Moby Dick – Letter 1.2 – Josh to Dave

Dear Sir,

It is with great interest that I received yer letter of the 28th of November of the 2012th year of our Lard.  Please excuse the tardiness of my reply: since I’ve been back to Breukelen, my productivity has been that of a small dead dog on Easter morning.  And what a day today be today in Breukelen.

The day is dull.  Neither hot nor cold; no rain, but not without a chance of.  The sky a single shade of meaningless gray.  If it weren’t for all the cars alarms and cement, I might imagine myself in Melville’s Nantucket.  But, avast: here be me response.

First off, let me comment that, in reviewing one tenth of a book the likes of Moby Dick, ye’ve somehow concocted a letter whose length befits the scale of a book more the likes of War and Peace.  Which brings me to your point on Hobbes.

Look, Señor Sanchez, Hobbes be a fuckface.  In fact, from this moment on I should like to refer to him as such, or as FF for brevity’s sake.  It don’t take much for a man of education to “predict” that societies focused on the summum bonum will fail because, well, all societies have failed at some point in the past or will at some point in the not-yet-present, eh?  I myself hereby predict that any society which counts milliners amongst its breathing men is likewise doomed to fail.  Someday.  Within the next millennia.  Check back with me in a thousand score and chances are, I’ll be right.  If not, wait a thousand more and surely ye’ll know it to be true.  See how easy that was?

And societies that care for themselves are prone to civil war?  That be the civilest of wars, I say.  But if I were to point out to that doubting Thomas that Bhutan, for instance, measures the state of its state on the Gross National Happiness Index – the most summumous bonumous metric of this earthly realm – Monsieur Fuckface would likely retort that said Bhutan just hasn’t failed “yet.”  Ye see, Señor?  Or one might look to yer very own island of Pingu Tingu, which, while very young, seems to put a premium on at least some summum, eh?  Have ye even had a war yet, civil or otherwise, my dearest Sanchez?  (Let me here be notin’ that yer Ping Pong Island bears some resemblance to Kokovoko, if it weren’t for the eatin’ of human flesh and whatnot.)

So, hopeless Hobbes believed decent societies would cannibalize themselves, is how I read it.  Enter Queequeg.  That there cannibal be the real rudder drivin’ the ship of this literary voyage of ours.  He’s the one to watch.  Even his inaction, forcing Ishmael to choose the ship on which they whale, has steered the story.  And it seems to me that Melville might’ve given up the game a bit too early when he concludes Chapter 13.  After Queequeg, in an act of inhuman will, rights the schooner and saves the drowning bumpkin, Ishmael imagines Queequeg thinking to himself, “It’s a mutual, joint-stock world, in all meridians.  We cannibals must help these Christians.”  I love that (even noted the quote in me notebook) and I expect that’s some piece of Melville’s greater point of the book.  The thing I’ll be watching with Queequeg, then, will be whether there’s any room for evolution of character, as one might expect in a good book, or whether he’s already so fully formed that Melville’s left him no room for growth.

Interestingly, I just learned that “bumpkin” has multiple meanings.  In addition to an “unsophisticated yokel,” it’s also a wee bit of post on either side of a ship that steadies the mast (I think).  Poetically, then, a bumpkin person – for all his faults – might be just as fundamental to the structure of a society as a bumpkin spar is at protecting the structure of a ship.  As I see it, a society, an ocean, an economy… these are just varying degrees of ecosystems, and an ecosystem is as dependent on the minutest bacteria as it is on the greatest of mastodons.  And while we may consider a country bumpkin akin to something of a bacteria, it remains that the system is as dependent on each.  Thus, our fine young cannibal saved not just an individual, but the system.  Truly a joint-stock world.  I wonder what FF would have to say to that!  Oh, how I’d like to methodically knock the hat off that one.  He’d have us living in a world as joyful as the sound of a thousand babies crying.

