Actuarial tables inform me that I have 17.37 years before I assume room temperature. This puts me toes up sometime on April 11, 2040.
Besides the final disposition of my soul, what is much on my mind is what I should be reading until then. I also think about how I have wasted much of my reading life. I have spent much of my reading life “grazing,” wandering around the literary meadow, taking a bite here and one there and another over there.
I have thousands of books. Several on my nightstand, twenty or so on a table nearby, the conceit being they are next in line. A few hundred stacked along the wall under the windows looking into the backyard, two bookshelves over there, three more in the connected office. Downstairs, in the living room, six more, built-ins, which are very nice.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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There is little rhyme or reason. I’m light on novels, though I have a healthy number of Anthony Burgess; he was church-haunted, and his work figured into my religious conversion. I have almost all of Bill Buckley’s, minus the Blackford Oaks novels. I remember the day I found that someone had unloaded their entire Buckley oeuvre at The Strand in New York, and I snapped them all up. Buckley figured in my conversion, too. I have loads of Hemingway and Fitzgerald but have not cracked them since college.
I am very light on philosophy. I find it tedious. Sorry! Theology, too. Not much of that. I have lots of biographies across many disciplines. Lives of saints. A couple of bios of Jack Kerouac. I have liked reading about the Beats rather than reading the Beats themselves. I could go on.
I guess you would say I am an auto-didact. I never had a real teacher, someone who would form my mind. I probably would not have sat still for that anyway. I have tried to do concentrated reading in certain areas. A few years ago, I read in the Civil War. Almost all of Shelby Foote. Bruce Catton’s trilogy. I am less interested in the Revolutionary War, even though I am proud of my ancestor Aaron who carried a rifle in General Washington’s army. I am interested in the history of England and have read Mr. Churchill’s quite remarkable many volumed History of the English-Speaking Peoples. I own but have barely cracked David Hume’s five volumes on the same topic.
To demonstrate the grazing nature of my reading, consider what is on my table right now: Beautiful Losers: Essays on the Failure of American Conservatism by Sam Francis, America’s Rise and Fall Among Nations: Lessons in Statecraft from John Quincy Adams by Angelo Codevilla, Fr. Robert McTeigue’s Christendom Lost and Found: Meditations for a Post Post-Christian Era, Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson, Dereliction of Duty, a Vietnam book by H.R. McMaster, Quentin Tarantino’s book about ’70s movies, a revisionist history of the Vietnam War called Triumph Forsaken by Mark Moyar, David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower about the world before August 14, 1914. I could go on.
You could say that my interests lie in revisiting issues related to the Vietnam War. The last few years have led me to question many political assumptions. I am also keen to know the state of mankind’s behavior and thinking prior to the charnel house of the First World War, the war that changed everything for the worst. The war that ruined the 20th Century.
So, you see, I am a grazer. And the actuarial table tells me even that is becoming limited. Have I wasted my reading life by grazing? Did I miss a lot by not focusing and becoming an expert or at least having real insight into something? I am like George Costanza from Seinfeld, who lamented, “I want to be a buff.” He meant a Civil War buff. They are the only buffs, I think.
For the grazer, for anyone really, Amazon is both a blessing and a curse. You are reading along, and the author praises a book. You look it up and, click, it comes tomorrow; and there is another book on your nightstand. That happens to me all the time. Because a writer I don’t particularly care for just mentioned it, I Amazoned Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesteryear, about the closing days of the Habsburg Empire and the start of World War I. It is magical.
And so, the actuarial table tells me I have 434.25 books to read before I die. That may seem to be a lot of books. I read a lot but probably only 25 per year. Do I now focus my reading and become an expert on something in particular? There seems to be space enough and time. Or do I graze? That is the question. I think a bit of both.
The actuarial tables be darned. We do not know the day or time that He will call us home. Maybe sooner. Maybe later. And neither can we know the name of the book that will lay unfinished near our cooling body. I just hope it is a good one.