Monday, March 2, 2009

A Task Renewed

(Pictured right: Melvil Dewey, creator of the Dewey Decimal System)

Tonight I cleared a few books from my nightstand, after months of neglect, motivated not, I hasten to add, by any sudden urge to tidy -- I easily resist all such urges -- but because I was looking for a particular book that I did not ultimately find. (No idea where it is.) The book I was hunting is easily replaced, but as it is required that I read it before a certain date none too far off, I am anxious. I do not resent the obligation, which is a happy one, but I do resent being made to shift for the damned thing at this late date when I knew to a certainty just where it was, waiting until called for, in exactly the spot it no longer occupies. Now as no one but me so much as dusts the books on my nightstand, and as I obviously do that rarely enough, there is, as usual, no one to blame but myself for having misremembered its location and or misplaced it the Devil knows where. One might justly assume I am embarrassed, but my actual emotion is, having hauled away a considerable weight of reading in looking for the one book I ought to read tonight, anger, and not so much at myself, but at the book. It seems frankly willful of it not to be where I expected it to be and to be, after half an hour's search, seemingly nowhere at all. It is as if the book, knowing it is wanted for no better reason, looked for with no kinder purpose than to be found and quickly got through, has suffered an injury to its pride and being hurt and spiteful, chooses to ignore me and not be found. Such petulance in a paperback for a book club is maddening! Damned impudent little thing, where the Hell are you?!

When I want a book for purposes of my own, I tend to seek it out with less obvious exasperation, even something like a propitiatory diffidence, as if, in expressing the genuineness of my desire at that moment for that book, I might coax it from hiding with something like a lover's sigh. And should that sigh prove fruitless, I am not above prayer, in which I disbelieve entirely. Calling on the assistance of the supernatural; the author's ghost, or even a God temporarily recalled from incredulity to aid me, I am shameless; temporarily disordered, heartsick, reduced to superstition, sudden, unreasonable, aching need, and resigned at last to trust to love, luck and juju. (When my husband hears me, disconsolately shuffling from room to room and through the piles of books here and there and there, calling, "where are you?" dear A. now assumes, from decades of experience, that it is a book rather than the consolation of his company I seek, so that even when I am searching the house for him, his trained response is, "Lost your book?")

I agreed to something just last year, another, less happy obligation, which I will not see the end of for two years yet. I am on a committee. There was a time, when I was younger and my enthusiasm for participating more fully in life had yet to be blunted by the experience of committees, when I took up such work as a compliment. I am all too easily flattered into doing. It is, I suspect, a reflexive fault, learned in childhood from kind, hardworking and credulous parents. Give me a task and I will earn your trust and goodwill by lifting, fetching, making. As an adult, I eventually learned to draw the line at committees. My experience of them has shown me the sense of the old saw that says a camel is a horse designed by committee and that committees are bodies that take a week to do what a sensible man could do in a day. And yet, one flattering invitation, received at second hand, and after how many others might sensibly have rejected it I do not know, and I am again on a committee. This committee, having to do with books, would seem more suited to my peculiar talents than those that ruined most politics and charities for me in the past, but all committees are as alike as black cats in the dark: people of disparate opinions and experience, well-meaning to a man and woman, gathered together for a singular purpose, and disinclined to achieve it in anything like a timely way. I can say this because I am among the worst committeemen of the type just described. My only responsibility being to accept the generosity of publishers, read the books proffered and state my opinion, I find I read anything rather than pick up a book I received for such a noble purpose as to be considered for a prize. I leave these books at any whim, to read books I must borrow, or buy, books that might indeed be less likely to interest me for more than a moment, because I prefer my own fancy to doing a job, however flattered I was to be asked.

" A man ought to read as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good." said Dr. Johnson. I do not know that he was, in this instance, right. The books I eventually read for the committee I joined were occasionally quite bad. From these I was reminded of how little that is published need be sold and might be better served by being privately, or more discretely offered for the delectation of friends and family (or the readers of blogs, yes?) And from the best of what I finally made myself by way of obligation read, I learned a great deal on subjects in which I would otherwise never have bothered to interest myself; from boats and fishing to conservation and geology and local history. It has been, looking back, a very satisfying, and educational experience. I am flattered, still, to have been asked to serve, and grateful for the opportunity to read so much that proved to be so good.

But now the books for consideration by the committee are coming in again. They arrive weekly, and will soon start coming almost daily, and when they come, they will be added to the piles by my bed. And as these books, however worthy, mount up unread, the chances of finding any book I might stubbornly prefer to read on any given night, like tonight, will eventually be buried yet further down, under all that burden of... obligation.

Just here I meant to insert a very apt quote from W. D. Howells, but I can not find the book. I know it was sitting on my dictionary stand, I'm quite sure I marked the passage with a slip of yellow paper. Why can't I find it now?!

And so to bed and Villette, if I can find it. Damn.

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