Your comparison to the Underground Man is an apt one.  I like it.  You ask if I agree that “almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean” as Ishmael.  I think, in his day, very likely, but not in our own.  In the mid-1800s, the sea still held such mystery.  Today, we’ve got the white whale of the Internet and the Channel of Discovery to blunt our wonder.  And yet we’re somehow more oblivious of the ocean.  The common man today wouldn’t know an ocean if he’d drowned in it.

And now I see that I too have produced a tome the length of which would frighten some remedial tourists.  For this I apologize as Eve should’ve to Adam.  Write again soon, Señor.  I’m curious as to your further thoughts.


Josh the Cole

PS- Brave New World is a sham of a book.  Never mention it to me again or my fury will engage.

PPS- I may be somewhat drunk.  On booze, not on life.


Moby Dick – Letter 1 To Josh (through Chapter 8)

Hello Joshua. And welcome home. Also, I swear this picture I’ve inserted of Three’s Company will make sense by the end.

From left to right: Ishmael, Queequeg, and Ahab

I’m stoked that we decided to read this together. I’ve never read a book along with someone else, other than school. And I happen to miss  school. And I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but I haven’t been reading much these days. 😉 Because, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned, I’ve been playing a lot of … video games. And I happen to miss books. AND while I did play the Moby Dick Facebook game where you got points for reading the book, it only contained the first chapter. So this should be a much more comprehensive experience.

Moby Dick has been on my list of must-read classics for a long time. I wanted to tackle it, almost like the great whale itself (but I don’t know what that means because I haven’t even gotten that far. No spoilers from you!) Literature and whales. We dissect all the materials and bits that from the outside look elegant with amazing cover art. We make use of its parts and try to ingest it or use it to enlighten ourselves (oil lamp…for the mind? Is this metaphor going too far?) All joking aside, even as a reader I feel the impulse to conquer a piece of literature sometimes, to arm myself with some new knowledge. Like if I read this book, I’ll be better equipped in my life than I was before reading it.

So how to break down all that weighty stuff? Well, let’s just start at the beginning. Melville starts with that compiled list of quotes and allusions to whales. One that stuck with me is the opening sentence from Hobbe’s Leviathan and goes: “Leviathan, called a Commonwealth or State ( in Latin, Civitas) which is but an artificial man.” A lot of the prior quotes Melville uses describe and allude to the whale as the leviathan, a Biblical monster. Leviathan = whale = state? Too easy? Probably.

Anyways, from the little I get in the Wikipedia article, Hobbe’s was a hardcore materialist and rationalist who thought that morality was a sham. The idea of the greater good and societies that operate under the greater good have nothing to do with goodness at all. There is no summum bonum, or greatest good, and any society that operates with that in mind will ultimately collapse and fall into civil war and because, most importantly, people are not good. But the opposite, summum malum, greatest evil or our fear of violent death, does exist. Convenient, don’t you think, and a bit pessimistic? Not only does it exist, but it’s exactly the kind of thing a society could and should be built around.

I’m not quite sure how that might connect yet, but what do you think? (No spoilers! I’m not as far as you!)

All lofty thoughts and talk of Literature aside – with a capital L, dammit! – I’m really enjoying the book as a fantasy, or more accurately, a ghost story. The entire book feels haunted.

I’ve been trying to get through Infinite Jest, and I love it, I do, all 280 pages and 90 or so footnotes I’ve read so far. But even though David Foster Wallace (you have to say his whole name, don’t you?) has crafted an immensely complex book both thematically and linguistically that also goes down easy, the content feels a bit close to home right now. (Or maybe I’m just making excuses). And yes, Moby Dick is doing all that boring shit, too, like exercising my mind and getting me to think and reflect and yada yada schma schma, but it’s escapist for me, too. “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote,” Ishmael says at the beginning.

Speaking of Ishmael, what a great narrator. I don’t know whether I trust him 7 chapters in, but man, there’s something so alluring about him, even admirable. On the one hand, he’s observant and seemingly self-aware. He’s also, from all clues so far, a vagrant, which perhaps makes me, a member of the State and Commonwealth identity, a little bit nervous. In the beginning, he talks about going to the sea, and on the one hand it could be seen as an escape (a la my reading of the book), away from the State and the streets and other members of the commonwealth. But there’s also an intention to make himself feel right again. The sea is a tonic for everything perverted and misaligned in his spirit and soul and society. Why the hell wouldn’t we want to get away from all this, right, Josh Cole?

