I’m staring at an enticing and intimidating pile of packages on the floor of my study. It’s enticing because those packages contain the sixteen novels that are finalists for an annual fiction contest called The Tournament of Books. It’s intimidating because I have to read those novels – all sixteen of them -- in the next six weeks. That’s the deadline for a ToB discussion I’m joining on Connecticut Public Radio’s Colin McEnroe Show.
I did the show last year (you can listen here), and it was both fun and productive. Inevitably in reading a basket of novels, you encounter writers you haven’t read before, and if you really like one, you gratefully begin that strange, charmed, one-way relationship with a writer whose fiction you fall for: this kindred spirit you know only through his or her words.
I love books; they’re both my profession and my passion. Over the years I’ve written two of them and bought thousands. You know the kind of house where every scrap of wall space hosts a bookshelf? That’s our house. But too much of a good thing can become, well, too much, even for the booklover; and every now and then I feel overwhelmed, not merely by the number of books I have to read, but by the number of books, period. At these moments I’m afflicted by an acute form of bibliophobia.
I remember well one such episode, five years ago. I’d gone to the neighboring town with my daughter, who was four, to check out the town’s annual dog parade— dachshunds dressed up in faux hot-dog rolls, black Labs in Bozo the Clown costumes, that kind of thing. At one point Larkin had to find a bathroom, so we ducked into the Barnes and Noble. Almost immediately, I found myself assailed by this peculiar dread. Walking through the maze of Cookbooks, Travel Books, Psychology, Religion, Art and Architecture, Self-Help and Recovery, Memoir, I began to feel disoriented and faintly anxious.
The books! There were so many of them!
Distressingly, the prospect of a bookstore, so often the scene of serene pleasures in my life, now gathered a Polanski-like tremor of alienation. I felt crowded not just by the books themselves, but by everything and everyone connected to them. The trees, chopped down, pulped, and churned out in endless torrents of paper. The readers, this vast grazing public willing to add still another book to their already crammed and busy lives. And finally, of course, the writers — the hundreds and the thousands of them, sitting at their desks blasting away, on trains and planes with laptops open, blasting away, in cafes, in parks and office cubicles, furiously pouring out mad secret visions to fill these shelves, an invisible horde all doing their best to echo Whitman’s barbaric yawp, singing the songs of themselves in a nightmarish cacophony, madly hoping to catch the attention of readers.
I felt a Sartre-esque tinge of existential nausea. It was all too much! All the bad books, products of fraudulence or lack of talent or mere routine careerism; the totally unnecessary or frivolous books (Twitter Your Way to a Better Life; The Complete Dog Massage Manual); and then, somewhere among them, the few — the precious few — good ones, all too often swamped and ignored: I quaked before this never-ending avalanche of language and the enormous mountain of hopes and ambitions that unloosed it on us without respite.
Including, of course, my own hopes and ambitions, packed long ago – metaphor shift! -- onto a boat now leaking and, I feared, beginning to yaw. The writer beset by anxiety in a bookstore is a human staring his own superfluity in the face. How to stay afloat atop this vast, pitching ocean of books? And even if I should manage to patch my leaking boat and sail onward, who in God’s name was supposed to be waiting on the dock? Who needed me and whatever paltry cargo of words and visions I might bring to harbor? Such thoughts veered toward self-pity and despair. To what avail were all the stories I had written over the years, the reviews and essays and travelogues and and and and?
Maybe I was experiencing a kind of cultural vertigo at this last moment of the Gutenberg era, the end of books as we know them. Well, I thought, bring it on! Reduce it all to bytes on a Kindle! Close the bookstores, empty the shelves! Hallelujah! Maybe eliminating physical books would help reduce the chaos. I recalled a dyspeptic remark of the irascible critic Joseph Epstein, concerning the finding that eight out of ten Americans believe they have a book in them. “Please,” Epstein pleaded, “keep it inside you, where it belongs.” Yes! I thought. Let us all STOP WRITING!
Such thoughts were both unnerving and exhausting, and gratefully I let my daughter, who by now had used the bathroom, lead me to the sanctuary of the store’s play area and its toy train layout, where for ten minutes she played, engineering one satisfying calamity after another in the world of Thomas and Percy, while I calmed down. And then we went back outside again, and I took comfort in the company of dogs, who, bless their unedified and unambitious souls, neither read nor write books.
As a young writer I never felt this oppressive sense of literary superfluity. A daunting uncertainty about whether I would succeed in finishing a book or making a mark? Sure. But not this panicky and overwhelmed feeling, and not only as a writer, but a reader, too. Part of it is the simple calculus of mortality and time. The latter is no longer a hazy generality, but a limited and inexorably diminishing commodity. How many of the roughly 3000 or so books in our house have I not yet read? How much time do I have left to do so? If life itself is a Tournament of Books, I am falling further and further behind. At a certain point, the books on your shelf, in their obstinate unread-ness, begin to issue a taunting reminder. You have not read me yet, they whisper, and we both know you never will. You will be gone, but we will still be here.
Which, after all, is part of the point of literature. It perdures. And now I have to sign off. I have a lot of reading catch up on.