Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Ars Longa

I'm not in the mood to write tonight, but I'm going to anyway. The whole point of maintaining this blog is to develop the habit of practice, and the whole point of that habit is to override the part of the brain that says "I'm tired" or "I don't really have anything to say tonight" or "I'd rather read" or "Who cares?" I'll leave that last one for now, since what I have come to understand, to accept, and at this point even embrace is that "Who cares?" is ALWAYS an unanswerable question and a classic gumption trap. I'm not writing because I expect anyone to care. I'm writing because I find that writing forces me to be more thoughtful and deliberate; and that's something that I care about, and aspire to. So here I am, ready or not. If you're there, if you do care, thanks. But I'm gonna write this even if you're not, or don't.

As far as reading goes, in the space of the last month or two I've gone from having a lot of stuff I was looking at to being so backed up that I may never get caught up. I'm partway through My Struggle (Book Three), In the Light of What We Know, The Magicians, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Building a Better Teacher, No Place To Hide, The Knowledge, Little Big Man, and Son of the Morning Star. On the table waiting for me are Greyhounds for Breakfast, How Late it Was, How Late, An Untamed State, Straw Dogs, Personal, A Schoolmaster in the Great City, The Secret Place, and Empire of the Summer Moon. That's, uh, lemme see, 17 titles, all of which are of genuine interest to me and all of which I'd like to finish, well, this week. But October will be more realistic, and given that other titles will likely insinuate themselves into the list between now and then, who knows where it will end. It's a little dizzying and panic-inducing. But it's also something that I know I can walk away from. The only urgency driving my reading, the only books I really HAVE to finish, are the ones on short-term loan from the library. And if I don't get around to finishing them, nothing world-shattering is going to happen.

But deadlines do focus the attention. Four of the best books I've read recently were finished in short order precisely because I knew I had to get them back to the library: The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt; Faithful Place by Tana French; My Life in Middlemarch, and This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, a collection of very readable and likable essays by Ann Patchett. The first I picked up because I happened to see it on the shelf at the library and I remembered hearing good things about it. (It's amazing.) The second also jumped off the shelf at me, mostly because I love Middlemarch, but I was completely won over by Rebecca Mead's thoughtful and incisive and very personal response to th book. The third I read on the strength of a review and recommendation in the Times (which I wrote about very briefly last week). The fourth I picked up at random off the library shelf and started reading an essay in the middle of the book which I was still reading as I walked out the library door. That's how quickly Patchett gets her fingers into your brain.

I'm tempted to write specifically about The Blazing World but it's a complicated book, both structurally and stylistically, and to do it justice I'd need to write for a very long time, and engage in the kind of targeted re-reading that would allow me to write about it with greater understanding and authority. And I guess that highlights one of the dangers of blogdom: the writing you are doing for the blog is the displacement of the writing you are not doing on something else. If I spend an hour each day writing for the blog—as I will have done this evening by the time I finish this post—that's an hour that I might have spent on something else, e.g. a chunk of what might become an extended essay on The Blazing World if I were to spend an hour a day for a couple of weeks on that. Or on keeping up my personal journal, in which for a while last month I was logging 500+ words a day. Or on other projects begun and since suspended, like my omnibus essay on another great book, The Ten Thousand Things. Or on The Book that Nick and I have talked about over the years, the definitive book about education called "What's Wrong and How to Fix It," which exists in wispy fragments in various parts of my brain, waiting only for me to sit down and pound it into shape.

So I'm talking here about time, and about how to manage it, which has throughout my lifetime been one of the essential questions that I keep returning to, one way or another. As we all must. Art is long; life is short; decisionmaking is difficult. (There's a nice little article in the wikipedia tracing that axiom all the way back to Heraclitus, who himself was summing up the accumulated wisdom of the elders who had gone before him.)

So yeah, even though I was tired, and even though I really did not have something teed up to write about tonight, I managed to push on through to the other side. My hour is up, and now I can head off to bed with some small sense of writerly accomplishment. Just another day in California-nei.

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