A confession

By way of introducing the "Notebook" sideblog

I found myself upset by something innocuous said in a conversation with two good friends earlier this year. One of them, with his usual joshing good nature, greeted me with a compliment disguised as a mild taunt: "O, you haven’t been reading lately." I knew immediately he was talking about Reading Room, a sideblog feature where I write about books and authors who have influenced me. In particular, he meant I hadn’t updated the feature in a long time — and of course that he was reading me regularly enough to notice. (The last one was, and still is, about John Updike and his latest compendium, "More Matter.") I explained, with as much good cheer as I could muster, that Reading Room was designed to serve as a sort of bibliographical About link; it’s a small selection of books and authors that may say something about me. It was important, I thought then, when I started the blog, and I still think now, almost 10 months later, that readers can — and only if they wish to — take a relatively closer look at some of the blogger’s formative sources. Reading Room was not meant to be a record of my reading, or a snapshot of the books beside my bed. I thought I put on a pleasant face and kept a civil tone, during the explanation, but inside I was, what is the word, mortified.

Yes. I plead guilty to vanity. Pride goeth before a fall, and in my case that fall will be accompanied — no, helped — by a library of books crashing down on me like the proverbial ton of bricks.

The conversation helped me realize how vain I am about reading; it hurt me to the quick. I have always been a reader; reading is part of my earliest memories; there is a scar just above my right eye which I got when (I was perhaps four years old) I reached over for a Junior Collier’s Classic on the topmost shelf and fell (hitting the leg of a wrought-iron chair); I read the familiar back of the cereal box at breakfast when there is nothing else to read.

I did not fully realize, however, that vanity was part of the experience. (This is what good friend Fr. Vic Baltazar, SJ must have meant, when he chided me way back in college about the many books I bought but left unread; the drive to possess a book, its words, its ideas, often expressed itself in the lesser but equally powerful drive to own the book.)

I wanted to tell my friend, in that conversation: I can’t stop reading even if I wanted to. I read two or three books at the same time. When I was teaching some 20 years ago I decided to actually list down the books I was reading; I think I was inspired by Richard Wilbur’s words about the "cataloguing impulse." In 1987, I think it was, I read almost 50 books. (Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.) These days, with the press of work and writing, I am happy to finish two books a month. In fact, to create order out of this bibliographical chaos, that is what I aim for: Finish at least two books a month. I can, as I have all my life, start on as many books as I want; but now I must finish at least two of them.

Of course, I did not say any of that; I was not only horrified that someone, a very good friend at that, would think I was a slow reader, or only an occasional one. I was also deeply ashamed, about being so vain.

Well, fast-forward to today. There is no happy ending; no expiation after the sin. There is only … another instrument of vanity! I found out about the useful Sideblog from Bystander. When I saw it on his site, I thought, Hey, I want one of those. (It’s the proprietary instinct again.)

Thus: If you’re still around by this paragraph, you will notice the Notebook sideblog on the upper left. I will use it to write short notes about the books I’m reading; sometimes it will be a simple list, at other times maybe a short response to something I’ve read.

Pride, vanity, guilt: I know, I know. We are condemned by our individual patterns of sin.

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