I spend altogether too much time thinking about how many books I will never read in my life.
Perhaps this is thought is bleak. I read as much as I can and consider myself fortunate to have made my way into a field where not only am I surrounded by books, but also I have to read as a professional obligation. Publishing and criticism seemed somewhat more unattainable, and my current job lets me engage other passions as well. Curating to-read lists is an process I find relaxing. But while I also enjoy looking back at all of the books I have read, these processes always remind me of all the books I haven’t.
Back in January I set an ambitious but not impossible reading target for this year: 100 books across the lists I keep. For context, this would mark a 10–15 book bump over each of the past two years. Certainly not impossible, but ambitious. As of this writing, I am more or less on pace. I have finished 37 books so far and will likely push that number over 40 before the end of the month, with all three of my biggest reading months (June, July, December) still to ahead of me in the year. But this target gives me flares of anxiety when I think about it because of how slowly I feel like I’m reading, especially since there are weeks when my “currently reading” section at the bottom of this post carries over from week to week. Most of the time I am able to remind myself that these things are immaterial. Getting worked up about listing the same book week after week when it is taking me longer than anticipated is a concern about how my appearance bleeding into whether I’m reading enough, whatever that might be, and books are meant to be savored, not rushed.
But this concern then cycles back into my existential concerns about books left unread. On my to-read shelf in my home office I have 40 academic books I have not yet read, with another three that I need to re-read in preparation to teach this year. I also have 40 books I’m looking to read out of interest, along with another 13 e-books in my Kindle library. Then there are the books in my campus office and hundreds more on various reading lists, to say nothing of the books being released every week and those yet unpublished. Put another way, I already have more books in my queue than I expect to be able to read this year, even if I were to not acquire a single additional book by either purchase or library. This is not necessarily a problem since I largely subscribe to the idea of an anti-library where unread books themselves have power and value, but the numbers add up. If I were to hit my target this year and then hit one hundred books every year until I hit the age of retirement in this country, I would read fewer than three thousand books in that span, while American publishers put out 304,912 new or re-issued books in 2013. I am not going to be the target audience for all of those books, but the sheer scale of the books left unread sometimes stops me in my tracks.
This week’s varia:
- Pasts Imperfect features new volumes on diversifying Classics, along with an In Memoriam for Ray Stevenson by Monica Cyrino whose work focuses on the reception of the Ancient World in film. Stevenson died this week at 58. Salve atque vale, Titus Pullo.
- Amber beads from the Ziggurat of Assur dated to c.1800 BCE have been identified as coming from near the Baltic or North Sea. We know about long-distance trade taking place in this period, but every new piece of evidence for identifying the networks is exciting.
- Fecal analysis from ancient toilets in Jerusalem have identified a parasite that can cause dysentery, the earliest evidence for the disease.
- Monica H. Green and André Filipe Oliveira da Silva lay out some evidence that the Black Death had arrived in Europe in the thirteenth century. The old hypothesis about the Siege of Kaffa in the 1340s being the plague vector is based on weak foundations that has been proven false in recent years through multiple different types of studies, and Green is one of the pioneering historians offering a new history of this disease.
- This was a cool video of the Murud-Janjira fort in the Arabian Sea.
- New scans by a company called Magellan Ltd has produced high-definition scans of the Titanic, which sank in 1912 after striking an iceberg. The pictures are quite remarkable.
- John Warner makes a case against the techno-futurists (my term) who see potential in ChatGPT, stressing again that this should be an opportunity to revise our assignments toward meaningful learning experiences. You know, like thinking.
- Michigan graduate students are on strike and have been for weeks while (largely bad faith) negotiations drag on. Now that the end of the semester has arrived, departments are complying with pressure to make up grades.
- A Republican district chair in Georgia—one who challenged Kemp for the Republican gubernatorial nomination and then refused to concede defeat—gave an interview in which she declared that globes are everywhere in a conspiracy to brainwash people into thinking that the world is round.
