On Recommended Books

Brian Michael Murphy
July 5, 2013
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I’ve just returned from The Futures of American Studies Institute at Dartmouth College, where I met wonderfully interesting people, received helpful feedback on my writing, and, as happens at such gatherings, added more book recommendations to my “One Day I Will Read These” list than I will ever be able to read.

Whenever I am overwhelmed by book recommendations, I think of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, “Library of Babel,” in which there is a library that contains every book ever written, and every book that could be written, including “the minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels’ autobiographies, the faithful catalogues of the library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues,” etc. Somewhere in the Library, then, there is a master list of all the books I’ve been recommended and have not read. One chapter contains books I have picked up but not finished, like Reading Lolita in Tehran and The Brothers Karamazov. Unread books–recommended by friends, colleagues, people I admire–have become a weight, and ultimately, a reminder that one day life will stop, and there will still be books on my list that I’ll never read.

As I attempt to parent a child, love a partner, write a book, and accomplish other somewhat important tasks like meals-while-standing and the occasional shower, the burden of book recommendations-not-followed becomes more bearable. Hygiene and love for another–these are the impediments that prevent me from reading more. In the Library, there must also be a hypothetical biography of a me that read every book recommended him. This me was eloquent, witty, superbly literate, and almost entirely useless, not unlike Peter Sellers’ character Chance in Being There. This me had a tendency to quote Shakespearean speeches on courage and war when a woman made a breathless and futile attempt to share her fears with him. He failed to make sense of tears, laughter, shivering. His world was wholly symbolic, like a handful of soil tossed on a casket (a gesture whose meaning also eluded him). He had read Bruno Latour’s The Politics of Nature, everything by Italo Calvino, Susan Sontag’s On Photography, the Gnostic Gospels, but could tell his biographer little about the texture of his daughter’s hair, how it had a morning and an afternoon and a midnight.

The most recent book recommended to me, the me who doesn’t read so much and is, I hope, a far better reader of tears, is The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public by Sarah Igo. I will read it–not only is it relevant to my research interests, but it could shed some light on how we became, each of us, at least in this country, so unique and so much a part of a crowd, all at once. Surveys and death, two certain things we must all face. And then, of course, we each have a list of unread titles that plagues us.

Since the Library contains every book, there must also be a self-help volume that offers the secret, personalized solution for how to create more time in my life for reading, while remaining a human being. If I come across it, I’ll most likely read it, and recommend it, too.

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