Outside Reading

Believe it or else, blueberry pot pie, there are people who bring me their problems. This is not because I can offer assistance nor because I have a particularly kind face. It is because, 99 times out of 100, I refuse to give advice.

Some people are completely the other way, you see. One of my acquaintances had a little sign on his desk, saying “Busy Man: If You Don’t Want Advice, Don’t Complain.” But where other people are eager to tell you how to fix up your life, I am content to make sympathetic noises. That’s all some people really need, and takes less time than formulating Uncle Blogsy’s Guide To Life’s Sticky Bits.

Once, I fear, I was less than sympathetic. A lady I knew had worked herself into something of a state, and told me, “I’ve never read The Prince and the Pauper! And I probably never will read The Prince and the Pauper.”

I understood the first bit—she was from a part of the Mississippi River shoreline in which the works of Mark Twain are regarded as Holy Writ. The second half, however, eluded me.

“You can get a nice, cheap copy from the Book Fair,” I said. “If….”

“No,” she told me. “I have copies of the book. I just don’t think I’ll ever read any of them.”

At length, I realized there are two problems at once. Sooner or later, most of us have to admit we’ve passed the age where we have the time, or even the inclination, to pick up everything that looks interesting and read it. There is a period in your life when your time is open and your responsibilities are limited, and you can and will read any halfway decent book that comes your way. Later, though we may still pile those books up, we know we will read less than a tenth before we lose our last bookmark.

The other problem came cup during one of those debates on “What Is Literature?” which volunteers and customers at the Book Fair want to indulge in just as I am rushing to the break room to check out a rumor of chocolate doughnuts. (A manager needs to keep track of these things.) I was explaining Nobel Prizes and Classics Illustrated and other guides to literature when a passerby paused to set us straight.

“Literature,” he said, “Is the books you feel guilty you haven’t read.”

Not perfect, but pretty good. We all remember Required Reading Lists, and the last decade has produced plenty of Guilt Books. You’ve seen ‘em: 1,000 Places To Visit Before You Die, 100 Cars To Drive Before You Die, 100 Movies To See Before You Die, and, of course, 1,000 Books To Read Before You Die.

I love reading these things—they’re fun to argue with—but they do have two flaws. One, they are far more interested than I appreciate in my impending demise. And, two (wait for it) there are no books you must read before you die.

Yes, I hear you, those of you crying out about the holy books of your chosen religions. But really, friend, don’t most of us use those as reference books rather than as reading books? That is, like a dictionary or a phonebook, we take it out, read the part that answers our questions at the moment, and set it back again. And YES, you in the back: you say your father will kill you if you don’t pass Geography, so you MUST read the textbook? Yeah, read that book, but don’t keep weaseling around my point.

Those Great Books? They’re great books, and I think you should read as many of them as interest you. But they were great books before anybody thought to put them on a list. If the listmakers could offer a guarantee—you must read these before you die, so if you don’t read them, you won’t die—then they’d make a difference in your life. They do not represent a moral obligation.

The lady I mentioned earlier has died, and to the best of my knowledge, she never di read The Prince and the Pauper. But unless Mark Twain is scolding her for it right now, I don’t suppose it makes much difference.

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