Last week, my good friend and colleague Joshua “Jammer” Smith did me the honor of allowing me to post a guest essay on his wonderful blog White Tower Musings. In case you missed it, just click on these words right here that are in that weird shade of blue and you can go read it. Once again, I will encourage you while you’re there to read his other stuff. He is a prolific writer, much more so than I, and he reviews books from every genre imaginable. So, yeah…go read him…only not before you read this because that would be rude!
Anyway, I told Jammer that I would happily welcome a guest post by him on my humble blog. Today, he has honored me once again by doing just that. I have to be honest, his essay has come at a particularly important time and covers a particularly relevant subject for me: how to read more than one book at a time. It’s a skill at which I’m not very good, but one I need to develop…like YESTERDAY! I think you will find Jammer’s work informative, helpful, and funny (assuming you share our slightly morbid and deranged sense of humor). Without further ado…
The Constant Reader: Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus – A MEtopia Guest Post
I am almost always reading somewhere around 10 books. A colleague of mine once looked at my pile, the best classification would be “Small Mountain of knowledge” but most people aren’t poets and to be fair it was a significant stack, while I was tutoring a student and asked me, “how are you able to read so many books at once?” My response was one similar to Stephen King when asked how he was able to write such massive and popular novels. His answer was “one word at a time.” My answer was “one chapter at a time.”
It may seem daunting at first to read more than two books at once, but over the last five years I’ve developed a reading pattern which makes it difficult to follow any other path. I find it damn near impossible to sit with just one book for hours on end, but neither can I read one chapter of one book and then stream three movies on Netflix. I’m a reading, thinking creature in the most purest sense and so I began a system of reading chapter by chapter of multiple books so that, by the end of the year I have read well over 30 books. As of this writing I’m reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau, Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, This Sex Which Is Not One by Luce Iriguy, Flashpoint by Geoff Johns, The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Trial of Henry Kissinger by Christopher Hitchens (my favorite writer alongside Stephen King and Walt Whitman), and The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus.
I’m not trying to boast by listing out the titles of all of those books…well, not completely anyway. My real aim is to demonstrate another aspect of my reading habits which is that I cannot restrict my reading to a single genre. Many of my friends and compatriots, god I sound Imperial as I read that out loud, tend to specify their reading and by extension their writing to a single genre, and while specificity is important and beneficial if one is a scholar or writer for that particular field, the writers that I have always read and aspired to have all shared one universal ideology: read everything, not just the stuff you like.
The reader may object: But I have a life, a job, a family, shouldn’t I read what I want to? The answer is of course you should. Our lives are short absurd blips as we live “on a mote of dust floating in a sunbeam” to quote Carl Sagan, and as such we should try to our best effort to enjoy our life. My argument is simply that if the reader wishes to push themselves as readers and writers they have to diversify their portfolio a little bit.
Reading, after all, is the key to success as a writer, and not just because it teaches you grammar. Reading teaches the writer strategies that they may employ on their own. For example if the reader reads Victorian novels such as A Tale of Two Cities, one of the most beautifully written novels in all of human history, then it’s likely their style will mimic Charles Dickens. The long sentences teeming with complex vocabulary are likely to be mimicked because that’s what you’re reading. Likewise if the reader is more of an American modernist appreciating the work of men like Hemingway, perhaps his novel A Sun Also Rises (if they do anything except
fish and drink let me know), then it’s likely the reader will start to mimic Hemingway’s short declarative sentences. If you pursue the Hemingway route however try to avoid alcoholism and/or flying planes. Trust me on this.
Along with the strategies though the reader should also attempt to push themselves intellectually, and what better way to push yourself that with suicide?
My mother informs me that I have a wretched sense of humor, but enough about my eighth birthday party.
I need to qualify immediately what I mean by suicide. I am not referring to gun in mouth or razor blade suicide, for while I do suffer from suicidal thoughts from time to time, this action is riddled with philosophical, intellectual, psychological, and personal problems. More importantly this type of suicide is tragic and selfish for it creates lasting negative impacts upon one’s family and friends and not just emotional ones. Seriously the cost of a funeral is crazy and coffins alone will set you back somewhere are $2-3,000. It’s just not worth it.
The suicide I’m referring to is the philosophical suicide that Albert Camus describes in his book The Myth of Sisyphus. Now it should be understood that Camus is addressing the idea of actual suicide, but it’s not simply to mourn. Camus has a real question:
There is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer. And if it is true, as Nietzsche claims, that the philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply, for it will precede the definitive act. These are facts thee heart can feel; yet they call for careful study before they become clear to the intellect. (3).
