|Uh...wait. How did Dianetics get on there?|
Or, On the constant fear of being left out and the importance of libraries
Coming Late to the Party: Part of a regular series here at PostConsumer Reports wherein I reflect on something that I either totally missed or completely disliked the first time I heard, watched, and/or read it. In a sense, the party’s been going on for quite some time and I have arrived but significantly late. If you will, it is the AfterParty or the PostParty Party. This week's entry is a continuing meditation on why we all will always be arriving late to the party: we are too lazy to put in the actual work to get there... (click here for the companion piece "The World is Abundant and I'm Entirely Overwhelmed"
I know what the Scriptures say. I know how I should live. And yet my life is in a constant state of fear:
...for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.
+++2 Timothy 2:7There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.
+++1 John 4:18
I suppose you could say when it comes to intaking and partaking of works of art I lack all self-control and have not yet come close to a perfected love. I am consumed by a fear of punishment which leaves me powerless.
And this all-pervading fear stems from two primary causes:
1. That when it comes to knowing and experiencing various works of art (drama, music, literature, philosophy, theology, paintings/sculptures) the whole world is at this party I either don't know exists or I have not been invited to. In other words: I am desperately afraid of missing out on all the fun.
2. That I seek to absorb the entirety of the world's history and cultural expressions and I have the sinking knowledge I will not be able to take it all in before I die.
This fear drives me into a constant state of near panic which sees me forever trying to discover, compile, and subsume these works of art. I am voraciously hungry for more. I collect and collect and collect. I see the world as a vast interconnected web, and so discovering one work of art or one renowned thinker inevitably leads me to discover five more. I know the sum of all culture and thought is not infinite, but to any individual it might as well be.
As examples, when my sons discover they love the Charlie Brown holiday specials, this leads me to research and then buy the other holiday specials and movies and collections of the actual comics. And when I go and watch the new Paddington Bear movie with them the whole time I wonder how they have drawn from the original source material and I think, "I have got to buy the original Paddington books for my boys. I have to know and they have to know the origin stories. I owe them that much." Or, in developing a deeper love for the music and lyrics of Kanye West, I realize how much he has been influenced by 60's and 70's R&B, of which I know so little about and so I think "How can I listen to West and truly understand him, if I don't understand what has shaped him as an artist?"
But don't you see? All those artists mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg, or should I say a single iceberg that leads to a view which overlooks a whole field of icebergs.
This fear was built into me from early on when again and again I discovered various great works of art which I had previously missed out on. My parents did the best job they could, but they could only show me what they themselves knew, only draw from the bank of knowledge and experience they had compiled. That is, they could not help me to know what they themselves did not know.* But they could point me to doors which could lead to this otherwise unattainable knowledge. Sometimes these were actual literal rooms.
In my youth I would spend nearly every Friday afternoon after school hunkered down at the Metamora Public library.** My dad and I had a Friday tradition of going out to eat and then seeing the Metamora high school football team play, but I had to wait around somewhere for him until he got off work. That place was the library. It was there, through hours of waiting and walking through the isles just taking in all the titles that I discovered the world was a vast place. It was there I first picked up a strange book called Dianetics, a crazy "comic book" about a mouse in a concentration camp, a nonfiction tennis book called Hard Courts, and read through the first few profanity laced pages of Catcher in the Rye. Almost every time I was there I would pass by the same books just to make sure they were still there, even though I was too intimidated by their mystifying or immoral texts to actually read them: Vanity Fair, the works of Charles Dickens (of which I tried to memorize the titles of), the works of Stephen King, various volumes of world history.
|My actual library card from the mid-90's|
Recently, a particular memory of the library was sparked in me while watching Fantasia 2000 with my kids, most especially during the Pomp and Circumstance segment, which makes Donald Duck into a kind of Noah and the Ark figure. First of all, as a child, I felt like I had literally discovered "classical" music on my own. I just could not believe it when I realized such a thing actually existed. Then, to take a particular example, at one point in time I realized, after going to various graduation ceremonies, that the piece that kept getting played was composed by an actual person (Sir Edward Elgar) and I tried to hunt it down at the library. I found it on cassette tape and was amazed that Pomp and Circumstance was a whole set of marches—again, the tip of another iceberg. There were many other such two-week rentals, from Michael Jackson's Bad, to the films of Laurel and Hardy, to finally listening to Beethoven's 9th in its entirety.
