The Imperative

Read books that no one else is reading; that are out of print; that you check out of the library; that you find in a sad box of abandoned books by the side of the road, at the edge of a pile of the rest of a life’s abandoned detritus; that no one else has heard of; by authors you’ve never heard of; whose signatures are becoming unstuck from their spine; that are un-Google-able. Read books that are not blogged about, nor Facebooked about, nor discussed in any other non-analog format that may exist and be popular whenever and by whatever means it may be that you are reading these words; that are unanthologized and, ideally, have never been anthologized; that are not now nor have ever been in anyone’s idea of what the canon is. Read a book just because it has a strange title. Read books no one knows, books that run the risk of making people uncomfortable if you talk about them, in that, as a very smart Oregonian put it about two and a half years ago at the monthly magazine where I used to work about a decade ago, “[b]ooks are social vectors,” and the enthusiastic championing of a book that has no common social referent—no popular endorsements, no rave reviews, no book-group adoption nor book-club recommendation, no syllabi to its name—might draw blank stares. Read books that don’t age well, from forgotten eras, from genres long dead and not remembered. Read novels that address the quirks and humor and mores of life in a canal town. Read anecdotes the plots of which hinge on the flaws of electrochemical telegraph machines. Read novellas that explore the travails of Pentecostal preachers in small towns on the western Nebraska frontier. Track down short fictions in the back pages of the down-and-out siblings of Redbook, McCall’s, Ladies’ Home Journal—the downmarket Saturday Evening Post, the would-be-but-never-will-be Collier’s—the ones that will never be digitized; that maybe made the jump from paper to microfiche, but will never technologically leap any further—that defy the digital evangelistic dream of one single unified book; that not even the most willfully obscurantist new historicist academics bother with. Read hyperfictions published on floppies. Follow young Robert Zimmerman down the long pneumatic tubes of the New York Public Library. Find your own Desperate Characters, dusty and long out of print, misfiled somewhere between Kilgore Trout and August Van Zorn, in the shelves of a grand old mansion up in Saratoga Springs. Don’t assign any books to your students that have papers already written about them out in the back woods of the Internet, waiting to slowly dissolve the edges of copyright, gradually erode the idea of the individual. If you find your time lacks “the increasingly elusive sensation of being enraptured by a book,” if you find you miss “the exclusive experience of reading, without the distractions of family, television, laptop, or iPhone,” then reclaim those hours; if you find your soul hemmed in, your being eaten away at, your self diminished by “an age when careers rise and fall on the strength of one’s Twitter prowess,” trash your career. Read books that are unsocial, antisocial, even, and that therefore help preserve a civilized democracy, because you are receiving a message in the now sent from the past, you grab a thread of urgency thrown out into the pull of the now by a complete stranger, and by doing so you put yourself in a room all by yourself for a long period of time, and by doing so, you build a bridge, you build you, you build us; because if you spend all your time in a room full of bullhorns, everyone goes deaf. Don’t listen to, don’t trust, don’t buy a single word I’m saying.