Yesterday evening, after my guitar lesson and before my mission to Sprouts, I stopped by the Borders by Paradise Valley Mall. My subscription to First Things is lapsed and I wanted this month's edition. While I was glancing through that, Poets & Writers caught my eye and I thought, "If I buy that then I'll feel compelled to submit something (anything) to someone soon, to justify the purchase." We'll see if this line of reasoning works.
I then wandered up and down the fiction wall. I shouldn't have done this; looking at the rows and rows of novels induces what I call "fiction-guilt." My wife thinks I'm a book snob, that I only read high-brow books of history, philosophy, politics. The truth is that I feel compelled to push back the vast regions of murky ignorance that fill so much of my mind. Euryalus, is it the gods who put this fire in our minds, or is it that each man's relentless longing becomes a god to him?
I enjoy reading novels, in fact, whether they're Oprah's Book Club selections or neglected 19th century gems (Marius the Epicurean will have it's day again). But I only have so much time to spend reading and I want to learn, know, and understand things. So I spend my the majority of my time in that vast negative, non-fiction. Consequently, "fiction-guilt" is the feeling I have when I see the all novels that deserve to be read but which I haven't.
This feeling is crippling. I'll see James Fenimore Cooper's books and feel ashamed for only having seen Daniel Day Lewis wearing moccasins and running in slow motion. Then Theodore Dreiser catches my eye - didn't I just read an essay that mentioned him? But there's Dickens: do David Copperfield and Great Expectations (and A Tale of Two Cities, if high school reading counts) satisfy my debt of honor? And with Twain so neglected, can I call myself an American? Who in the hell is John Updike? I thought James Thurber made baby food. Gore Vidal was on the Civil War documentary I watched (I think). And there, down by the cash registers, Emile Zola sits as a reproach.
This clamor of authors, each with valid claim to my attention, confuses me, and I, indecisive, turn my back on them and leave without purchasing literature. So it continues...