To me, even the most limited, small-scale libraries are places of absolute wonder, vistas to lose oneself in for hours at a time. Libraries make me feel like the character Tubbs from The League of Gentlemen (which I wrote about recently in this article) who cannot help but exclaim with exuberant longing innocence "Lines and lines and lines and lines!" upon looking at a map for the first time. She is overwhelmed by the vastness of an unknown world. She knows she is on the cusp of a new world just outside her grasp, despite fearing what it all might mean:
I have spent my whole life feeling deprived, feeling as if I was missing out on greatness, feeling as if the greatest experiences I could ever know were just beyond me, if only someone would show them to me or I could discover them somehow. I used to think this was my parents fault but now I realize I will never be able to take it all in, to know it all. Libraries taught me and continue to remind me just how little I do in fact know. And yet the fear still drives me. How many times did I refuse to listen to something or watch something only to rediscover it years later as a life-altering work of art? I live with everpresent uneasiness that the next great work to discover is just around the corner, if only I would keep searching.
But here is one thing I have realized about myself, and in turn have realized about everyone else: I am too lazy to actually seek EVERYTHING out.
This is especially so when it comes to books.
I have many books. There they sit on my shelf. The greatest works of literature and theology and philosophy the world over. But it is just too hard to get to them. I would rather watch another episode of Tosh.O then put forward the effort to understand C.S. Lewis' works of literary criticism, the dense novels of Umberto Eco, the dialectic of Hegel, or the cyclical theology of Karl Barth.
And so my everpresent fears stem from a lifelong bank of self-knowledge: when it comes to reading I know I would rather collect them than put in the work of knowing them. As a result my fear is continually accompanied with guilt and self-loathing.
Just now I have had to do some lesson planning for the class I am teaching at school, which has afforded me the opportunity of reading Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. I have wanted to read Shakespeare again for years since graduating college, but have never been able to put in the effort. I am glad the pressure of teaching a group of young people has forced me into finally reading one of his plays again. I have yet to read the play itself, but after going over a couple of introductions, I cannot help but feel, once again, I am on the cusp of greatness.
The other night I watched a show called Luther, which is basically personality driven crime procedural show. It was kind of a waste of time really—Prime Suspect it is not. I have seen plenty of these types of shows and this one took all the cliches of those shows and used them as melodramatically as possible. The actors were mostly great, but really it was a waste of an hour which prolonged me getting to sleep. I know how I should have spent that hour instead: I should have read something, fallen asleep in 10 minutes, got up earlier and less groggy and more able to do the real work of immersing myself in the greatest artists and thinkers the world has to offer.
And about this party I am afraid of missing out on: what I have realized is everyone is lazy and everyone is limited to what they have experienced. Most people are content to settle for what became significant to them at some point in the distant past—a favorite album or book or movie. Sure people are always watching new television shows or films but they usually stick to genres they are already comfortable with. The same is true for people who read books. And so most all of us are incredibly limited, but we all like to think we have good taste and are open minded. But I have some serious doubts about that.
As for me, well, I am still very, very afraid and I do not think that fear will subside any time soon. But I am happy to say Shakespeare is calling...***
* It was strange for me to read of author David Foster Wallace's upbringing as the son of philosophy and English professors in the recent Newsweek article "The Turbulent Genius of David Foster Wallace". I can't imagine anything more foreign than receiving nightly impassioned grammar lessons from my mother.
** I also spent a great deal of time at the Germantown Hills and Spring Bay branches as well, which were very close to both sets of my grandparents. It is amazing how much time a little kid just sits waiting around. Boredom drove me to the libraries.
***But Kierkegaard! When will I ever find the time to get to Kierkegaard? Oh Kierkegaard, please wait for me!
Other entries in the "Coming late to the party" series:
Coming late to the party #4: The World is Abundant and I'm Entirely Overwhelmed
Coming late to the party #3: Radiohead's OK Computer
Coming late to the party #2: The Art of Surprise (Simon & Garfunkel, Tuneyards, and St. Vincent)
Coming late to the party #1: Fernando Ortega