“It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet….then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

I left out the bit it takes every ounce of moral strength to not go out in the street and go “methodically knocking people’s hats off.” He’s like Dostoevsky’s underground man, but ennobled by the ocean. Then he says, “If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.” Do you think that’s true? And why might that matter?

That moment when he talks about how a man cannot abide with having another man sleep in bed with him because he wants to feel suited up in his own skin says a lot about the struggle in this man to be more, for lack of a better term, morally upright and humane(probably two terms Hobbes would find disagreeable). On the one hand, there’s no room for him. But he doesn’t want to share a bed either. And that scene where Queequeg’s introduced is so funny, almost like a Three’s Company episode. (Super weird find: a YouTube search for “Three’s Company Jack’s Gay Moments” brings up an audio book version of Moby Dick. Weird, right?! And looked up gay Jack moments because the first Queequeg scene is mildly and comically homoerotic.)

Anyways, back to Queequeg, “the savage” uses a harpoon to shave. Bad. Ass.

And this scene, too, is another moment where I really start to admire Ishmael. There’s a moment of empathy after the landlord comes in during the ruckus. Remember, after Ishmael decides it’s more important to get a bed, even if he has to share it, he is told that Queequeg will probably not be coming back for the night. So Ishmael gets into bed alone, but Queequeg shows up after all. The landlord comes in to smooth things over after a really tense misunderstood moment, and Queequeg offers Ishmael half of the bed, pulling aside the cover.

“He really did this in not only a civil but a really kind and charitable way. I stood looking at him a moment. For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal. What’s all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself – the man’s a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

After that moment, Ishmael has absolute respect for this man. It’s astonishing to him that the man can be so cool and act with such civility and (my words, not Ishmael’s) grace and dignity. I don’t know if you ever read Brave New World, but there’s a savage in that, too, who ends up being more human than so-called civilized people.

What do you think Hobbes might say about these guys?

Anyways, that seems like enough for the first letter to you. I hope it didn’t sound too academic and that it wasn’t too looooooooooooooooong. It’s nice having someone to talk to about literature as you’re reading it, the really important, weighty, and beautiful stuff of life. Oh shit. This was supposed to be escapist.

Anyways (again), can’t wait to hear what you have to say. And remember, no spoilers! I haven’t even met Ahab yet. I’ll get to chapter 25 by this weekend, at which point you’ll probably be done with the book. This might be difficult, but let’s see what happens.

Oh…and it’s good to have you home.

Early concept art of Starcraft 2 unit, The Leviathan.

Your friend,


P.S. Does the picture make sense now? Please don’t hate me for this final picture. I just had to.


Infinite Jest: The First Hundred Pages

The book on the right is a wee bit bigger

I first tried reading Infinite Jest in the summer/fall of 2010. It came amidst and around an apartment move, a college graduation, and a ‘job transition’. I made it through the first 200 pages or so, and was none the wiser. In the forward, Dave Eggers admits that this isn’t a book that you can read with a child on your lap or in a crowded, noisy coffee shop. I might add that it isn’t really the best subway book either. Suffice to say, I dropped the book and any hopes that I’d be reading any books for the duration of my depression. Besides, I’d just graduated college, and after the book binge of that time, I didn’t want to look at anything with text. I just wanted television, movies, and video games.

Over that time, my thoughts would often drift in the direction of the book. Friends would talk about it. I’d run into David Foster Wallace in the form of commencement speech turned gift book for all recent grads. The book in question is called This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate LifeIt can be read in one sitting, or one visit to the bookshop. The truths though are (and please excuse any hyperbole and cliche, as Wallace asked to be excused throughout the entirety of the speech for the same) cosmic. Universal. Eternal.

