Dreams, Distractions and Serenity

[Ed. note: reprinted from ’10 holiday newsletter.]

It’s been kind of weird year so I figured now’s a good time as any to ruminate on some crackpot ideas that have been rattling around in the old noggin’. Can’t say they are holiday themed, per se, but I’m sure I’ll find a way to tie it all back before I get to the signoff.

When I was a kid I was a prodigious reader – sometimes knocking off several books in a single day. Granted, a lot of them were crap, but I made up for it in sheer volume. My taste ran the gamut from mythology to murder, Thurber to Dickens, Voltaire to Vonnegut. I had several library cards and routinely checked out the maximum, often returning to reload in less than a week.

Later in life, I would often get literary “deja vu”, the phenomenom whereby one has the feeling one has already read the book in hand, yet, cannot recall the details, such as the ending and whatnot. Enter shelfari.com. This is website where you can maintain a list of the books you’ve read. It’s designed to make it real easy to create and add to your list. I suppose the main appeal of it is bragging rights, but I thought it would also be a good way to avoid reading the same book twice. I signed up in August of ’08 and immediately set about building my life list, which I confidently assumed would easily number in the thousands. Two months and a lot of head scratching later, I had barely cracked 400, and this included such gems as Essential Abs and Racquetball: Steps for Success. Here I was thinking I might be Mr. Bibliophile Greatest Of All Time and even with 13 Lawrence Sanders’s in there, I’m way under 500. Worse yet, When it came to books that “everybody has read”, such as Brave New World and Catcher in the Rye, I couldn’t remember what they were about and therefore, couldn’t be sure if I had read them. (For the record, BNW: yes, CITR: no.) So I not only hadn’t read that many books after all, I couldn’t remember much, or in some cases, anything, of the ones I had read.

So this got me thinking about what the point was of reading. Since I didn’t really remember any of it anyway, ultimately, it was simply a means of entertaining myself and no better or worse than loitering or, dare I say it, watching TV!

Of course, in my early years, watching TV wasn’t an option for me. We had one, of course. An early sixties black and white “portable” on a rolling cart. Saw the moon landing on it, the occasional Ed Sullivan, and countless Disney “Wonderful World of Color”s, (in black and white, naturally.)

But most of the time the “boob tube” was unplugged in my Mom’s bedroom. At most I was able to waste one hour of the one hundred and sixty eight in a week. As opposed to the thirty or forty I spent reading, a supposedly vastly superior use of one’s time.

This glorification of the value of reading over TV is something I think that continues to this day, except now, of course, it is also held in higher regard than listening to iTunes, surfing the Internet or playing video games.

I suppose the idea is that reading is equated with knowledge and knowledge is power or something like that. A lot of it seems to be tied into the somewhat amorphous idea of bettering oneself or “making something” of oneself. Granted, there’s some truth to this – if you can’t read at all, you’re probably gonna be limited to first person shooter games and surfing the Internet is right out. But a third grade reading level is likely to be all you need to navigate Call of Duty and Facebook. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are just piling it on.

My questioning of the value of reading lead me to question the value of the “bettering of oneself.” After all, if I couldn’t remember half of the stuff I’d read, how much better was I really? And the stuff I did remember, like the plot to Mack Bolan, The Executioner #1: War Against The Mafia (read about fifty of those, but, alas, could only remember the the titles of about three) wasn’t exactly a ticket to cognoscentiousness. Sure, if I had learned biochemistry and devoted my life to finding a cure for cancer or AIDS, I’d put that a notch or two above watching re-runs of The A-Team. But I didn’t and neither did most of the people I know.

Had I the ambition and the talent to be a heart surgeon, or an astronaut or a even a professional athlete or musician, I would certainly have benefited from a rigorous training regimen early in life. But I had neither the foresight nor the self-discipline to pursue such lofty goals and, like many people, lived my life mostly as an exercise in improvisation. For every Jonas Salk, there’s ten million like me.

I still read. In fact, according to shelfari.com, I’ve read over 60 books this year alone (got Catcher knocked off the list.) But I don’t place any greater value on it than someone who spent the year catching up on five seasons of Lost or doing whatever you do in World of Warcraft. I read because I’m used to it and it’s an efficient distraction for me. I can pick up and put the book down when I want, it’s relatively cheap and there’s almost an infinite supply of product.

I associate with other readers, recommend and trade books and authors. But, given that I read five Murakami novels over the summer and couldn’t tell you the main character’s names of a single one, I don’t hold any delusions that I couldn’t have just as well spent my time following the Yankees or killing zombies on my Playstation 3.

Sports, music, movies, TV, Facebook, magazines, hiking, camping, running, piano, guitar, astronomy, cooking, eating, knitting, painting, riding, swimming, whatever – it’s all pretty much the same thing. I’ll grant you that the swimming guy is probably healthier than the TV/eating guy, but the activities themselves serve the same purpose. Something to do. Swimming guy isn’t going to change the world any more than TV guy.

Speaking of distractions and things to do, there’s nothing like “the holidays” to keep your mind off the shrinking daylight, inclement weather and the passing of another year. Starting with Halloween in October, followed quickly by Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years, the holiday conveyor belt transports us past the gloom of winter right through to the point where the days start getting longer again. Picking out costumes, planning travel, stuffing birds, trimming trees – there’s an unending stream of Things We Have to Do. It’s so distracting, I hardly have time to read!

Having recognized that most of my life is a series of meaningless distractions, often from other pointless distractions, I hope to somehow gain a step in the pursuit of serenity. I’m not sure what this entails or even if it’s possible, but I think it starts with changing my relationship to distractions, in such a way that they mostly serve me rather than the other way around. If I don’t feel up to reading the Modern Library’s 100 Greatest Novels of the 20th Century, what difference does it make? I’ll read what I want when I want, and if it becomes a chore, I’ll look for something else to do. My piano playing ultimately really doesn’t have to entertain anyone other than me. And, if, God forbid, one year I don’t feel like sending out a holiday newsletter, well, tradition be damned!

In the spirit of cheesy holiday aspirations, I hope all of you find some peace and serenity in this most distracting of seasons and find time to truly enjoy a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. And if you’re looking for something to do, that hall is not going to deck itself with boughs of holly.

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