by James Wallace Harris, 1/7/22
I do. I’m as indecisive as Hamlet when picking my next book to read.
I’ve just finished The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery which was a wonderful nonfiction book that made me go misty-eyed many times while reading it. It’s a memoir about getting to know octopuses. At first, Montgomery falls in love with Athena, an octopus at a New England aquarium, then spends years getting to know a succession of octopuses at that aquarium, before eventually learning to scuba dive so she can visit octopuses in the wild from the world.
I thoroughly loved this book, and whenever I read a great book, I want to be very careful picking my next book to read. I’ve had an impressive streak of great reads, both novels, and nonfiction, and I hate to break it. The Soul of an Octopus is the first book I’ve finished in 2022. I want my second book to be just as moving and inspirational.
Right now, I feel I’m in the mood for a novel, but I’m always feeling something different from one moment to the next. I started Around the World in 80 Days just before the premiere of the first episode of that story on PBS Masterpiece last Sunday. That novel is good, but I’m not sure it’s good enough for my next read.
I’m supposed to be reading The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim for my nonfiction book club, and I’ve started it too. But I’m afraid it’s going to be academic theorizing that will disappoint me. I’m intrigued by the idea of why reading fairytales could be significant to the moral development of children, but I’m not sure I buy the hypothesis. After reading the entry on Wikipedia on fairytales, I’m tempted to find a book about the history of fairytales but I don’t know if there’s an obvious book on the subject. Once Upon a Time by Marina Warner might be a good starting place. It gets raves from The New York Times and The Guardian.
Is my momentary pique of interest in fairytales just a fleeting distraction? This happens to be all the time. I read an essay and I want to gallop off to read a book. I don’t like reading fantasy fiction that much, but the Wikipedia entry got me very curious about writers studying fairytales. It’s not the stories themselves that attract me to the idea, but the study of them. I already have many unread books on the history of the novel patiently waiting on my shelves, so why should I go buy another book?
This is why I’m writing this essay, to reveal just how chaotic my mind is when it comes to making the decision of what to read. I have thousands of unread books sitting on shelves, both wooden and virtual. When I bought each of those books, I thought I would read it next. That didn’t happen. I got distracted by another idea or book before I could start. Thus my never-ending queue of books waiting to be read.
I also have the list of 2021 books I just blogged about. Rereading that list reminds me I was anxious to read two novels: Bewilderment by Richard Powers and Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr, and was strongly considering two more, No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood or Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead. All four of them were on many best-of-the-year lists for 2021, and in all likelihood, would be tremendous books — just what I’m in the mood for.
Yes, I should very definitely read a great contemporary novel. I’m almost convinced that’s what I should do. Then, seeping up from deep down in my unconscious mind is the urge to read a science fiction novel. One that will thrill me like those science fiction novels thrilled me when I was 13. I think that desire comes from just getting over Covid. Whenever I’m sick, I get nostalgic for classic science fiction. I’m tempted to read Orion Shall Rise by Poul Anderson after researching reading his novella “No Truce with Kings.” I was intrigued by Anderson’s desire to write a novel about future societies trying to rebuild after our global society collapses.
My reading moods are far less varied than the number of books I want to read. Science fiction satisfies my sense of wonder. Literary novels, either from the 19th, 20th, or 21st centuries make me feel closer to people. Reading nonfiction gives the satisfying feeling I’m learning something.
I have ten large bookcases full of printed books that stare down at me with countless volumes begging to be read. My digital larder of Kindle books and Audible books wanting by eyes and ears is just as many. The reality is I can only love one book at a time. I can be reading on several if I’m only so-so into them. But if I really get into a book, I won’t read anything else until it’s finished.
That’s exactly what I’m in the mood for, to be completely consumed by wanting to finish that one great book. That’s what I’m always wanting. I keep thinking I can consciously choose such a book. I keep thinking I can intellectually figure out what such a book should be. However, it never works out like that.
Until I open a book and get hooked, I never know what book that will be. Yet, there is a part of me, my anal-retentive side, that wants to pick 52 books from my shelves and schedule them on my calendar to read during 2022. That aspect of my personality wants to command what will happen. That part of my personality thinks I bought all those damn books then I should get busy and systematically read them.
The La-De-Da part of my personality just wants to tell the anal-retentive me, “Fuck off.”
Oh, the mental chaos it is to be me.