While the severity of my depression at the time has tapered off, this has also been an incredible year of growth and expunging all demons and emotional roadblocks. With that comes anger, violent thoughts, and even a line of thinking that convinces oneself that you have to be an asshole in order to combat all the disappointment and disillusion that comes with the asshole-ery of living. So maybe it’s just being an adult. In any case, This is Water was kind of a salve. It’s a reminder, a call to conscious action and thought to, in a nutshell, not be an asshole. To be happy. To be thoughtful. To be aware.

As it so happens, it’s much easier to think about living well than it is to actually live well. Living well takes sacrifice, patience, tolerance, and hard work. No amount of reading that speech was going to help me get past this new set of road blocks that would hopefully lead to my eternal liberation. Wallace, though, seemed to hold some truth. While that speech in published form is no more than 137 pages, many of the pages only containing one or two sentences, it was an encapsulation of the work. It was still valuable, but if I wanted to really earn those truths, it was going to be won through the pages of what is commonly thought to be his magnum opus, Infinite Jest.

This book is almost twenty years old. It’s also over 1000 pages, with footnotes, and footnotes for the footnotes. The language is dense, playful, and to the best of my knowledge, a true representation of stream of consciousness writing. What I wanted to accomplish with this writing and response wasn’t so much a full-blown critical analysis of the first 100 pages (full disclosure: I’m only through 65 of the main part of the novel, and I’ve read 25 of 388 footnotes); rather, I wanted to do a play-by-play of observations and thoughts about a book of this scale. If the first 65 pages (and 25 footnotes) are any indication of the genius or madness of the book, it will behoove me to break down the book in chunks, reflect, and carry-on. I hope it will lead to a more engaged reading of the book that hopefully encapsulates some substantial, overarching critique that might be impossible if attempted after completion.

Let’s just say that after the small portion of the beginning, I feel like there are multiple, multiple worlds, characters, thoughts, ideas that are expansive enough to fill a multitude of books. Somehow – successfully or unsuccessfully, people will argue – Wallace does it. For those of you who have read the book, feel free to comment but not spoil. For those of you who haven’t, you’re as in the dark as I am. In any case, below are some of my first observations and more importantly, my questions:

  • Tip: I think it’s best to finish whole chapters with this book. They’re only about 5 pages long, which is a dense 5 pages. Even though there are breaks within the chapters themselves, they represent movements.
  • Sections of note 1) 3 November – Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, in which we get a section about nightmares and the palpable nature and true existence of evil to a 12-year-old who is afraid of monsters in the dark; also, the story about Don Gately, a burglarizing drug-addict who goes too far with a French-Canadian who is sick. Funny, disturbing, and sad.
  • Should I know who O.N.A.N. is by now? I don’t know whether they’re a force of good or evil, sinister or benevolent? I asked a friend who had read the book if I should know by now; she said she didn’t even remember who that was.
  • What is annular fusion? It’s mentioned a few times already, and has a lot to do with James O. Incandenza.
  • James Incandenza’s filmography contains clues to some of the seemingly random stories surrounding the ‘main’ story of the Incandenza family. This is something I didn’t pick up during my first read-through. By the way, the filmography is the first set of the lengthier footnotes spanning 8 pages.
  • Infinite Jest is the name of one of his films, in fact, the film that most of his critics say is his masterwork.
  • Also should note that the filmography was the one subway-friendly section
  • Also should note that the filmography is a collection of stories right there, even though they’re just summaries. Some of my favorites are Kinds of Pain, “2222 still-frame close-ups of middle-aged white males suffering from almost every conceivable type of pain, from an ingrown toenail to cranio-facial neuralgia to inoperable colo-rectal neoplastis”; Mobious Strips “Pornography-parody, possible parodic homage to Fosse’s All that Jazz in which a theoretical physicist ([‘Hugh G.] Rection), who can only achieve creative mathematical insight during coitus, conceives of Death as a lethally beautiful woman.”; The Man Who Began to Suspect He Was Made of Glass. “A man undergoing intensive psychotherapy discovers that he is brittle, hollow, and transparent to others, and becomes either transcendentally enlightened or schizophrenic.”
  • This book is full of drug addicts. It’s tediously awesome how Wallace goes into so much detail of the drugs.
  • Speaking of detail, Wallace knows so much about so many different things. It’s difficult to tell where his imagination fills in the gaps of knowledge and how much his knowledge informs the imagination.
  • I’m using two bookmarks: one for the main section, the other for the footnotes.
  • And, oh yeah, this book is funny.

