Just Like Starting Over

The  Return of the Prodigal

In the New Testament parable, the prodigal son wanders off and squanders the inheritance his father has given him. When his ruin is unmistakable, even to him, he returns home and is welcomed joyously.

I’ll settle for just being welcomed back after a sabbatical I hadn’t earned and which really didn’t solve my problem.

The problem is, while I’m full of words, I worry I’m increasingly devoid of thoughts. Then I worry that I never really had any thoughts anyway. And then the critical faculties kick in and I find myself enmeshed in endless rounds of silent, self-contained self-criticism that could earn me a sinecure in the Red Army.

When I started this project, a decade or so ago, I had a vision. Except that didn’t work out. The culture of the Internet is to start from the premise that everything is great. It’s even demonstrable. Five-point rating scales, I’ve come to believe, are self-generating and they skew left the way trees growing in prevailing winds lean to the lee side.

Trees and internet ratings–they can both lean on the high side.

That last sentence illustrates my quandary. Where do I go from there? A couple of years back we were living in a moment when my biggest problem was listening to people venerate critical thinking even as they recoiled at actual criticism. That seems almost quaint now that actually knowing about anything is a sure marker that you are involved in a complex and nefarious plot against the common folk. And in any case, building one’s personal brand on an ability to shred the work of others doesn’t really work in the likability department.

So it seemed safer to react to books. You’re allowed to react critically to books; it’s even encouraged. It’s also safe. I’ve hidden–and that is definitely the proper word–in books as long as I can remember. American society, it scarcely needs pointing out, is not particularly bookish. Even Richard Hofstadter couldn’t get 400 pages out of a non-existent phenomenon.

Safe, though, isn’t the same thing as secure. Books bring their own perils: Missing the point. Not understanding the references. Struggling with the author’s style. Feeling time slip away even as your years, and the pile of unread books, stack up. And, perhaps worst of all, finishing.

Finishing is a pretty basic, if sometimes argued about, concept.
Photo by Dave Hogg licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

You’re supposed to finish books, right? I’m not talking about walking away from a book that’s unreadable. I struggle to do that all the time. No, I’m talking about simply finishing a book you’re enjoying. This problem has now become so big that I find myself misplacing books the moment I near the finish line. A clear parapraxis, the good doctor would have a field day with me.

I could go on in this vein for a while so maybe the best thing to do is reboot. Maybe I don’t always have to write about books. Maybe I can write about them differently. Or maybe I can find opportunities for more observational items like some I posted early on. What I’m not certain about is how to avoid boring a suffering reader.

But I promise to work hard at avoiding it.




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