Bookstores Make Me Wonder What I’m Doing With My Life

Walking into a bookstore isn’t simple for me. It’s therapy, and it’s my favorite kind of store, but it also raises existential questions, like:

How many books am I going to read before I die? 

I once asked an associate at Barnes & Noble how many unique titles were in our location. He said about 9,000. If I wanted to read every book in my local Barnes & Noble, and if I live 70 more years, that would equate to 128 books per year. More than ten per month.

What if I only live to be 85? That would require a pace of 163 books per year. It’s already clear. I’ll never read the amount of books in a single store.

My realistic pace is much slower. I’ve read more books this year than ever before, averaging 3 per month. This would put me at a humble 1,980 books when I’m 85.

Standing in the Barnes and realizing that I will only be able to read a quarter of this amount of books in my life if I’m supremely diligent illustrates what I‘ll be able to do with my time, or more painfully, what I won’t.

Not all of those 9,000 unique titles interesting or even good, but some of them are time-tested art which millions of people have found insightful on the human experience.

If all but the good stuff was thrown out, leaving a purified book store of only the best works, this still doesn’t solve all my problems. This is just one bookstore! How many other books are in this world that would illuminate my understanding and leave me speechless? There are words on a page in a book right now that would shift the course of my life, and I will never read them.

I mourn this. I’m greedy for knowledge. I want it all. 

Then I calm down and start to wonder something else.

Which books will I end up reading? 

How can I possibly determine which ones to put on my tiny list? Fortunately, people have been thinking about this for a long time and making lists. But which list?

The Art of Manliness has a good one. They also have a series of posts on the Libraries of Famous Men, like Theodore Roosevelt. A writer on Medium, Joel Patrick, pulled reading lists from the Harvard Book Store, Amazon, the Art of Manliess list above, and 5 other great sources, and hired a virtual assistant to comb through them and find the overlapping books. You can check out his ultimate, refined list here. I’m currently trying to follow this list, but I keep getting distracted with books that are more interesting in the moment.

When I’m standing in the bookstore there’s the thought that towers above them all:

How much work is represented in this room? 

A bookshelf is a skyline. The stacks of books are just as quiet as the view of Lower Manhattan from Brooklyn. For all we know, some of the chapters in those books took as long to write as a floor of a skyscraper took to build. Behind every book is the sweat and blood of an author who showed up to work every day for a long time, which is to say nothing of the life experiences that shaped them from their birth until they picked up their pen.

There the books sit, humbly holding all that knowledge, never shoving it in your face, only beckoning you to search it out. I love the silence of the bookstore, but in that silence I hear the diligent labor of the creators yelling at me and calling me to account.

What am I doing with my life? I grow impatient if a video edit (I create videos for a living) takes 30-40 hours. Do I have it in me to spend months or even years creating something that will for most people only be seen at a distance? Am I capable of the long push it takes to make something significant? Will I ever flip the switch from a habitual consumer to a habitual creator? Not if I waste my time.

Time is the most precious thing we have and we always say we’re trying to kill whatever excess parts of it we find. Giving an hour to a scrolling feed out of mere compulsion is tragic.

As I ponder how significant it is to create a book, how much toil and vision is poured into each one, a counterbalancing thought appears:

Most of these books will be forgotten. 

Some in a few months, some in a few years, some in a few decades. How many will last into the next millennium? Apart from a few best-sellers and classics, most of the books currently in the bookstore are new and by this time next year will have been replaced with more new releases.

Of course, the length of existence isn’t the only measure of meaning. If a book is beautiful, it’s significant. But time is a sieve of importance. Every year that goes by leaves a little less in the memory of the living.

There comes a point when you realize all those mental exercises about what you would do if you only had a year left to live aren’t sentimental. They’re painfully real. Someday we’ll be startled to see that the time we’ve wasted isn’t coming back.

I love bookstores, even if they overwhelm me.

America: the Inverse of 1984

I’ve heard more people reference 1984 this year than ever before. I also read it this year for the first time. Here’s my takeaway.

Most people reference the book and say something like, “These are exactly the times we’re living in now,” and by that they imply that the government is in some sort of co-op with the media to shove an agenda down America’s throat. Someone made a similar remark to me literally the day after I finished the book. 

If you haven’t read 1984, it’s well worth your time, not just to be acquainted with such an important novel, but to understand what truly can happen in this world. Governments can become totalitarian, and while some of the book may sound exaggerated to our modern ears, it’s not far-fetched. One major feature of the book is the all-seeing telescreen. These are everywhere and they function as a government sanctioned FaceTime to watch every part of your waking and sleeping life. They are always listening. (I couldn’t help but think of Alexa lighting up from across the room and ordering toilet paper on demand. What if that technology was used against us?)

Totalitarianism can happen, and it has many times before. A sizable portion of the public doesn’t realize this, or at least doesn’t realize how bad it can get. I just heard of a study that “Almost two-thirds of young American adults do not know that 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust.”

So we shouldn’t be overly optimistic about totalitarianism being impossible in America. That said, I think America faces a far different problem.

As prescient as Orwell’s novel was, it could have never predicted the situation we find ourselves in now—unlimited sources of information published by anyone and shared globally as fast as a click. 

I think the American problem with media is exactly the opposite of that depicted in 1984. We are not being propagandized by a totalitarian government, we are curating our own propaganda based on our hopes and, more so, fears. We reinforce again and again our own view of the world, and our reaction to any voice that feels “mainstream” is increasingly violent. Because of the distrust of government, we’re much more prone to blindly believe what appears on our social feeds, even if the source isn’t credible. In our attempt to stay free from the lies of “Big Brother,” we have become susceptible to conspiracy theories of all varieties, no matter how unreasonable.

It’s ironic. 

Zeal for doing whatever it takes to not be tricked by the government has made us addicted to tricking ourselves.