Alright everyone, see you at the next meeting of One-Man Book Club.

“People are going to feed you all kinds of oyster crackers about iambic pentameter. They’re going to say, Oh ho ho, iambic pentameter! The centrality of the five-stress line! Because “pent” is five in Babylonian, and five is the number of fingers on your hand, and five is the number, and five is the number of slices of American cheese you can eat in one sitting.”

–Paul Chowder

Title and Deed by Will Eno (June 13, 2012)

To the wUndertUnge,
How have you been? It has been a long time, hasn’t it? Maybe two months? Apologies for being incommunicado, but it gets harder to keep in contact as one gets older. The isolation of adulthood hits, and suddenly it takes effort to stay in touch. I’d start off by asking all of the usual catch-up questions, but they’re all pretty standard. I’m sure if you have something important to tell me, you’ll do just that. And I don’t want to go off about myself because you’ll think I’ve become conceited. Then you’ll think that maybe I’ve always been conceited and that you never liked me in the first place. So no, I’m not going to talk about myself.
So what else is there if not you and me? Well, I did meet someone last week, Wednesday evening to be precise. This story could be the whole reason I’m writing to you. The sky was feathered in transluscent orange-blue light, that evening sky that you can only get here during a certain time of year. The man approached from the left – that is, my left – wearing a blue denim coat, or maybe corduroy. His pants were well-pressed, and he spoke in an Irish accent. He was middle-aged, but he was still able-bodied and full of a vitality, though his shoulders stooped slightly.

“I’m not from here.” That’s the first thing he said to me. It wasn’t out of fear or panic, and he wasn’t asking for help, at least not in a direct way. He was just stating a fact. Still, it made me uncomfortable. Then he said, “I’ll assume you are, though.” And he smiled, which made me feel better.

He was carrying a vague-beige knapsack, which he set down, as if to say to me, this is going to happen. You and I are going to have a conversation, right here, right now. And he said some interesting things, or at least I found them interesting.

First he told me about having to go through customs at the airport, then he talked about customs and rituals from home, the differences between ours and theirs. He seemed a bit flustered, like he was trying acclimate to his environment. I didn’t tell him that I wasn’t from around here either, at least not natively. I’ve been here for awhile, but is this my home? It made me think about all the people I’d met who were born and raised here, my reaction. There’d be a subtle defensiveness, like I was judging them, but I was just curious.

He talked about habitat, loves, death, mothers, fathers, tubas, trivia, good people, language, here and there, being home and being lost. He was amicable, and even though I didn’t really talk, he was often waiting to listen. And he asked me questions that I rarely answered except maybe in shrugs and non-committed mumbles. And if all of this sounds like it could’ve gotten heavy or intense (and it sometimes did), the man had plenty of charm and good jokes, too.

For instance, he says to me, “I’ve had occassion – this is embarrassing – to question my existence, just the plainest fact of it. Not in big ways, just little constant daily ones. This might be something the folks instilled in me. Bless their hearts, they loved me like only they could: out of the corners of their eyes, kind of, and with pentrating questions like, ‘Who exactly do you think you are?” and “And now where do you think you’re going?”” Then he said, “They brought me into this world, of course, and taught me the difference between right and left.”

I liked him very much.

