I’m reading a book I would never have personally picked up, in a thousand years, apart from my son asking me to “read it first and see if it’s any good”; the odds of me finishing it run low. I’ve relegated it to a treadmill book, picked up only to distract me from the dutiful minutes of exercise.
It’s (imho) tedious, narcissistic, and profane, bridging that modern limbo between autobiography and fiction. It’s endless narrative without plot or purpose. Apparently. Just a detailed sort of memoir/diary: “I got up, grabbed the orange peel, went into the kitchen, where Mom was scrubbing potatoes, opened the cupboard beside her and dropped the peel in the wastebasket, watched Dad walk across the drive, running a hand through his hair in that characteristic way of his, after which I went upstairs to my room, closed the door behind me, put on a record and lay down on my bed again.” There’s a lot like that.
Endorsements on the back make it sound absolutely riveting: “I can’t stop. I want to stop, I can’t stop, just one more page, then I will cook dinner, just one more page…” I don’t get it. But I’m only a third of the way through it… maybe it will sizzle… soon.
Of course, none of this means it’s a bad book. Necessarily. Maybe it is. Maybe I’m just a bad reader. I’ve been known to lack appreciation for certain great books.
But there are a couple of sentences so candid, so truly human that they validate what I’ve read so far and keep me from tossing the book in the give-away pile. I bent down the corner for this:
“I wanted so much to be someone. I wanted so much to be special.”
The author has written an entire series (yes, this is volume one, and I am 99.9% sure I will never pick up the sequels) about his life. In the first few chapters, before he begins recording his childhood memories, he angsts a great about his identity as a writer and the ways that his children, whom he loves, get in the way of that obsession.
I do understand his desire to be a writer. There’s something glamorous about the idea of being “a writer.” Of course, writing this makes me a writer, but oh, to be a published, recognized author—of a crazy good story that makes the reader weep and laugh and keep the light on till wee hours of the night, or perhaps becoming an “authority” on whatever. Obviously, I want to be a writer too. In fact, I want to write a book.
The problem is that I want to write a used book. I’m not sure I want to write the glossy new release that showed up in the mail nearly daily in my old office. I want to write the book that is tucked sideways in that little used bookstore where you have to step over piles of bodice-buster paperbacks to get to the little alcove where the “classics” are stashed and, ooh, look what I found! Can I skip the raw stages and go right to “hidden gem”? Is this anything more than an example of what 4th-century desert monk Evagrius called vainglory?
And so I go back to this book’s authentic sentence. “I want so much to be special.”
Do you imagine that’s what Eve had in mind as she approached the forbidden tree? Might Samson have thought this? Was this in Solomon’s heart? Do you think Judas felt that? “I want to be special.”
What is this need to be special? Does it drive great art and great tragedy? Does it motivate our greatest authors and artists and musicians as well as the broken, dark-hearted ones who shoot up our schools? What kind of love and attention are we craving? What kind of affirmation do we really need and why do we need it?
Here Augustine’s famous quote would play well: Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.
But Pascal seems to me to capture the real anguish of this mortal emptiness:
What is it then that this desire and this inability proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remains to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable Object, that is to say, only by God Himself.
Indeed, we have an infinite abyss within, and if all the world could gaze on us and tell us we’re special—whether that version of “special” we prefer is talented, beautiful, rich, powerful, smart, clever, artistic—then perhaps the gaping cavern in our souls would close up…right?
I won’t name the book because perhaps it really is a great artistic achievement and my comments would just show how very ridiculous I am and then I would be less special.