Wednesday, May 15, 2013

`My Reading Was Voracious But Unsystematic'

We feel another good book purging coming on, and for once the medical metaphor is apt. As Paul Johnson writes in To Hell with Picasso and Other Essays (1996): “The urge to buy books is a chronic disease, which is cured only by bodily annihilation.” For once, most of the avoirdupois to be culled is the boys’ not mine. They outgrow books quicker than shoes. Both, I believe, at 10 and 12, have left Harry Potter and other childish things behind, though they follow Artemis Fowl and Skullduggery Pleasant, satisfyingly long chains of science-fiction/fantasy novels by Eoin Colfer and Derek Landy, respectively, both Irish.

They read comic books gussied up as “graphic novels.” The younger one is partial to biographies and books about music. His brother is reading Hamlet for the first time, Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism for the second, and volumes about computers, physics, the oil industry, espionage and finance. Sometimes I think: Where did I go wrong? But I know it’s healthy for a child's tastes in books to grow waywardly. The bookish life is rooted in the willingness to experiment, to test one’s mettle against popular tastes and certified “classics.” Otherwise, reading turns from pleasure into Gradgrindian obligation and eventually into abstention (that's what public schools are for). All my sons have been inoculated against the doltish aversion to books common among their peers. Oliver Sacks writes in Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (2001): 

“My reading was voracious but unsystematic: I skimmed, I hovered, I browsed, as I wished, and though my interests were already firmly planted in the sciences, I would also, on occasion, take out adventure or detective stories as well. My school, The Hall, had no science and hence little interest for me—our curriculum, at this point, was based solely on the classics. But this did not matter, for it was my own reading in the library that provided my real education.” 

We’ve run out of decent shelf space. That’s the reason for the ruthless purge. I have some bookcase tops still collecting only dust, and I can stack more books up there, horizontally, which is unpleasant for practical and aesthetic reasons. But the boys’ shelves are filled, and they’ve crammed all the available spaces in their closets and stacked books like unmortared bricks against their walls. These are teetering. Books passionately read and reread just a few years ago – Captain Underpants (and anything else by Dav Pilkey), Big Nate, Uncle John’s Bathroom Readers, the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series – are being held in escrow against future readers yet unidentified. Some we’ll give away to the few kids we know who actually read. The others we’ll probably sell to Half-Price Books, and use the proceeds to buy more books. I’ll contribute a few expendables, volumes mistakenly sent to me. Just last week the University of Chicago Press shipped Thresherphobe, a new book of prose-lineated-as-poetry by someone I had never heard of before (Mark Halliday) – unreadable stuff another reader might enjoy reading. Paul Johnson writes in “The Art of Writing a Column”: 

“I do not claim to have read all or even most of the books I own. Some I read many years after purchase, others never. But I have looked into all of them. I know what they contain. All are for potential use, as well as pleasure.”

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