Photo Source: Elizabeth Degi
Visiting my favorite book nerd websites sometimes has the adverse affect of consuming me with anxiety. What does me in is posts with titles like “7 Must Read Books Coming Out in April” or “Books to Watch for this Fall” or “347 Books You Must Read Immediately That Were Published Yesterday. Hurry, fool!” I start thinking about all the books that have been written, are being written right now, and will be written in the immediate and long-term future.
And just like that, I’m imaginatively transported into one of those cartoons where a field of corn explodes, burying me under a mountain of popcorn, except instead of a field of corn, it’s a field of writers, hacking away on their computers, and instead of popcorn, it’s books. And all I can think is, I will never catch up! I can’t believe I wasted two days reading “One Day”!
Of course I won’t catch up. This is because it’s impossible to catch up. Best to accept that I can’t read every book ever written, even the really eloquent and interesting ones. I mean, duh. It’s pretty obvious. But it’s one thing to reconcile yourself to an unpleasant reality intellectually and quite another to reconcile yourself emotionally.
How I did it is I thought about the theory of eternal return, which postulates that time is cyclical rather than linear, and the universe infinitely recurs. In a nice bit of symmetry, this theory of eternal recurrence itself recurs across time and disciplines, making appearances in different forms in (to name a few) Indian religions (Buddhism and Hinduism), ancient Egypt and Greece, Western philosophy (Friedrich Nietzche), and one of my favorite novels, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” by Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera.
Kundera begins his novel by ruminating about the implications of infinite recurrence and concludes that it’s a terrible burden because “the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make.” We can reconcile ourselves with things that are transitory because—and I love how Kundera puts this—“in the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia.” It’s a lot harder to reconcile ourselves with events that forever recur and thus are forever in motion, like trying to chase a ball down a hill. Since we can’t pin an experience down, we can draw no definitive conclusions about its meaning or value.
Deep thoughts, yo. And kind of depressing. So let’s switch gears for a minute. What if we think of the eternal return as it’s rendered in the movie Groundhog Day (which may be Bill Murray’s finest work, besides Scrooged)? In this version of the eternal return, which I think is more Buddhist, Bill Murray has to relive the same day over and over until he achieves ‘enlightenment’ (and gets the girl).
Now let’s put the two together and hope the whole is greater than the sum of its parts: Maybe the goal is not definitive conclusions but some kind of personal enlightenment. Then, to return to my reading problem, it’s not necessary to read everything that’s coming out right now or that has ever been written but finding books that help move me toward some sort of personal enlightenment, which because it’s so hard won moves me towards greater empathy for the (eternally recurring) human struggle.
But how to figure out which books will do this?
Maybe the answer is to remember the classics, which, as one sage participant at Book Chat (my library’s amazing discussion group) said, “are classics for a reason.” This is not to say that we shouldn’t read contemporary literature, but it is to say that we don’t always have to scramble to get our hands on or keep up with the latest and hottest titles. Because, hey, if everything recurs, then whatchamacallit’s latest book isn’t as new as we think it is.
So (and I’m talking to you too, book groups!), why not take some time to revisit books that have endured in readers’ imaginations and inspired countless authors to revisit and rework their ideas? That’s an eternal return I can get behind.
To get you started, here are four classic titles that came up with Book Chat readers:
“The Chosen” by Chaim Potok
“The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov
“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith
“Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte
And a bonus three from me:
“The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
“The Wings of the Dove” by Henry James
“Barchester Towers” By Anthony Trollope