Jeff Tweedy, “She’s a Jar.” My new mantra, it seems. Usually you choose the mantra but this one chose me. It’s from the second song on Wilco’s album Summerteeth, a song I’ve probably listened to 100+ times over the years. I know every word. But somehow this one time this one line hit me and hit me hard. Incredible how you can hear a thing over and over and over and it never gets you, or you never get it. And now I can’t get it out of my head. It’s following me and it feels good.
The truth is that only gold ore can be turned into gold; only poetry into poems.
A.E. Housman’s test of a true poem was simple and practical; does it make the hairs at one’s chin bristle if one repeats it silently while shaving?
Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act.
Perhaps not the most practical quotes, but beautifully enigmatic.
The truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or desire for more.
-Gabriel Zaid, So Many Books
I like this quote. I love it, in fact. A few months back I ran out of space on my big bookshelf. The glut of books that accompany the Christmas/birthday season didn’t help matters, and soon I had at least four knee-high stacks of books hanging around in my room. Add in the comics and well…they say the human body is 70% water – I believe mine is 70% paper and ink.
Now here’s the big reveal which is sure to deny me some of my street cred: half the books I own – a literal 50% – I haven’t read. You have no idea the guilt I feel because of this. And apparently I’m not alone. This guilt manifests itself in strange ways. Like, I feel guilty about getting books from the library. Sometimes I’ll wake up in the morning and feel sheepish just looking at the shelf. Or I feel like an ass for taking so long to read Anna Karenina even though I love the book so much I moved it to the #4 slot of my Desert Island Top 5 the other night. (The #5 slot is reserved for a rotating selection of books.) The main reason it’s taking me so long to read is I ALWAYS fall asleep when reading. But that’s another post altogether.
The funny thing is, the ONE time I should feel guilty about having too many books – when I’m buying new books – is precisely the time I feel the least guilty about it. The feeling of joy when walking out of a used book store with a new stack of books is unparalleled. Similarly, when a friend starts gathering books for me to read, I will always choose to read those first over my own books, provided there is sufficient joy and sincerity in the recommendations, which there almost always is.
There are of course many reasons NOT to feel guilty about owning unread books. I’ve got a long lifetime of reading ahead of me, for one. And I know deep down that I’ll get to all these books eventually. My parents own about six-seven times as many books as I do and they don’t seem too worked up about it. And then there is the above quote, from a man who should know a little something about owning books. Mr. Zaid makes me feel downright proud of my unread book collection! My unread books mark me as a “truly cultured” person! You can see from the quote that Zaid understands the joy of buying books too. I shouldn’t feel guilty – I should feel good about my passion and desire for reading. Vindication.
The only way to really break the cycle of guilt is to just keep reading, which is my plan anyway. Since reading is so integral to writing, the only way to continue being a good writer is to keep reading good books. The bookshelf is like my power plant, the books my coal, the words and my eyes ingredients in a combustion reaction, the pen a power line, the poems I write the little houses lit up at night.