to understand bucket lists. I don’t think I’ll be kicking a bucket anytime soon, but who knows? Youth is full of infinities, I’m learning getting old is all about finite mathematics.
When I go to bookstores, or the library, or read book reviews and book blogs, I encounter hundreds of books I want to read. I ache to be immortal and read them all. I’m giving up my New Year’s goal to read 100 books this year. Just reading a book is no longer enough. It’s like watching television, seeing one show after another in the evening, and realizing the next morning you’ve already forgotten what they were. Realizing that I’m forgetting more and more inspires me to hang on harder and harder. Learning what’s important involves the mathematics of limitations.
Don’t think I’m depressed, or let these thoughts depress you. It’s just a new game, with new rules to make life interesting. Limits have their own pleasures.
Instead of rushing to page one of the next book after reading “The End” of the last book, I want time to think about what I’ve read, to put my impressions into writing, and chat up the book with my bookworm friends. Slowing down my reading pace helps remember. I’m tired of reading only to forget. If reading slower with fewer books means I can retain more, then that’s my new reading plan.
Remember the ending to Fahrenheit 451? Where all the book people are living in the forest. Each person has chosen a book to memorize. I don’t picture myself doing that, but I can picture myself learning to know a finite number of books very well. I expect my sixties to be a decade where I define a set of my favorite books I want to study. Sure, I’ll keep reading new ones, but because of my memory problems I feel compelled to gather books I want to remember. I’m sure as my memories fade, this list will dwindle. It will become a tontine, and one book will be the last to leave my thoughts.
I’ve been a bookworm all my life, and proud of the vast number of books I’ve read, but I now question that sense of pride. It’s probably great to be a voracious reader in the first half of life, but in my waning years becoming a selective reader is becoming necessary. I won’t stop reading new books, because discovering a great new book is one of the better thrills of life. However, my willingness to give them the hook is going to seem downright cruel.
Back in 2002 I had a reading renaissance when I discovered audio books. Reading books with my ears was much slower than reading with my eyes, and I learned to appreciate savoring words rather than speeding past them. It’s time for another reading revolution. I need to change things up again. Here’s the thing, my mind is still pretty sharp, but I can tell it’s in decline. My short term memory is beginning to flake out, and my long term memory feels overstuffed—like I have to erase memories to make room for a new ones.
Reading just to be reading means most of what I take in leaks out of my short term memory before I can use it. And I worry reading new books might be erasing memories of old books. It’s time I defrag my brain and run a disk cleanup. One way I’ve found to preserve old memories is to reread books. Another way is by making lists, writing blogs, talking to friends.
The first stage of my reading plan is to review my books read log and create a list of books I want to get to know intimately. I want stay with these books so they stay in my memory. I’m still anxious to read new books, especially nonfiction, but I’m going to be more selective. It distresses me that I spend so much time taking in new information only to forget it.
Where learning to read slower was the key to my first reading renaissance, learning to take notes will be essential to my second. If a book isn’t worth studying like one in a college course then it isn’t worth my reading time. If the book isn’t a 9 or 10 on a ten point scale, it won’t be reading worthy. Now this might sound too monkish, but there’s a method in my madness. I’m a book junky, an old and jaded one, and if my fix doesn’t have the purity of Walter White’s blue meth, then the high I get won’t feel worthy of the brain cells I sacrifice. After a lifetime of reading, I crave intensity.
I want to read books where the names of the characters stick with me like the names of old friends. I want to read books where writers explore themes with the insight of great philosophers. I want to read books where the prose inspires me to write. I want to read books where the settings feels as vivid as my memories of all the places I lived. I want to read books where the characters struggle to map uncharted reality so well I could follow their trail. I want to read books that show me how other people think and feel that’s both different from the way I feel and think. I want to read books that make me feel I’m seeing more of the world than even the most hardened world travelers. I want to read books that take me up and down the centuries just like I had a time machine. I want to read books that make me feel overwhelming emotions like my favorite music. I want to read books that let me know what it’s like to be people not like me.
And I want to remember those books…
Fifty Novels To Remember
I’ve probably read more than two thousand books, but this short list are the ones that haunt me. I’ve read hundreds more that wowed me at the time, but I’m not sure how well they will linger in my memories. This is my tentative list to work with at the moment. If I reread one book a month, I could reread a list of sixty books every five years. I will need to rethink this list because I only have six women writers—but I have ten slots to fill if I stretch it to sixty books. And I cheated with the Robert J. Sawyer books, which were published as a trilogy, but I consider them one story.
I think these books have stuck with me for philosophical reasons. For some reason they resonate with my unconscious mind.
- 1719 – Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
- 1813 – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- 1861 – Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
- 1868 – Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
- 1871 – Middlemarch by George Elliot
- 1875 – The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
- 1877 – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
- 1883 – Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
- 1895 – The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
- 1900 – Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
- 1902 – The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
- 1905 – The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
- 1912 – Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey
- 1913 – The Patchwork Girl of Oz by L. Frank Baum
- 1920 – The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
- 1926 – The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
- 1928 – Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence
- 1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell
- 1945 – High Barbaree by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
- 1949 – Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
- 1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
- 1949 – The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
- 1951 – The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
- 1952 – Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
- 1953 – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- 1955 – Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein
- 1956 – Time for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein
- 1957 – On the Road by Jack Kerouac
- 1958 – Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
- 1958 – Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein
- 1959 – Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick
- 1960 – To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- 1961 – Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
- 1962 – Hothouse by Brian Aldiss
- 1962 – The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
- 1966 – Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany
- 1968 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
- 1969 – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
- 1972 – When HARLIE Was One by David Gerrold
- 1974 – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
- 1980 – Timescape by Gregory Benford
- 1986 – Replay by Ken Grimwood
- 1989 – Hyperion by Dan Simmons
- 1996 – The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
- 2001 – The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
- 2009 – Wake/Watch/Wonder by Robert J. Sawyer
- 2009 – The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
- 2011 – The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale
- 2012 – The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
- 2013 – The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
By the way, I cheated with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which is a memoir, but it feels like a novel to me.