- Arizona, California, and Nevada agreed to cut about 13% of their water use from the Colorado River, in return for compensation from the federal government for about 2/3 of that allotment and at least a temporary end to the threat of unilateral water cuts by the federal government. This is still probably too little, too late, but every little bit helps.
- In political news worthy of respect, here is a piece about how John Fetterman’s recent medical issues have followed a playbook for de-stigmatizing mental health. As someone who both struggles with mental health and struggles to talk about it, the article is worth thinking about and Fetterman’s actions worth applauding.
- Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Proud Boys was sentenced to 18 years in prison this week for charges related to the events of January 6. Despite the sentence coming in short of the length sought by prosecutors, the judge in this case seems to be taking the threat posed by the Oath Keepers seriously, saying that he posed a peril to the country because he “wants democracy…to devolve into violence.”
- The man who drove his truck into the White House security barrier has been identified as Sai Varshith Kandula, an Indian-American man, who is alleged to have stated that his goal was to kill the president and take over the country. Reminder that it one doesn’t need to be white to embrace nazism and India is one of multiple countries in the grips of an authoritarian ethno-nationalist movement.
- House Republicans were joined by two Democrats in repealing President Biden’s partial student debt forgiveness plan under the Congressional Review Act—a measure that might also require borrowers to retroactively pay interest during the period when repayment was paused. The repayment plan is estimated to cost roughly 30 billion dollars per year for the next decade, which sounds like a lot of money until you consider that it is equivalent to roughly three percent of the budget for the defense department.
- The Washington Post has a story about the recent wave of book bans that has a remarkable graphic: just 11 people accounted for more than 60% of all book challenges. This constitutes a tyranny of the minority where a tiny number of people can dictate what is and is not appropriate for everyone, with most of the complaints coming after the complainant heard about the book from media. One school district in Florida received a request to ban Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb” because it was “not educational and have indirectly hate messages” and could cause “confusion and indoctrination.” One might note that the complaint came from someone confused since it identified the author as Oprah Winfrey. Or perhaps it is of note that the same person has subsequently apologized for sharing a summary of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion on Facebook, claiming that her opposition is rooted in anti-communism, that English isn’t her primary language, and that she isn’t a book person. The last link is worth reading because it underscores a number of concurrent issues with the current political discourse.
- Officials in Ron DeSantis’ administration seem to tracking which lobbyists are donating to his presidential campaign and soliciting donations from those who have not paid, in what appears to be a pretty clear, likely illegal, abuse of his office.
- Mark Joseph Sterns has several pieces at Slate about the Supreme Court. In one, he talks about how media cycles tend to focus on a given case for only a short time when these decisions compound one another in terms of fundamentally reshaping society—away from justice, he says. In another, he addresses Neil Gorsuch’s facially absurd claims that Covid public health policies were “the greatest intrusions on civil liberties in the peacetime of this country.” Gorsuch’s decision simply ignores the long history of intrusions in this country and underscores that the court is political to its core.
- The Albany Times Union has a story about how three men say they were recruited to come to a diner where they were to portray homeless veterans “displaced” by migrants. A gross political stunt on every level, and another example where people from talking heads to Kevin McCarthy picked up on the story generated by the stunt rather than the stunt itself.
- A new story about scams that are using Trump’s name and his fanatical supporters to sell commemorative objects like “Trump Bucks.” These campaigns use AI voices to promise that these can be redeemed for value at banks and retailers, while the fine-print says that they are memorabilia. This story reminds me that I saw the most accursed book ever printed in Barnes and Noble yesterday: a collection of letters to and from Trump, along with “his” commentary.
- During the evacuation of Khartoum, the US embassy shredded passports held there, trapping the holders of those passports in a war zone. This is standard operating procedure not exclusive to the United States, but it is also hard to ignore the people who are trapped by such a policy.
Album of the Week: Pixie and the Partygrass Boys, The Chicken Coop, vol. 1 (2023)
Currently Reading: Umberto Eco, Baudolino; Dara Horn, People Love Dead Jews; Johanna Hanink, The Classical Debt