You wouldn't think it to see me, but I'm a lusty man. As of this writing, I am seeing five highly attractive companions, and at least ten more are begging for my attention. In the past few years, I have dumped at least a score of escorts.
I started seeing every one of them, incidentally, with the good intention of taking the relationship all the way but lost interest or found myself wooed away by other prey.
Of the five currently in my arms, I'm thinking Percy is most likely to go all the way.
Walker Percy, that is.
I am, after all, talking about books. I am currently reading Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins; an anthology of Josef Pieper's philosophy; Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America; and two academic books, one on psychology and one on economics.
And the books I've dumped? They include Robert Graves' Good-bye to All That, Adams' The Education of Henry Adams, Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading (there's irony in that incompletion), Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery, Russell Kirk's Eliot and His Age. There are many more, including some Aristotle and some Shakespeare.
They sit on the shelves, used and abused and dumped, with underlining in the first half and the hideous mark of rejection–the bookmark–sticking up from the middle. It pains me to walk by them. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned? Oh, what those fine books would say about being rejected and shelved by a nitwit like me, similar to a gorgeous model getting dumped by a bald fat man.
What is my problem?
What is this virile magnetism in me that attracts all these books? And why is the magnet combined with such incontinence?
Surely, I am one of the most laughable victims of nature's skullduggery: The passionate reader who constantly seeks out books, pays for them, starts reading with the rapt interest of a teenager holding a girl for the first time, and then, poof, his attention is drawn away to another. It's like I have two addictions: One, to reading; the other, to that indescribable "high" that comes with buying and starting a new book.
My incontinent addiction is combined with a dizzying taste in genres and topics, as evidenced by the books listed above. Considered together–the whimsical choices and equally whimsical abandonment–I fear I suffer from some sort of weakness, a fickleness, a lack of serious intellectual ability.
But if that's the case, why am I drawn to the books in the first place?
Fortunately, I'm not alone in my scholar-fool predicament. The Maven of the Midwest, Joseph Epstein, once wrote about his reading habits: "I learned not to finish books by the time I was forty. I do not, it is true, set out not to finish books but neatly accomplish this task all the same. I could put together an impressively long shelf of books with my bookmarks in them."
I've also found solace in historian John Lukacs' words about reading history: "There are no rules about this, no rules about reading, no rules about what should–or will–interest you. What you must do is follow and feed your own interests."
Now, Lukacs doesn't say that the intellectual rules of engagement allow us to abandon books in the middle, but that's the spin I (conveniently) put on his words. And because my interests change while I'm in the middle of some books, they get shelved in favor of others.
So can I take absolute comfort in Epstein's or Lukacs' words? Probably not. Let's face it, I may suffer from some sort of moral or intellectual flaw.
I do, however, take near-absolute comfort from the words of another professor, James Schall, of Georgetown University. He accurately observes that no one has time in one lifetime to read all the great books, but says we shouldn't despair. "Many paths lead from something to everything."
It's time to face it
In my lifetime, I won't have enough time to read even all the great books I've started. But I guess that's all right. The point of reading is, to borrow from Epstein again, "amusement, beauty, and, with a bit of luck, wisdom." If I am amused, get a few glimpses of truth or beauty, and grow an inch in wisdom in those halves of books I've read, that's enough for me.
So I'll continue to indulge my little addiction, with neither worry nor guilt.
In fact, I'll be like motorcycle riders with the motto "Ride Free!" They go wherever the road leads, whether it's all the way to the Santa Monica pier or to the next exit.
Like them, I'll "Read Free!" I'll go wherever my wanderlust takes me, whether it's to the last page or to an early exit at the third chapter. I'll be my own man, sitting in my upholstered chair, reading glasses on my nose and pencil in my hand.
Easy reader. Cool, cocky, haughtily ready to shelve a book unread like a stud puts aside a used woman unwed. That's the way to be. Let the nerds finish all the books they start.