Basically Camus is arguing that the most important question human beings will consider in their life is not whether reality is real or whether or not there is a god in the universe. The real question becomes, given the absurdity in existence, is life really worth living. Ultimately Camus argues that it is worth living and that suicide is a bad route and the reason for this is because the man who takes his own life is performing the real act of cowardice and treason to himself. Camus was an existentialist, and while that word has often been associated with nihilism and people writing bad, morbid poetry while smoking a cigarette at a French Café, existentialism is really more about individual will.
The reader may ask again, what does suicide have to do with reading? Well, be patient I promise this will come around full circle.
Camus is not just arguing about the physical act of terminating yourself, for he establishes pretty quickly that this is a bad route, but a worse route is the idea of “Philosophical suicide.” I know philosophy is just an esoteric bunch of ramblings written by old dead white dudes in Europe and it has no relevance to contemporary existence, but beggin’ your pardon, that attitude is really bullshit. Your Philosophy is the way you approach life. The reason you get out of bed, the reason you go to church or if you don’t, the reason you volunteer for charity, the reason you make art, the reason you read or don’t read books, the reason you meditate, the reason you listen to music. All of these small choices build up over time to create your personal philosophy which is ultimately your drive to continue living.
Every morning I wake up. Make coffee. Go to my office. Everywhere you turn in my office there is a book, and my brother-in-law often refers to new books as “finding floor-space.” I grab my pile of books, grab a cup of coffee, and I sit on the back porch and read. While I’m reading I think about the articles I want to write, and the novels I’m writing or hope to write (hopefully one day they will emerge), and I think about teaching, and hopefully inspiring some student or person to pick up a book, but most of all I try my best to enjoy focusing on the one chapter I’m on to gain the impression and idea that is steadily developing in the book. I finish the chapter. Put the book down. Pick the next one up. Start reading. I continue this until I’ve finished the books in my pile. I go inside. I write.
These impressions are each unique for Walden is nothing like Flashpoint, and likewise The Bully Pulpit is nothing like Gift from the Sea, but it’s the differences that inform each book. Bring each new dimension. Each chapter is a small slice of an impression and for a moment I understand the mind of another human being entirely different from myself. This action is constantly changing so that each new book is a new start. The title of Camus’s book is a reference to the myth of Sisyphus, a Titan who combatted the Olympian gods and so as punishment he was forced to push a boulder up a hill. When he reached the top the boulder would slip and roll back down the hill and he would have to push it back up. In antiquity his punishment was seen as his comeuppance, however the figure has assumed more and more pressing relevance for those of us living in this Post-Industrial age.
Rather than mourn Sisyphus who follows the routine, Camus is arguing that it’s the ritual of the act that gives our life purpose. Reading a chapter in a book. Mowing the yard. Driving the kids to school. These acts assume more and more meaning because they are small events that gradually come to define us and assume meaning. The person commits a kind of suicide by rejecting these small actions because they deny the opportunity to develop meaning in their life, in which case what are they really doing? See, I made that work, and you were worried.
I’m a reader and a writer. While I read many, many books this act comes to define me in some way for it informs my identity. Reading one chapter in a book doesn’t make someone a writer, nor does writing one sentence in a word processor make them a writer, it’s in the consistency that the person is made.
About the Author
Joshua Smith is known mostly by his “real” first name Jammer which was given to him by a drunk rugby player before he was even born. He’s recently graduated with a Master’s in English with an emphasis on American Literature and Composition. He’s considers himself a writer first and, when not writing reviews and essays for his blog White Tower Musings, he’s trying to get novels published. People who know him are often compelled to refer to him as handsome, charming, debonair, and many are never heard from again. He doesn’t have many hobbies apart from reading voraciously, writing non-stop (his wife misses him so), collecting coins, walking dogs, considering the nature of reality and man’s precarious position within the universe, but mostly his interests lay in Queer theory, specifically male sexuality. He has three cats, a python named Monty (get it), a puppy dog named Huckleberry, and a lovely lady wife who wishes he would stop referencing her in his writing. This is his first (but hopefully not last) essay published on MEtopia and he promises the next essay will be about something a little bit more uplifting like human rights violations in Budapest, illiteracy in America, or maybe something fun like the Watergate Scandal.