He was often apologetic and slightly ashamed of certain things. For instance, he said to me, “I sound so dour, and I’m not,” as if trying to convince me of something. I wanted to tell him that he didn’t have to feel sorry all the time. He apologized with his shoulders. I eventually got around to asking him if he was homeless. He said that he was “unhomed.” Then he said, “Made-up word. What word isn’t?” Peculiar thing to say. What word isn’t, indeed. Pretty smart if you ask me. He might’ve been “unhomed,” but he was clean and well-spoken. He spoke  plainly, and most of our colloquialisms and words the same, except for one: skipplejick. Sometimes he’d stop and stammer to find the proper or, more accurately, accurate word. Boy, could he ramble. Ramble, what a word…

You could tell that he was homesick. And lonely. And sensitive. Early on, he said, “Oh, so, one other thing – don’t hate me, if you wouldn’t mind. Thanks. I know that’s not something you can ask a person.” And he was very delicate with his words and phrases, his actions and steps backward and forward. He was always measuring distance between us based on how comfortable he felt. He stayed calm most of the time until he started hitting himself with his stick. We weren’t even drinking, but it was happy hour at the pubs. Pub. That’s a word I imagine hearing in his light, Irish brogue, but he never said it. And he definitely wasn’t intoxicated.

If the man was high on anything at all, it was words. “Lamp” and “horse” get the job done, he says to me. He loved the pragmatism of language, too, all things the two of you probably have in common, wUndertUNGE. Then he’d go full-blown enraptured and say something like, “Trace the origin of any word, and if you’re half a man, and I can say without bragging I am, or half a woman, which is sort of my type, you’ll shed some serious tear at the long and trembling history of these frail little sounds, made up out of nowhere.”

He wasn’t being cheesy or pretentious, no. There was plenty of profundity. And sincerity. And jokes! Did I mention the jokes? He wasn’t arrogant either, and even though he talked a lot (the whole time!), I miss him. Maybe that’s an overstatement. But seriously, was our conversation enough? What do you have to do to get the full meaning of a man? How well do you and I know each other? What about lovers? Friends? Do I know the characters from my novels better than they know themselves, or better than the other characters know them? I remember the names of his loves: Lisa and Lauren. How am I doing? Am I describing him adequately? Do you even care? If we’d shared accents, would it feel like I knew him better? I didn’t even get his name, not that it would help.

We would’ve had more time to talk that night. I might’ve been able to tell him a thing or two, or show him around, but things ended abruptly and a bit, well…it was so odd…

Towards the end, he pulls out a metal, blue lunch box. “This’ll offer us a little diversion,” he says. “Now, this object tells an interesting story.” And he stares at it, and his vision is so drawn to the object that I can’t help myself either. He held it up with his hands palm-up, like an offering, and I’m just stuck on it, too Someone goes by and laughs. He looks at me, irritated, so I give him a look like, I didn’t do it. Then he goes back to the lunch box. Just staring. Intently.

And we just stood there for a minute, maybe more, and it felt like that could’ve been the entire story. Beyond all the words, that silence was it. Then, even though the sun was completely down, there seemed to be more light. And then, stars. Dead stars hanging all around us, like we could touch them. Or maybe they were chunks of earth that had been torn out of the ground. I felt almost like I was dreaming at this point. “We should thank our stars,” he says, “if we believe in stars, for the listeners of the world. You’re doing fine, is what I’m saying. You’re doing very well and I thank you.”

Or maybe that happened earlier.I’m starting to get confused. I guess you had to be there. I was there and I don’t have many answers. Then again, I didn’t ask any questions. I’ve been going back to that place to see if he might still be there, but he said he was leaving Sunday. Come to think of it, he never told me where he was going, either. No name, no destination. Home, maybe? I hope so. It sounded like he really missed it.

In any case, this might be a good place to stop. Here. My jaw is starting to click, and it’s making me nervous. I might start repeating myself. I hope you respond soon. Hope you’re well. Hope…that’s another word. ”We don’t need hope,” he said. “Things move quickly enough.”

Let’s talk soon. I’ve forgotten the sound of your voice.

