Sunday, July 15, 2007

preface to the unread

How does one go about choosing a book to read? With so many slots of time in a day to be filled, and with so many possible literary interventions, how does one begin to decide? Words, in their teeming multiplicity, cry out to adorn our lives: the time between bus transfers, the minutes waiting for a pick-up, the parts of a day not easily labeled morning, afternoon, evening.

What makes us pick up a book, the collection of another's mental processes, the imprints of a human mind at work on some subject--love, betrayal, censorship. What is it we look for when we crack those alluring covers, with their stamps of approval: "staff pick," or "Oprah's book club?" Maybe we look for new meanings for the world. For order, for symmetry, or maybe just for newness. What ideals do those unread pages signify? I admit: to be more knowledgeable, cultured, entertained.

One of my struggles is always this: classic, contemporary, or something different altogether. I am not one of those author-groupies, who follows one particular author through his or her entire body of work until I have exhausted my resources. I am also not a mystery junkie, a chick-lit chick, or a erudite classicist. I am greedy for variety. I want it all. The beauty of the old works, the experimentalism of the new ones, and a little self-help or spiritual growth advice on the side.

This makes choosing a book very difficult for me. I know many people go purely on recommendations. But my sources are perhaps too prolific, and I have trouble extracting something from the cloud of "you HAVE to read ____" or "you haven't read ____?!!?" Sometimes I springboard from one to another, forging an errant path between themes, styles, and genres.

There are times when I read a book because I somehow feel I should, as in my last, the Brothers Karamazov. Other times it's more random, something I was given, or picked up in some used bookstore somewhere, in a moment of ravenous story-hunger. But I must read, for literature opens the doors in my head that have been fused closed by too many layers of paint. It caffeinates my creativity, and fertilizes my desire. It gives me a somewhere when I feel nowhere, another place when I am feeling out of place, intimacy when I am an island, solitude when I am scattered.