Closing the Book on Promises to Myself

When Grandpa Moe died, it took months and several rented skips to clear out the piles of rotted paper and the millions of printed words left behind. About a thousand books were salvageable. A guy my grandfather had met somewhere came and picked these up, and made them into “Moe’s Bookmobile” — a sort of performance-art-piece-cum-public-service that was, we all felt, very much in Moe’s spirit.

That spirit could be summed up in the slogan “So many books, so little time.” Indeed, the first time my grandfather saw these words, on a faded mug in the Goodwill’s homewares section, he was as electrified as a man encountering divine golden tablets. Here, in red Comic Sans, was his life philosophy.

Whether rooted in his unconventional childhood, his engineering training or something more mysterious, Grandpa Moe’s reading habits were … bizarre. He read incessantly, fanatically and promiscuously. He read, terrifyingly, behind the wheel of his jalopy; he read, constantly, against a corduroy Dutch Husband in a corrugated “book shed” — probably a valiant attempt by his wife to keep the chaos at bay — in his yard; he read multiple volumes at once, one in each hand, while he watched procedurals in his bedroom.

Did he “love to read”? Did he savor the smell of books? Almost certainly not; after a few California winters, most of his library just smelled like mildew and rats. The point — if there was one — seemed to be to cram in as many books as possible before meeting the nothingness his militant atheism mandated; his reading was frenzied and restless.

Like that slogan, embraced by ’90s wags on tees across the land, it probably had to do with a not-so-secret fear of death. In any case, it was an attitude he imposed on his family; any visit to my grandparents’ house meant finding a daily barrage of volumes on my bed: Patricia Highsmith, Voltaire, Nora Roberts, Richard Feynman, the declines and falls of both the Roman Empire and the Frugal Gourmet. At their house, one read with a feverish lack of pleasure that bordered on the compulsive. The goal: not to read, but to have read; to get through as the sands in the Boggle hourglass of life shifted ever faster.

With three mysterious but oft-cited exceptions — Balzac’s “Droll Stories,” the swashbuckling “Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini” and the tedious “My Life and Loves,” by Frank Harris — he did not reread. But he also didn’t divest. He borrowed books, he bought them and he hoarded them until the entire small property was covered with insubstantial sheds filled with moldering tomes, from Victorian morality tracts to SAT prep guides and even phone directories. Every day meant a trip to the library giveaway bin and the used-book store, where, in his mechanics’ jumpsuits, with his Andrew Jackson-like shock of white hair, he was considered a beloved character. (Others might have considered him more like an Arkansas-bred Collyer brother.)

To this day, I have to leave our apartment when we clear out the bookshelves; too painful. And for years, as I scribbled titles on napkins and clipped reviews and plowed through earnest recommendations, I sometimes felt like I was racing up an oppressive, ever-growing mountain of Great Books, and good books, and books people liked or were talking about or hated. Titles that remained, smugly, on the TBR list in my planner year after year after year.

This January, as so many of us set goals for self-improvement, I’m opting for a touch of self-care: after a lifetime of climbing, I’m happy to stop and just enjoy the view. For so long, I, like others, have measured myself against what I had yet to achieve. It was a game no one could win, but so much the better; as with so many resolutions, the hair shirt was built in.

I don’t know just when this resolve first took root — I could say when my grandfather died, but it’d only be for effect; more likely, it’s since I had a child and started thinking about a will — but in any case, for a little while now I’ve had a sort of anti-bucket list running in my head. It’s composed of those books that I know, or at least believe, I will die without reading. Mine, for now, includes several novels in verse and play form, a couple of modernist doorstops, and a few dystopian classics. It doesn’t really matter what they are — everyone’s is different; I’d love to know what yours are — and could be different again tomorrow. I may one day wake up and find I love Doris Lessing.

If you ask, you’ll find most people have some version of the anti-bucket list, tacit or not. For one reader I know it’s “Moby-Dick”; another old friend flatly refuses to ever finish any David Foster Wallace. My dad says he tried “War and Peace” over the pandemic, and decided it’s “not for me.” Once I might have argued, almost on principle — but now I don’t feel like it’s really any of my business. There are always reasons: lack of pleasure, lack of interest, lack of time and mental elasticity. In my case, there are so very, very many things I do want to read that making a bit of space feels like the mental equivalent of a closet purge, down to the bad associations and bad fits. Why did I ever think forcing myself to finish “The Making of Americans” would turn me into a better grown-up?

So many books, so little time. If that’s true, all the more reason to implement a “Life Is Too Short” list. It is not a failure to acknowledge what we will not do. (Barring shocking reversals of fortune, I’m never going to Sesame Place and I see no reason I’ll ever find myself in outer space.) Far from scary, there is comfort in knowing that, as long as we live, and as much as we read, we will never, ever run out. No hoarding required.

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