Title and Deed by Will Eno
Starring Conor Lovett
Directed by Judy Hegarty Lovett
Scenic Design Christine Jones
Costume Design Andrea Lauer
Lighting Design Ben Stanton
Production Stage Manager Donald Fried

Book-Shoppers Anonymous

A few years ago, I was complaining to a friend about the trials of moving, a friend who we’ll call Mr. Fifths. This man was rather austere with his domestic possessions despite having a reputation for being somewhat decadent when it came to women, drinks, and drugs. He asked me if I had a lot of stuff. I mentioned that my books were really the toughest and heaviest things to move around. He asked me how many I had.

A lot, I said.

“Have you read them all?” he asked.

Of course. Of course I’ve read, well, most of them.

When I got home, I surveyed my room. At the time, I had a queen-sized bed, a futon-couch that folded out, a cheap twenty-dollar clothing rack, a desk made of pressed wood and colored caramel brown, the books, and the bookshelves, which numbered in three. I owned two copies of Shakespeare’s complete works, one brown and faux leather-bound Illustrated Globe edition, the other a Riverside anthology; four D.H. Lawrence novels, The Rainbow, Women in Love, Sons and Lovers, Lady Chatterley’s Lovers, as well as his complete short stories, along with his complete poetry; The Complete Works of Edgar Allen Poe; an ornate hardcover edition of nine plays by Eugene O’Neill published in 1932; anywhere from ten to twelve issues of The McSweeney’s Quarterly; Aldous Huxley’s Island and a collection of his essay, which I’d purchased from a second-hand seller on the street either on the Upper West Side or the West Village; Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis which another friend of mind had let me pilfer from his living room; The Lord of the Rings and a copy of The Hobbit purchased on impulse at the now bankrupt and defunct Borders booksellers at Columbus Circle; about twenty-seven issues of The Believer magazine; The Only Astrology Book You’ll Ever Need and Sextrology; Remember Be Here Now; The Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey; and on and on and on…

I don’t have an exact count, but along with all the books I had to purchase for school (mostly used through online booksellers), I probably had  close to one hundred and twenty-five books. As I surveyed them all during the packing, I began to notice something peculiar. Surely, I’d read eighty-percent of the books. Yeah, that sounds about right. Eighty-percent. Huh. More books into boxes. Okay, maybe not eighty-percent. Surely, seventy-percent. Yes, seventy-percent. Then I was packing away more books into boxes. Well, I haven’t really touched the short stories by D.H. Lawrence and I definitely haven’t read the Democracy in America or the People’s History of the United States of America. I don’t even remember where I got that copy of

So I’d read every issue of the magazines from cover to cover, 80 pages of almost pure verbiage full of essays and interviews. I’d read the entirety of The Lord of the Rings and The Brothers Karamazov and The Mists of Avalon, not only once but twice! But as I really began to pay attention, the realization that I’d only read maybe half of these books was beginning to dawn on me. It wasn’t a frightening revelation, but it was humbling.

Over the years, books were passed on, but even there were even more books coming in. I know the signs of an addiction. There’s a sort of whirl and dizziness that comes into one’s vision. Feelings of elation and seeming clear-headedness while in the presence of the coveted item. My mom is a shoe-addict, but ladies and gentleman of the literary world, I am a book whore.

Now, some of the readers out there might be thinking to themselves, What’s wrong with loving books? Shouldn’t we value a well-read person? Aren’t books one of the world’s great inventions and technologies? There are worse things than being a book whore. Of course, I’ve often felt the same way despite some nagging thoughts about the compulsiveness of book-buying. Our American, liberal, culture takes pride in being well-read as it’s a sign of one’s sophistication. After all, it puts one above the person who sits on their laptop or sits in front of the television all day. John Waters says, “If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em!” At a panel discussion with Werner Herzog, he told us in what was almost a battle-cry that he always tells his film students to “Read! Read! Read! Read! Read! Read! Read! Read! Read! Read! Read! …and read books! You’ll never be a good filmmaker if you don’t read.” So, of course it’s good to be a reader, even a voracious reader. This is the belief I’ve held for many years and one that I held until last week, that is, until I read this post.

