The Books We Own And Will Never Read

Let’s get real, be honest, face the facts: There are some books on my shelves I will never read. The reasons for this are manifold: the contents of the shelves are not static, as I keep adding to them; my shelves are disorganized, which means that many books escape detection as I inspect the shelves looking for the next book to take on; my tastes in reading have changed, leading me to steadfastly ignore an older acquisition–it just does not catch my attention; some books have not rewarded my reading attempts in the past and have been put back, perhaps to be visited again someday–but we both suspect that encounter will not happen; and lastly, most grimly, most cosmically, time is running out–given rates of acquisition, my physical and intellectual capacities, my waking hours, my many other commitments, some tasks will remain incomplete in this life, as they do in all others. Among them the reading of books we thought we would read some day.

I may have presented this as a ‘problem’ in the opening lines above, but it really isn’t. Every owner of books knows this; you buy books not just to read them but because, quite simply, books are artifacts we like to keep close by, to offer reassurance of all kinds. They are talismans, security blankets, good-luck charms, mirrors of ourselves, souls in the bodies of our lives; call them what you will, they aren’t just objects to be opened and ‘consumed’ and ‘exhausted’; not every fruitful and significant relationship with an object requires us to integrate it fully or even partially into ourselves. When we go to a museum and look at a work of art, we do not bring it home with us, we do not seek to own it; it is enough for us that we were able to experience it in some way, no matter how attenuated. When we go into the outdoors, we do not bring home the proverbial bubbling brook or dale, except by way of photographic reproduction. Our lives brought us together with these; they will take us apart. We will have had some measure of that which we saw and felt and tasted and touched; some, perhaps not all.

Books are meant to be read, of course. And an archetypal mode of pretension in our world is a kind of shallow display, a pointing in a direction we will never go. Books can play that function for those who deploy them as such; you might be able to signal erudition of a socially valuable kind by your book ownership. We should tolerate such pretension; there are worse things to be inauthentic about, and if the outcome is a room full of books for us to look at, admire, and browse through, then so be it.

My ownership of books I will never read is made easier by being a parent; I reassure myself periodically that I’m putting together an inheritance for my daughter. In a life marked by tiny failures at every step, this is one to be proud of.


Ambition, the ‘Dangerous Vice’ and ‘Compelling Passion’

In reviewing William Casey King‘s Ambition, a History: From Vice to Virtue (‘Wanting More, More, More‘, New York Review of Books, 11 July 2013), David Bromwich writes:

Machiavelli thought ambition a dangerous vice…for Machiavelli ambition was also a compelling passion—a large cause of the engrossing changes of fortune that happen because “nature has created men so that they desire everything, but are unable to attain it.” All men, the grandees and the populace alike, are implicated in the “nature” that created this unreasoning desire….Francis Bacon was deeply influenced by both Machiavelli and Montaigne….a useful “means to curb” the ambitious, says Bacon, “is to balance them by others as proud as they.” The dry realism of that suggestion would be echoed by Madison in Federalist Number 51: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”…Bacon made his acutest observations on ambition in another essay, “Of Great Place.” Men in great places, he writes, are servants of the state, of fame, and of business:

They have no freedom; neither in their persons, nor in their actions; nor in their times. It is a strange desire, to seek power, and to lose liberty; or to seek power over others, and to lose power over a man’s self.

The path to great place may involve base actions and so “by indignities, men come to dignities.” They buy their power at the price of their own liberty. There is a freedom of the spirit, Bacon seems to say, that has nothing to do with political leverage or social success.

The terrible irony of ambition, which Machiavelli and Bacon so perspicuously capture, is that the same drive that can make us happy by spurring us on to great, hopefully fruitful effort, can be the source of the greatest unhappiness as well. Not for nothing is it said that the time of the greatest melancholia in one’s life is when we come to realize we must downsize our ambitions, cease our endless prospecting, give up our illusions, and look around for a suitable bower on which to rest our heads and begin the process of reconciling ourselves to a life unfulfilled. The greater the original ambition, the steeper the fall into the darkest recesses of gloom.

Ambition does not just make the ambitious unhappy, of course. All those singed by its flame suffer: sometimes those who support the ambitious and are then cast aside; sometimes those whose ambitions must give way in the face of a greater one.

If ambition is to be a virtue, then it must be infected by yet another one, that of moderation. But the balancing of ambition with realism, the tempering of our drives, the recognition of the presence of the reality principle in our lives, is not an easy task. For we remain haunted by the worry that we might have simply fallen prey to weakness of the will, to laziness and indolence, and sought the easy way out. Homilies like ‘obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off the goal’ don’t help. This cognitive dissonance might be even more painful than that caused by the dousing of the flames of ambition.

