16 Jul 2020

Answers With Questions Like a Socrates Nightmare

Packing to move has me asking questions again about the objects that I own.

There seem to be three broad categories of possessions around here: utilitarian, sentimental, and… other. The first two categories are pretty obvious. A teapot or a slow cooker or stack of plates are utilitarian objects, whose value is based almost entirely on what they do for me and the convenience that they offer. Eating off a plate is more convenient than eating from my hands – and cleaner! – so I own plates. That sort of thing. Utilitarian objects can be lovely works of art as well, but that's at best a bonus. Whether I take a utilitarian object with me depends entirely whether I'll need it when I get to the place where I'm going. Sentimental objects, by contrast, have no purpose in and of themselves. They are icons, standing in for the people or events they relate to. So, a small piece of jewelry, or a trinket, or a stone from a specific place are all valuable to me because they remind me of someone or something else. I take sentimental objects with me for as long as the connection they represent is still meaningful to me.

To label the third category, rather than "other" I could probably have chosen "clutter" – objects that take up space, and which don't have a particular purpose or emotion attached to them. They just… are. Old computer mice that I should probably just throw away. Cabling. Light bulbs. But, to some extent, I also include books in that category.

True, a couple of the books around here have sentimental value – they were gifts, or mean something special to me. The vast majority, though, are books that I either intend(ed?) to read, or that I have already read and no longer especially need a copy of.

Which is a long preamble to a question that follows on from the last couple of posts: why do I read? What do I get out of it? Throwing out furniture is easier than throwing out books. Throwing out clothes is easier than throwing books. Were I forced to live naked in a bare-walled and unfurnished room, I could survive as long as I had something new, truly new, to read. But… why is that?

I don't read for knowledge, necessarily. I wish I could say that was my main interest – the scholar's desire to learn new things – but like most people I tend to forget most of what I've read immediately after I've finished reading it. I also don't read for entertainment, quite. Most of the books I read aren't very much fun – or, at least, nobody I know would describe them as a good time. As an example, I'm currently about two thirds of the way through Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death – and it's been fascinating, but it's not a rip-roaring page turner.

The best way I can think to describe what I get out of reading is to say that I am a fiend for new experiences – that I thrive in uncertainty, in plunging a little too deep into cold water. I'm never happier than when I am lost in a city I've never visited before. And books, for me, are a cheap means of losing myself an infinite number of new cities.

Which is the answer to a question I've been chewing on for a long time: why have I lost my interest in fiction? For a few years now, I've been incapable of getting more than a few pages into a novel, any novel, and just the thought of picking up a new one makes me feel tired. Why?

Because what I come to books for is novelty – but most novels have precious little to offer. For me, walking through a bookstore is similar to driving through a suburban franchise ghetto, with the same Target, the same Bed Bath & Beyond, the same Chick-Fil-A, the same McDonald's, the same Supercuts, the same Walgreens. We have all been on that street, standing in front of a Starbucks, looking at one colorful logo after another, over and over again, for miles and miles in either direction. That's what picking up a novel is like, for me. The sad realization, "Oh, I've been here before."

More than anything else, this is why I've ended up reading a lot of history and philosophy and psychology over the last few years – these are the most foreign, the most alien, landscapes I can visit these days. I know exactly what a book with a cover like this has to offer. But I cannot predict what I will read when I pick up Kierkegaard for the first time – and though I may or may not agree with what he says, at least the experience of wandering through his thoughts is something new.

Believe me, I know how this makes me sound – an effete pseudo-intellectual who is just so bored with literature. But for real: I read to be uncomfortable. And like any case of hedonic adaptation, the hit I get from fiction just isn't enough to get me there anymore.

Why do certain books compel me to schlep them thousands of miles across the country, at great personal inconvenience and expense? Some are trophies, which I keep because my ego enjoys the reminder of how hard I worked to get through them. Others are reference works, that I'll dip back into when I need to remember something. And still others are aspirational: one day, Schiller – one day I'll read this German-language edition of your plays.

I should probably rubbish most of what's on my shelves…