It’s Consumption Awareness month at the Interdependence Project, a group and community of urban-dwellers dedicated to Buddhism. As you’ve probably just read, this last week was about buying less books. The post recounts a retreat where students were not allowed to read. That’s right, students weren’t allowed to read because they didn’t want the students comparing their own spiritual journeys with other’s, which might make one’s personal journey seem meager in comparison to the one’s read. After all, don’t stories and anecdotes in books always seems more dramatic and larger-than-life than the humdrum of the reader’s? (I always think the authors or the characters in books are always having more sex than I am or will ever have). Beyond this, though, there’s an account of the book-buyer’s dilemma.

The contributor of the post, Sharon Salzberg, talks about how she makes a deal with herself about just buying one book even though she’s promised herself not to buy any until she has given some away. To that, Henry Ward Beecher says, “Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?” Let’s face it, there’s a tumblr blog called Book Porn if one needs further example of just how insidious book-lust can be. Books are incredibly sensual. They have that musky (alright, some will argue musty) smell. I love the way a book feels, the weight of it when you’re holding it up or if it’s hanging at your side, the texture of the cover. We often talk about book covers and their design, whether they’re aesthetically pleasing or not, suggesting that a pile of 8 1/2 x 11 paper with the text of East of Eden on it wouldn’t be as pleasing an experience as having the Centennial edition printed on acid-free paper. Alongside the temptation and the more illicit connections we might have with books, though, I love the feelings of solitude and relaxation and curiosity that set in and are aroused when one is surrounded by books, especially in the bookstore. Yes, I’m alone, but the world and its history, its ideas, thoughts, stories, and secrets are all at my fingertips. Whenever my mom set me loose in the mall, I always went to the bookstores. It’s a sacred space.

Still, beyond all the good stuff, how easily one can slip into narcissism, arrogance, and downright compulsive consumption. On the subway or street, how many times have I turned the cover of my book towards someone who I found attractive? I’m like a flasher. How many times has my natural speech turned towards the bookish, trying to impress? How many times have I gone to the bookstore buying a book that I never intend to read. And then there’s this guy!

For all the knowledge we might obtain and no matter how large our libraries become, it’s all rubbish. On the one hand, Amos Oz says “…human beings come and go, while books remain forever,” but on the other hand, E.M. Forster says, “It is a mistake to think that books have come to stay. The human race did without them for thousands of years and may decide to do without them again.” Rousseau says, “I hate books; they only teach us to talk about things we know nothing about.” Isn’t that why we read? Is all this knowledge just vapor? Well, he might have a point. I can’t tell you how many discussions about books turn into “my favorite part” discussions, not deep and heated debate. While I don’t agree with Rousseau’s statement wholeheartedly, the quote does make one think; whereas for Charles Lamb, there is no thought induced by a book because “Books think for me.”

So where and when does knowledge become power? Where are the limits of that power? I think (and hope) that we are part of a time where we are acknowledging the limits of the rational mind. Will we one day at the height of our knowledge and wisdom not only take breaks from our television, internet, and iPhones, but from the seemingly harmless pastime of reading and book-buying? When does a healthy love for books become a dangerous obsession? Erasmus says, “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” Not such sound advice. And let’s acknowledge the plain fact that books are consumable goods. They are things we own, and as Tyler Durden says…

Fine, Tyler. I will do what I like because the truth is I will never abandon my books. And hell, even a healthy dose of lascivious thought and action towards one’s spouse after years of marital bliss and torture (is this possible?) can be good for one’s sex life. So let’s say, too, that I’ll never wholly abandon my lust for books. And literature. And poetry. And theater. If that desire was diminished even a little bit, this blog would have no reason for existing. At the same time, just to add a little tonic to the liquor, I’ll try to remember this final quote from Robert Louis Stevenson: “Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life.”


Disclaimer: Many (read: all) the quotes I’ve pulled were not from the bevy of books I’ve read. No sirree. As I’ve already stated, the Werner Herzog quote comes from a panel discussion I attended. The John Waters quote came from the internetz. And while I’ve read a good deal of books in my life time (he said without even the slightest hint of humility), all of the literary quotes used in this essay were pulled from the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Quotations, edited by Peter Kemp.

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