I’ve never been one to obsess about getting older. When I turned 30 I felt that I was still in the prime of my life. When I turned 40 I felt slightly older, but no worse for wear. Now that I am just a few years away from turning 50, however, I feel an anxiety about age that I have never felt. The anxiety I feel doesn’t have anything to do with the actuality of getting older, at least I don’t think it does, but, instead, the anxiety is becoming more of a fear with an intense focus. I now realize that I will never have the time to read all of the books I desire to read. Despite this undeniable fact, I keep buying books. This logic can only make sense to my fellow bibliophiles. My intellectual area focuses on modern and contemporary world literature. This means that I feel the responsibility to keep up with those authors who are still publishing books, both fiction and non-fiction. As long as I keep buying newly published books I will never be able to exhaust my working bibliography, a living biography, if you will. This is a frightening situation to face when I know full well that my own time is increasingly limited on this planet. One of the reasons I will never read David Foster Wallace’s The Infinite Jest is that the book is just too long and would demand my attention for a period of time I am not willing to devote to the reading. The same is true for A Book of Memories, by Péter Nádas, a book that has occupied a space on my shelf for years.
I read books like the most serious chain smokers smoke cigarettes; before I’m finished with one I’ve already started another. I never read one book at a time, and especially during the periods when I’m teaching I often read five or six books simultaneously. Some people express their amazement that I can keep the details of all the books I read straight, and I am at a loss as to how to explain this process. But it somehow works for me and I am able to differentiate each book that I read. Perhaps the secret is that I am never reading without my beloved Palomino Blackwing 602 pencil. A great deal of my time is also spent rereading books, sometimes dozens of times. I’ve read Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky at least ten times, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (all 893 pages) four or five times, and Hamlet more times than I can count. I’ve even read Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow four times, a feat many readers would consider torture. Each time I reread these works I find something new and exciting in the worlds they offer me. In fact, most of the time a really great book can offer its reader more the second or third time around.
There is always more to read. There will always be another book to locate and peruse, another author to discover. The reading life is mostly a solitary life, often robbing our friends and family of our presence for extended periods of time. Perhaps this is not so bad, since every serious reader I know is an introvert at heart. I read because it’s my job, but that is actually reducing the commitment I have made to a utilitarian function. I have devoted most of my life to literature, and since I find most things in the empirical world intolerable, I lose myself in a book like the worst addict. Perhaps this is why I suffer an anxiety attack every time I step into a bookstore. Bookstores are cruel reminders of all that you will never have time to experience, to feel, to explore. They are cruel reminders of all the books that will be left unread and undiscovered at the time of one’s death.
I’m certain that at the hour of my death I will be surrounded by books, and my last words will be, “But wait, there’s more!”