For my 74th birthday, almost everybody in my family gave me a book. Altogether (I did the math), I was given more than 3,000 pages to read.
There are hundreds of books in our home. I’ve read about half of them cover to cover and skimmed about a fourth of them. That leaves many that I have never even looked at. Where did they come from? Did I buy them? Were they gifts? Who have I insulted by not reading them?
My friend Bob gave me the monstrous “William Tecumseh Sherman, In the Service of My Country: A Life” last year for Christmas, so I felt I had to plow through it or I’d appear ungrateful. I couldn’t claim I had no time to read it because it was in the middle of COVID-19 and, quite frankly, I had nothing else to do.
So, I endured it … all 784 pages. A couple of weeks later I was on a Zoom meeting with my church book club. I got pretty puffed up about my recent accomplishment and dropped the name of that 4-pound opus I had completed.
“Wow, Dick,” said a friend, “that’s quite a hefty read. I’m impressed. Was he the Civil War general who had six wives and13 children?”
Was he? How could I not remember? Why did I even bother reading that biography? Next time Bob burdens me with an obligation like that, whenever he drops by, I’ll just keep moving the bookmark forward. He’ll never know the difference.
I’m drawn mostly to nonfiction, so I can try to sound smart when I am out with my snooty friends. But since I don’t recall most of what I’ve read, what’s the point? I recently finished a fascinating book by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson called “Cosmic Queries.” I learned how they first determined the speed of light. But now if someone asks me how they figured it was 186,000 miles per second, I’d have to say, “I knew that once, for about 20 minutes, last week. Not anymore.”
Years ago, I read a book called “A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson. By the time I got to the last page, I remembered the history of nearly nothing.
My wife is into fiction, which gets her a lot of free passes. She’ll say to a friend, “I just finished a great story, ‘Where the Crawdads Sing,’” and the most probing question she’ll hear is, “Did you like it?” Occasionally, someone will ask what it’s about, and all she has to say is, “I don’t want to ruin it for you.” That’s the end of the conversation.
I’ve written several books. You may have one of them sitting around your house that you have never looked at. Don’t worry: If we ever run into each other, I won’t question you about it. Honestly, I don’t even remember what I wrote.