What I’m Reading – Collecting Fossils
Neat rows of yellowed pages stacked up in a library or on a bookshelf suggest a permanence as sturdy as the sun. A modest roster of 26 crisp black letters teases you into believing that, when you’re done reading, the book will simply reside in your head; a Sandals between your ears where various protagonists mingle poolside and swap insights over drinks with umbrellas. Lies!
This is the truth: I can’t recite a single line from any one of my favorite books. Even the names of main characters begin to slip away like sand into the wind once I set down one book and pick up another. Along with a few basic plot points, I’m left primarily with memories of feelings I had while reading. This makes the act of reading like collecting fossils. Months or years after reading a book, we are left not with a clear memory of the original source material, but with a hardened impression of what we looked like after the book changed us in ways small and large. Hundreds of formed and re-formed versions of ourselves lined up in our mind. Books simply apply the pressure.
So there’s a graduation-day sense of sadness when we finish a book. It’s not just sand on a beach blowing away; it’s a masterful sand painting we watch disappear. To assuage this sense of loss, I’ve been using Goodreads. Goodreads is a website that lets you track what you’ve read and gives space to write a review. It’s like Yelp for books. Writing a recap helps form better fossils.
Looking back at 2016, I see that when I finished Infinite Jest on February 19th, I felt accomplished. I learned about the struggles addicts face, I contemplated the concept of limits, and I stood in awe of the capacity of the English language. Next, I read a pair of shorter books as a counterpoint to the lengthy Infinite Jest: Albert Camus’s The Fall and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. In the first, a fictional lawyer descends into unbridled cynicism. In the second, a very real Woolf lays out the ingredients necessary to build a career as a writer: an income and a door with a lock. I remember thinking about the contrasting ideas of surrendering to the gravity of reality and fighting it by building toward the sky.
In April, The Mental Floss History of the United States gave a needed respite from the heavier stuff. The Revolutionary War history paired nicely with the Hamilton soundtrack, which was playing in our house on repeat at the time. The playful language and short bursts of storytelling reminded me that big topics don’t always need big writing. A small mountain chapel in Norway can be as arresting as Notre Dame.
Next came Michael Pollan’s A Place of My Own. The book is a memoir of a man who identifies as an anti-handyman but nevertheless undertakes the challenge of building a cabin with his own hands. This book was helpful to me, a kindred anti-handyman, as I was about to embark on my maiden voyage as a gardener. As someone who works with ideas for a living, taking on a project that promised to leave my hands dirty was refreshing. Reading this book helped articulate that feeling.
On April 25, I started reading The Spectator Bird, written by one of my favorite authors, Wallace Stegner. The book is about an older man, Joe, who reflects on the paths taken and not taken throughout his life. Central to the plot is a trip abroad that forever changed Joe’s life. Reading it while planning a summer’s worth of travel reinforced the value and importance of travel. I then read David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers on a friend’s recommendation. Categorically, this is a work of history, but it’s also a terrific book if you’re looking for motivation. Finally, I recently began Wake Me When It’s Over, a memoir written by a former professor of mine. I’ve never read something of this scale by a person I’ve known. Laying yourself bare in an honest way is difficult. It’s hard to fully recognize this toll when the author is an unknown entity to you. I expect to learn more about about it now.
Those are this year’s fossils so far. They remind me that reading is not a one-way download of information. It’s an interaction. Without me, the reader, a book is latent energy. Ideas in books only grow when planted in the experiences of others. Reading a book is something that ends and then fades, but the fossil it leaves behind is proof that something continues because of it. The fossil is empty because I am no longer in there. I am no longer that shape. It reminds me that I am here, a different person because of what I’ve read.