Dread of the Unread

Several years ago I came across a well-known line from Erasmus: “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.”  Apparently this is a variant, the line from one of Erasmus’ letters dated 1500 runs thus:  “I have turned my entire attention to Greek.  The first thing I shall do, as soon as money arrives, is to buy some Greek authors; after that, I shall buy clothes.”  Although the variant is more pithy, the sentiment seems to me largely the same in either case. I clipped the quote and stuck it in my wallet.  It would serve as a gentle reminder of where the money went.  Book shops perpetually tempt, and used book stores in particular tempt beyond my power to resist.

All that is fine and well.  It may be a vice, but it is a splendid vice.  However, there is a dark side to the book shop; entering therein incites a certain anxiety and sadness.  A sign should hang over every book shop declaring, “Abandon all hope, all ye who enter in … you cannot read it all.”  The sentiment is ancient.  Ecclesiastes warned, “of making many books there is no end” … to say nothing of reading them.  I’ve thought in the past that I had overcome this anxiety, this psychological burden of the unread.  In “The Pleasures of Reading,” Joseph Epstein’s writes,

Gertrude Stein said that the happiest moment of her life was that moment in which she realized that she wouldn’t be able to read all the books in the world.  I suppose what made it happy for her was that it took off a fair amount of pressure.

And so I thought, upon reading that testimonial, that I too had now suddenly come to terms with the awful realization.  But no, it was a false dawn.  While the angst fades, it still abides and from time to time reasserts itself with a certain gleeful vengeance.  Epstein went on to say,

I have finally come to the realization that I shan’t be able to read even all the good books in the world, and, far from making me happy, it leaves me, a naturally acquisitive fellow, a little sad.

I rather sympathize.

With all of that in mind, consider Will Self’s column in the New Statesman that came to my attention via Alan Jacobs this morning.  Here’s a sampling:

Back then, I laboured under the healthy delusion that, although I could not be as well read as Coleridge (who was said to be the last man to have read everything), I might yet read all that truly mattered.

Now, just as the possibility of joyous congress among the stacks retreats on hushed puppies, so the idea of all those unread books has become a screaming torment. Even the most innocuous of local libraries feels to me like Borges’s library of Babel, with its infinite number of texts ….

If the consciousness of unread books was bad enough, what about the consciousness of unread web pages?

It all puts me in mind of the Cha’an meditation illness: an incontinent recall of Buddhist texts that is the symptom of a Zen pupil’s overstrained psyche, and which can only be rectified by his master hitting him on the head with a stick. Otherwise, the texts proliferate across his visual field, while the meaning of every word is instantly grasped by him. At first, there are just texts the pupil knows, but soon enough these are joined by others he has only heard of – yet these, too, are comprehended in their entirety.

There is worse to come, as flying from all angles wing still more texts that the pupil is compelled to include in his screaming wits – texts he has never heard of at all, texts he didn’t know could exist, texts written by alien civilisations, texts doodled on the Etch a Sketch of God by archangels peaking on acid! No stick is big enough to beat this pupil – Humanity. So the maddening and delusory library expands, while the real and useful one is shut down.


5 thoughts on “Dread of the Unread

  1. I thought I was alone in this…I apparently haven’t read enough to know otherwise!

    Two words: selective ignorance (Tim Ferris – “The 4 Hour Work Week”). The anxiety caused by “Dread of the Unread” (brilliant I might add) makes my chest hurt and palms sweat. It’s almost more stressful than the moments I experience before a climb, or performance anxiety before a gig. The only difference is the anxiety for those eventually go away. When I consider a subject and what I know about that subject (or don’t know), and the fact that there’s outlying information on that subject that I know exists, but only need to find, and that each new discovery will take me on a new Wonderland adventure -which I may or may not want to travel – it is too much I tell you…too much! Simply knowing that the questions I am exploring have most likely already been answered by someone else is maddening enough. What is more maddening is HOW to find what people have already said what I want to know. Making those disparate connections of information coalesce into a whole that is beneficial for cognition and understanding is ultimate mastery.

    I suppose in many ways, that is the job of the scholar. Research is a skill unto itself; as is being able to keep the anxiety at bay!

  2. I would also like to mention the absolute joy that fills my heart when I consider the imminent future: studying and thinking and writing. Rather than sitting where I am presently, bored out of my mind – not for lack of work, but for all that I know is out “there” that I can only hope to presently scratch the surface.

    Don’t stomp on my little dream just yet, Mike. Let it live until it is shattered by indifferent pedantry! The grass is greener…yes, yes it is…

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