Maybe it is my cynical side showing, but I would have to say that Ecclesiastes is one of my favourite books of the Bible, and once again I find its wisdom shining through. In the concluding chapter the author, as he sums up the observations made throughout the text, says: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body” (12:12b). That would certainly match my experience as a seminarian in his last semester, especially if one were to subsitute the words “term papers” for “books.” I am weary of study right now. Not that I don’t love school, but I would trade a lot of things simply for the chance to audit these final courses — no required reading, no papers.
I wonder how many books I’ve read in the course of my Master’s program? How many during the course of my entire life, both school-related and simply for pleasure? The entire top drawer of my nightstand is stuffed with 16 novels that I have in the queue to read after the one on which I am currently working. I recently downloaded a list containing the 100 “must-read” novels of the 20th century (actually, it is two lists: that of the offical board, and that of the reading public, and they seldom agree, so it is more like 179). At this point, to get through them all seems a formidable task, and one that will easily take years, providing I read nothing else after I empty out my nightstand. And what about all the novels that pre-date this past century? A friend of mine just bought 501 Books You Must Read, or something like that, and few of those books match any works on any other list I have seen so far. Then there is the question of the 1,200 assorted volumes in our home library, far more than half of which I have not read. Add to this the fact that (so I heared someone say) each day in North America alone, there are 10,000 new books published. That is any of my lists many times over every single day (the difference being that most of these volumes are undoutedly outside of the “must-read” category). As the author of Ecclesiastes says, there appears to be no end to the production of books, all of which command the attention of a bibliophile such as myself. Chapters is a death trap for me; I get overwhelmed: so many books, so little time. I feel compelled to read each and every one, a futile task though it may be.
In the face of the sheer statistics, I could jettison the entire enterprise of reading altogether, though in the end that would prove entirely unhelpful. Clearly one must read with discernment. My wife reads a lot more than I do, but she still finds time to read some books over again, even multiple times — I don’t think I have ever read more than three or four books more than once. Clearly she knows what she likes and keeps going back to it. Is this so bad? Why not find something we like and stick to it? Why feel compelled to listen to what every other person has ever written, since a great deal of it is probably garbage anyway — I think we all know people who speak without thinking, and I suspect some people right that way — or at the very least unsuitable to our tastes. And in the end, will I miss out on so much if I don’t get around to reading Slaughterhouse Five or Brideshead Revisited or As I Lay Dying? Some might say yes, but I think not.