Smoking in the girls’ room, sneaking a drink, napping
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I’m never going to read them all. My wife knows it. My children know it. They exchange sly smiles when I haul a big box of magazines along on family vacations. Or when I announce at the beginning of the new year, as fervently as the president promising a balanced budget, that I’m finally going to get caught up. They know I’ll subscribe to more magazines, that the stack of unread issues — already taller than I am — will grow taller still.
I covet magazines, and the time it takes to read them. But there’s no way for me to keep up with all the publications I want to read, or should read, or think I should read. I try to keep up, but I can’t even keep up with the small changes around me — a loved one’s latest uncertainty, a leaky faucet in the bathroom downstairs.
“Words, words,” Robert Creeley writes, “as if all worlds were there.” What a peculiar kind of consumerism — not of cars and clothes but of ideas and the well-turned phrase. Politics and book reviews and interviews. Spiritual gossip. New lies and old. Some of the magazines I read are well known. Others are “alternative” — too cranky, too quirky, too irreverent to have wide appeal. I love all of them, the feel of them; even the glossies, even the ads. I’m amazed at the alchemy that turns a stack of manuscripts into a magazine, with a personality no less distinct, no less endearing, than that of a friend.
Yet I’ve started to cut back, cancel subscriptions, acknowledge my limitations. We may be limitless in spirit, but there are only so many hours in a day. To admit this is poignant; the heroic ego loves challenges, wants to take on all comers. But I’d rather move through life not dragging so many possibilities behind me — unread magazines, unfinished projects, dreams that wind around other dreams but never take shape. Time, that tease: it croons to you from tomorrow, but doesn’t wait for you there.
I’ve wondered, too, whether nibbling on magazines doesn’t spoil my appetite for a different kind of reading. It’s been years since I’ve skipped an issue of Harper’s or The Nation or The Village Voice or Parabola or New Options or Common Boundary or The New Yorker or Utne Reader or Whole Earth Review — but it’s been even longer since I’ve read a line of Shakespeare. When I fell in love with my first wife, more than twenty-five years ago, I set aside James Joyce’s Ulysses, intending to get back to it. I’m on my third marriage. The book sits on the shelf, unread.
Perhaps I believe too blindly in the redemptive power of reading. All my life, I’ve imagined that by reading just a few pages more I can trick truth from its high domain, wrestle it down to earth and make it mine. But such a belief puts too much emphasis on everything I haven’t read and don’t understand — and leaves me feeling small. It doesn’t acknowledge the great wisdom of the body, the wordless understanding of the heart.
I don’t want to feel so overwhelmed that instead of being here now I’m always wishing I was there, then — like an impatient kid counting how many pages are left in a book he needs to finish. I want the words I’ll never read to feel not like a burden but a gift, innumerable as the stars and just as mysterious, shining no less brightly for lighting someone else’s way.
Regarding your “Catching Up” essay, the “spiritual gossip” of Hesiod and Master Kung, say, are of greater practical spiritual use than anything you’ll read in Harper’s. A periodical is not expected to be permanent. The world of Ulysses charts greater spiritual seas than does the Village Voice. Without Ulysses, you’ll never be truly “here now” because you remain unread in one of the truly great monuments of Modernism — and American Lit in this century was born with Modernism. While the magazines make rich, famous writers of people like Brett Easton Ellis, Moby Dick gathers dust in the English Department. And we wonder how we became so spiritually bankrupt.
Sy’s piece “Catching Up” [Issue 185] really struck home.
I’m (also) a magazine and bookaholic. I’ve got the same feelings you put so eloquently: those unread magazines and books can be like a ball and chain. Magazines do “spoil” appetites. They fit too comfortably into our fast-food lifestyles — always rushing around grabbing bites instead of really taking the time to sit down to a leisurely, balanced meal. Very seductive — “I can get that article read during lunch!”
I’m struggling very hard to get out of my “intellect solves all” mode. Sounds like you’re experiencing similar feelings. For me, there’s still a big, frustrating gap between knowing and doing. Since I’ve finally acknowledged that it’s there, I’m not as frustrated and puzzled; I know what I need to do now.