Reading Every Book (Ars longa, vita brevis)

My Childhood Library  When I was a child, I wanted to read every book in the library. And I had a plan.

I wasn’t completely delusional. I was only planning to read all of the fiction in the library, and not even all of that. I had no interest in the picture books, and I figured I had read most of what would no be considered middle grade (Judy Blume and Laura Ingalls Wilder, most notably.) My plan involved moving through all of the “Juvenile” section. I didn’t think much beyond that, other than vaguely considering the day that I’d be done with the children’s room and move on to the adult shelves on the main floor of the library.

I even remember trying to decide if I would allow myself to skip books that didn’t look interesting, or if all the books meant all the books. And I don’t remember if Louisa May Alcott was really the first author on the first shelf, but those are the books I always think of being on that shelf. Little Women. Little Men. I know made it at least as far as Lloyd Alexander (The Black Cauldron series.)

It’s unlikely that I really thought this project would work, although I was a very fast reader and I had lots of time on my hands–you can only watch so much Brady Bunch, cable/videos/internet hadn’t been invented yet, and I had few responsibilities of any kind. Plus, I was only about ten, so I had a lifetime to get through the Juvenile section.

But maybe I did. My grasp of reality was definitely more tenuous back then. I know I had some trouble with the concept of fiction versus non-fiction, even well into the time I was starting to read adult science fiction (I remember asking my mother if it Lankar of Callisto by Lin Carter was fiction, specifically if it was possible to find a magical portal in some earthly jungle and wake up on one of the moons of Saturn. She said if I wanted to believe it, then it was possible, which for some reason I thought was an acceptable answer.)

At some point, I abandoned my plan to read all of the books. I read a lot, but I didn’t confine myself to alphabetical by author, and at some time around age twelve I started hitting science fiction and Stephen King pretty hard, so that was it for the juvenile section (which had almost no science fiction.)

I’m having a similar problem now. I fully realize that I won’t read everything; I have finally grasped the magnitude of the situation: number of books in print + number of books published ever year+ actually having responsibilities now. And I don’t want to read everything, anyway. Definitely not the boring ones.

However, now I want to write everything.

I love writing (most of the time.) But it takes a long time, especially to revise and make an okay book into a good book. So I have this anxiety about writing now: There are so many characters, so many stories. So many kinds of stories.

I want to write an amazing space opera like Iain Banks’ Culture novels , and a young adult novel as shocking and perfect as How I Live Now. And a complicated thriller like Reamde. And insanely funny stuff like Hyperbole and a Half. Definitely nonfiction about how I got magically teleported to the moon of Saturn one day while exploring the Amazon Basin.

I know that I won’t write everything. I won’t even write all of the books that I have inside me right now–some, sad to say, don’t deserve to be written, and the competition for my writing time is intense. I’m figuring out what I do write best, and not surprisingly, it’s the kind of stories that I’ve always liked best…but told the way I tell them.

There’s even Latin phrase for this feeling: Ars longa, vita brevis.

So, back to finishing The Decline and Fall of Taran Elember. And then my in progress YA trilogy about the Singularity. And then that one with the AI dragons that I wrote just for fun but I really like…

Art is long, life is short.

Advertisements