For decades I have haunted bookstores looking for the perfect books to turn me into what I call “a classic”: into the person I wish that I could become. I’ve searched for fiction, nonfiction, drama, and poetry—new and old, serious and light—to guide me in aging with gusto, reassure me that I am not an outcast in spite of never marrying or having children, reveal the purpose for my being and my writing, explain how to overcome perfectionism and fear of asserting myself, and inspire endless creativity that drowns worry and time-wasting. I’ve sought books telling me how to visit with my parents on the other side, ensure the health of my brain and body, and achieve fluency in French and Italian. And I’ve craved books that will show me what life is like for others, help me to understand how people are able to endure enormous hardship, and offer guidance in how to be kinder and less self-centered, foster peace, aid the Earth and Nature, comprehend cruelty, and see the past in the present and the present in the past.
In spite of my addiction to bookstores—at the expense of my budget and feng shui—I have yet to find the ideal books for entirely meeting these goals. Yet the world is filled with works of wisdom and inspiration. My error is in imagining—or at least hoping—that any one book will be everything that I, or any readers, desire for it to be. What every book offers is simply one piece of the truth, as filtered through the author’s insight, understanding, and imagination.
As a reader I’ve long made another serious mistake: I’ve wanted to be awesomely and comprehensively perspicacious in my analysis of every work that carries the aura of literature, wisdom, or scholarship. This ambition served me fairly well when I was working on my master’s degree in English literature more than half a lifetime ago. The ambition has not served me well since then because it sets up a wall to be scaled in front of any even modestly challenging or honored book.
And so how am I now going to read books in order to move closer to becoming a classic without expecting any one book to hold complete answers? And in my quest to become a classic, how can I read and write about books without acting as if each tome demands talents from me appropriate to a scholarly dissertation?
As I read and write about books from this day forward, I will explore what they have to say to me about my queries and my goals, however grand or limited the volumes’ contributions. I will allow myself, if I wish, to ignore the authors’ major themes and stylistic tours de force while I examine details that especially speak to me. And I will read and write about each book as it represents a small part of the human conversation on what life means and how existence is expressed.