As a consequence, one of my goals for the month is to attack a particular pile by my bed, one that’s been getting taller and taller—books I think of as “challenging.” Glancing at the stack, I see Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power, Henri Bergson’s Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Elaine Scarry’s Dreaming by the Book, Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, and so on.
Now, I very much want to read each of these books. So why have I been procrastinating? I’ve realized that, just as happiness doesn’t always make me feel happy, fascinating books can often be quite boring.
For instance, right now I’m reading an extraordinary book called A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, which sets forth principles of house, building, neighborhood, and city design. I know nothing about this subject, but a description of the book intrigued me, and when I picked it up, I was blown away. It’s like no other book I’ve ever seen—but not gimmicky or obscure. It has an intricate, brilliant structure, with each section interwoven with the other sections in a way that lends great clarity to the arguments.
Just reading the chapter headings worked on me strongly: “Cascade of roofs,” “Half-hidden garden,” “Something roughly in the middle,” “Staircase as stage,” “Tree places,” “Garden growing wild,” “Child caves.”
But even though I love reading A Pattern Language, and can’t wait to pick it up, I can easily put it down. It’s fascinating yet boring, too.
Another reason that I’ve been procrastinating with this pile is that sometimes a book can be so absorbing that it’s painful to read. It arouses so many thoughts, and demands so much concentration and appreciation, that it’s hard for me to take in more than a few pages at a time. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Georges Bataille’s The Accursed Share: Consumption, are in this category. I’ve read them several times, but each time, it takes great effort even though those books are among my favorites. I’m so interested to read Crowds and Power that I’ve read much of Canetti’s other work, just trying to work myself up to that one book.
I also put off reading the challenging books because they slow down the volume of books I read. Last week, it took me less than two days to read Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, because I was reading it in every possible free moment. (If you haven’t read Fight Club or seen the movie, do it this weekend.) I’ve been reading A Pattern Language for four days now, and still have quite a bit to go. I have to remind myself that good reading is about different kinds of qualities, not just quantity.
On the very day I’m thinking about happiness and reading, I happened to discover an intriguing blog called The Happy Booker. I’m eager to dive in and see what’s there.