Thank you for your letter of last week. I know that The Gift (1938) feeling – or as it is known in my own head-brain: the A Dead Man in Deptford (1993) feeling – that frustrating feeling that you are always reading, have always been reading, and will always read a book which despite all that reading past, future and present does not ever seem to end.
At the moment that feeling is a source of minor stress, because beyond your Dead Men in Deptford there are always other books. As you know, I am a massive fan of reading lists. You’ve seen the forty or so books which sit on my desk in a line of TBR towers, looming over a row of ten or fifteen other books, bookmarks jutting out of them like dorsal fins, who are sitting there waiting for me to go back and finish them. Towers of classics which I should read, of pulpy trash I want to read, of research books I need to read, and of books that the real owners will be wanting back any day now.
Those fortyish books amount to about five months worth of reading at my current rate. It is like a speculative geography of my future knowledge. And beyond those roughly 15k pages is the unread deep-time strata of the bookshelves. Those are so far into the future there are Morlocks and Universal heat-death and I will be in my thirties. All that and more will come to pass before I can read half of what I should/want/need to.
(I feel like there’s a paradox in there among the TBR piles somewhere, if one wanted to tease it out. Something to do with how the books that matter most are the one’s that by definition have had no direct influence on you because they are not yet read. Like, I don’t stress about the thousands of pages of Dostoevsky I have read, but the thousands of Dickens that I haven’t. Not now though, there are future letters for frivolous stuff like that, this letter is about frivolous stuff like this:)
So much of this Chicken Habits for Effective Souls stuff the problem is really one of tricking your brain (half-wit that it is). You can only ever read the next page, paragraph, sentence, word, letter or punctuation mark. So just don’t look at the pile of books on your desk, or the monolithic Billy bookshelves from Ikea. Head down, tail up and all that.
Which reminds me of the more general struggle to be writing, to eat well, to live well, to exercise and meditate, to not eat the marshmallow, not drink the whole bottle of wine, not spend the whole day in bed masturbating, napping and binge watching Pokémon. These things are difficult for some reason. They shouldn’t be; every one of them comes with a positive reinforcement of satisfaction when done, while not doing them has the negative feedback of Protestant guilt.
The tricks we play are often silly; ‘I will just wash one dish,’ I tell myself. ‘I will do one set of pushups.’ Or like Isherwood ‘I’ll just put the novel up on a screen and then go do something else nearby, looking over occasionally.’ Whatever it takes to trick the brain into lowering the activation energy required to get started. Because inertia is not just a physics thing, it’s psychology too.
One of the many reasons the tricks are needed, is because if you lean to much on the idea of ‘completion’ then the whole exercise of being starts to look pointless. it comes to the realisation and rerealisation that you will never finish reading all the books you should/want/need, will never run out of art to create, that there is no final boss fight that will end exercise. There is no completion for a lot of stuff, just giving up and/or death (And what do we say to the God of Death, Jim?*).
Existentially unpleasant as that can be, accepting it is also the best way out of the kind of doing/not-doing stress that I’ve had accumulating of late. Which is why I bring this up, less for your benefit than as a reminder to myself to just keep doing. Sweat the parts as they come (*snarf*), and the whole will take care of itself.
Not only does the thousand step journey start with the first, it continues with the second, then the next one. And after that you’ll still have to decide to take the next one after that, until way down the road – I hope– you suddenly find yourself sans feet, sans teeth, sans etc…
The best thing about this particular trick is that it is not a trick, it reflects the world. The worst thing is how oddly forgettable it is. I used to listen to Zen Mind, Beginner Mind (1970) on audiobook once a year, to refresh the memory.
I haven’t done that for a while now, but it might be a good time to put it back into rotation because I am about to start reading DeLillo’s billion-page epic Underworld (1997). I feel like that massive book almost a thousand pages long and covering a span of time roughly equal to a smoker’s life could in some way be a metaphor for something.
But like paradoxes metaphor’s are beyond my remit today. Today I’m just psyching myself up.
Yours briefly mindful,
*’Not today.’ You really should just suck it up and watch Game of Thrones – Today, ideally.