Why can’t I read a book from my dusty shelves?

Dusry shelvesThe fall of the Berlin Wall, accession of China, social networks, universe in accelerated expansion, neurosciences. So many fundamental changes and scientific advancements are taking place in our world that may be rendering the written word as ephemeral as the spoken one. What’s the future of writing?

“All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” — Marx and Engels

When Carla and I moved from Brazil over one decade ago, we left behind all our books. Something like three hundred volumes encompassing not only those from our métier–physics, but also (maybe, mostly) from philosophy, science popularization, history, music, and fiction.

The books are still there on a couple of bookshelves in a spare room at my in-laws after all these years. This week, I had the chance of spending some time among them.

I have a new (partly digital) collection now, but much more modest by the way. I learned, or better, I imposed to myself a rigid discipline of not buying a new book before ending the previous one and of choosing very carefully what to read.

It’s simple math: suppose I read about one book a month. I will be able to read maybe three or four hundred books more in my remaining life span. I must choose wisely.

I don’t read anything I can watch. And I’m not joking: to me it is an unbelievable waste of time to read, for instance, Game of Thrones, when we have an excellent TV production. Yes, I’m aware  that I’m missing lots of details, but do I really need or want to know more nuances about Westeros? Or should I allocate my limited time to something that probably even HBO won’t be able to make justice on screen, like the amazing fictional stories by Ted Chiang, which I just finished reading.

But, anyway, I found myself among my old books. And I found out I couldn’t read most of them anymore.

Asimov was there. A couple of volumes I never read. I picked them, flipped few pages, and returned to the shelf. I can’t read pre-internet sci-fi. I can’t suspend my disbelief. Then, I found Thorne’s Black Holes and Time Warps, also untouched. I couldn’t read either. Every paragraph I kept asking myself how outdated were those theses there.

In a glance, I saw Sagan, Prigogine, Russel, Bachelard, Damasio, Dawkins, Pinker. I’m in debt to all of them for whom I am today, but the same taste of outdated stuff prevented me from even picking them from the shelves.

I know, it’s basically a heresy, but I felt the same about Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Spinoza! They tasted like archaeological curiosities overrun by centuries of advancements on every field, from physics to moral. What to speak of that shelf with Marx, Marcuse, and Deleuze?

Admittedly, it’s not the same with Kafka, Camus, Kundera, Garcia Marquez, Machado de Assis. They rested there on the shelves and I could see myself re-reading them. Indeed, I quickly devoured a Malba Tahan. Therefore, my problem isn’t with old publications, but with old publications either trying to tell me how the world is or how it will possibly be.

I think I’m sick: can’t I read any essay older than six months? Can’t I avoid this felling that fundamental changes are happening so fast that turns everything incredibly useless after a decade?

And I know I’m not alone. We are all contaminated. I see in the Much Bigger Outside statistics that my texts older than two weeks are barely visited.

Are we coming to a point where the written word is becoming as ephemeral as the spoken one?

If what I write can’t be read after a couple of weeks, why should I write it in the first place? Or better, why should I be careful, rigorous, comprehensive, erudite when I write? If the work doesn’t payoff, I can just write like I gossip with a neighbor. I can just, say, blog.

I’m not the kind of person who thinks that things in the past were always better than in the present, but I confess that this situation of the written word does worry me. Not that a collapse of civilization is near due to that, but because we are changing in directions I can’t understand.

Any help is welcome.


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Categories: Culture

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2 replies

  1. Longing for the old times whose books are now too outdated to read. That`s an interesting combination 🙂

    I guess the good thing is that bad ideas are automatically filtered out. And the few things that remain over the centuries and millenia are what really counts. They survived evolutionary processes, which may even go beyond individual thinkers. This kind of paraphrases N. N. Taleb


  1. How wrong I was | Much Bigger Outside

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