To Read or Not to Read

I received my annual sales numbers for my memoir. My contract says I am not allowed to tell you how many copies have sold. It is a respectable number, but not what I had hoped. I worked hard on the book. I wrestled with it, and threw out three times as much material as appears in the final edit. I’ve had trials come about because of the book. It is a memoir. You tell things as you remember them. Whenever other people are involved, you confirm the facts with them, or when that is not possible, with others who were present. Nevertheless, people get upset.

Then there are the reviews. Most of them were positive. A few were glowing. A few were not. I tried to avoid reading reviews, for the same reason I avoid comments on my TED Talks. Nothing good comes from reading reviews and comments.

I’ve been surprised by some of the people who have read the book. They are people I never would have thought would read it. I’ve also been surprised by people who have chosen not read it, which includes a lot of good friends. I don’t ask them why they haven’t read it. Sometimes I discover they haven’t read it when I’m talking about something that is in the book – like – throughout the entire book – and they know nothing about what I am saying. I never say anything to anyone when I know they haven’t read it, even people to whom I’ve given a copy of the book.

I am a little surprised by those who have unabashedly said, “Oh, I don’t read books.” That last one always throws me. Who would have the temerity to say, “I don’t read books?” Apparently, a lot of people.

When his book came out Kanye West famously said he doesn’t read books. It kinda shows. Sam Banks-Friedman said he didn’t read books and that anything that needed to be said could be said in a six-paragraph blog. (This is paragraph five, if you’re counting.) It might have been good if SBF had read a few books, like maybe on how not to break the law.

I went to the folio show for magazine editors back when there were magazines and I worked for one, and the editor of Rolling Stone delivered a keynote speech. If I remember correctly, he said, “If it can’t be said in 800 words, it doesn’t need to be said.” At least he granted a few more paragraphs than SBF. (The word count of this blog is now at 375, by the way.)

One of my mentors, Roy Lawson, read a book a week. He probably still does. I always wanted to be like Roy, but I’ve never managed a book a week. I am usually reading at least two books at the same time. One is a novel. I read novels on airplanes, and before I go to sleep at night. The novels are eclectic, from Cormac McCarthy to Wendell Berry to Kelly Rimer. Between novels I read historical books. It took me several years to finish Ron Chernow’s Hamilton, seriously, several years. It didn’t exactly flow for me. I really like the writing of Hampton Sides. His historical books read like good fiction. The only problem is that he’s not very prolific. I’ve been waiting for something new from Sides for a couple of years.

I read novels and historical books on my iPhone. My other reading is of books with spines and covers and words on cream-colored pages. Those are the books on which I take notes, copious amounts of notes, starting on the back inside cover and working my way inward. If it’s a really good book, I run out of blank pages in the back and switch to the semi-blank pages at the front. I put the page number on the left side, and then a quote. If you turn to the page, the quote is underlined or in brackets. If it’s really good, it’s starred in both the back of the book and on the page itself. Some books have hardly an unmarked page. Swamplands of the Soul, by James Hollis, is covered with notes and underlined passages from front to back. It is one of my favorite books of all time, even better than The Middle Passage, another great book by the brilliant Jungian analyst.

At the encouragement of a friend, I just finished re-reading Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection. She is one author I’d rather listen to than read. I’m not sure why that is true, but this time I made five pages worth of notes. By the way, she mentions Swamplands of the Soul without mentioning Hollis, which I find interesting. Psychologists don’t usually mention Jungian analysts.

I’m concerned that more and more people have no problem saying to me, “Oh, I don’t read books.” Do they really understand what they are saying? Do they get how self-limiting their lives are? Do they not understand that the cumulative words of our species carry weight and provide invaluable insight about how to live. Well, at least some do. People are still reading Homer’s Odyssey, all the works of William Shakespeare, and even the Apostle John’s stunningly mystical Book of Revelation.

You can’t learn everything you need from social media, friends, family, nature, or your lived experience. Books are the legacy of our collective experience. They place our lives within a context we can understand, one that provides wisdom.

Right now I’m reading The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles. I just finished Kelly Rimmer’s The Things We Cannot Say. I’m re-reading James Hollis’s The Middle Passage and getting ready to start Ed Yong’s An Immense World.

Books are reliable companions, keeping you connected to the spirit of the species. I’m not ready to write another book. I don’t even like to go back and reread any part of my memoir, the most recent book I’ve written. My agent keeps asking me the next book that’s up my sleeve. I honestly have no idea. I’m at one of those inflexion points in which I know I’m on the verge of something, but I have no idea what it is. It seems wise not to write another book until I’m on the other side of that inflexion point.

And so it goes.