Bacon and Madison’s remarks about balancing ambition suggest a possible means of amelioration: when giving up one ambition, replace it by another, just as great. The ambitious artist may then, for instance look elsewhere, perhaps inward, considering himself a work in progress, or perhaps outward, finding in some other work a potential reward as great as the ones that drove him previously.

So, there might be no getting rid of ‘ambition,’ but that might be because it may only be a compound description of a host of other, necessary, life-sustaining drives.

‘Little Clouds’ and ‘Enemies of Ambition’

Children leave you little time for ‘work.’ Children are work. They displace priorities; many a career ambition runs aground on the shoals of their demands and needs. So goes an exceedingly common complaint, especially from those who consider themselves ‘creative types’: writers, artists and the like. As Cyril Connolly once noted, ‘That enemy of ambition, the pram in the hallway.’ (Wikipedia reports this quote as ‘There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.’)

I think I know the feeling. Both my reading and writing have suffered ever since my daughter was born last December. A serious philosophy text looks frighteningly impenetrable, and the very thought of constructing a rigorous argument is enough to induce severe anxiety in me. The unread books pile up; the drafts remain drafts. Meanwhile, I’m reduced to reading book reviews and those books on my shelves that seem the most accessible. As for writing, all I can pull off is some dilettantish blogging. My sabbatical awaits, but how will I get any writing done in this sleep-deprived, consumed-by-baby, always-consumed-by-distraction state? I cast envious glances at those who are either free of the cares that consume me, or have, even worse, figured out, somehow, the precarious balancing act that lets them be as prolific as ever without letting their children go to seed. My academic CV isn’t a particularly distinguished one in any case, and now, it appears set to stagnate even further.  My ‘career’ seems to have come to a grinding halt.

Resentment, envy, jealousy and anxiety; I am a fine candidate to be advised to have some cheese with my whine and count my blessings. Which I do, quite often, as I think my posts on my daughter make clear. But human nature being what it is, the anxieties I relate above surface from time to time.

James Joyce‘s ‘A Little Cloud‘–a member of the Dubliners‘ collection–captures an almost pathological variant of this bundle of sensations quite well.  Its ending is worth a re-read:

A dull resentment against his life awoke within him. Could he not escape from his little house? Was it too late for him to try to live bravely like Gallaher? Could he go to London? There was the furniture still to be paid for. If he could only write a book and get it published, that might open the way for him.

A volume of Byron’s poems lay before him on the table. He opened it cautiously with his left hand lest he should waken the child and began to read the first poem in the book:

Hushed are the winds and still the evening gloom,

Not e’en a Zephyr wanders through the grove,

Whilst I return to view my Margaret’s tomb

And scatter flowers on the dust I love.

He paused. He felt the rhythm of the verse about him in the room. How melancholy it was! Could he, too, write like that, express the melancholy of his soul in verse? There were so many things he wanted to describe: his sensation of a few hours before on Grattan Bridge, for example. If he could get back again into that mood. . . .

The child awoke and began to cry. He turned from the page and tried to hush it: but it would not be hushed. He began to rock it to and fro in his arms but its wailing cry grew keener. He rocked it faster while his eyes began to read the second stanza:

Within this narrow cell reclines her clay,

That clay where once . . .

It was useless. He couldn’t read. He couldn’t do anything. The wailing of the child pierced the drum of his ear. It was useless, useless! He was a prisoner for life. His arms trembled with anger and suddenly bending to the child’s face he shouted:


The child stopped for an instant, had a spasm of fright and began to scream. He jumped up from his chair and walked hastily up and down the room with the child in his arms. It began to sob piteously, losing its breath for four or five seconds, and then bursting out anew. The thin walls of the room echoed the sound. He tried to soothe it but it sobbed more convulsively. He looked at the contracted and quivering face of the child and began to be alarmed. He counted seven sobs without a break between them and caught the child to his breast in fright. If it died! . . .

The door was burst open and a young woman ran in, panting.

“What is it? What is it?” she cried.

The child, hearing its mother’s voice, broke out into a paroxysm of sobbing.

“It’s nothing, Annie . . . it’s nothing. . . . He began to cry . . . ”

She flung her parcels on the floor and snatched the child from him.

“What have you done to him?” she cried, glaring into his face.

Little Chandler sustained for one moment the gaze of her eyes and his heart closed together as he met the hatred in them. He began to stammer:

“It’s nothing. . . . He . . . he began to cry. . . . I couldn’t . . . I didn’t do anything. . . . What?”

Giving no heed to him she began to walk up and down the room, clasping the child tightly in her arms and murmuring:

“My little man! My little mannie! Was ‘ou frightened, love? . . . There now, love! There now! . . . Lambabaun! Mamma’s little lamb of the world! . . . There now!”

Little Chandler felt his cheeks suffused with shame and he stood back out of the lamplight. He listened while the paroxysm of the child’s sobbing grew less and less; and tears of remorse started to his eyes.