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Reopening Books

This is a warning to my local library: I am coming. I am coming very soon.

The timing of this event hinges solely on some moderation of the COVID-19 trauma, which is not only deadly but emotionally draining. We all are tired of it. Tired of worrying about it, thinking of it, working to avoid being infected with it.

One of these days, civilization will return, and libraries will reopen.

It will be about time for all of us, both metaphorically and literally.

Among the few useful effects of the pandemic killer is that we all have gained a keener appreciation of time and how little there is of it.

The virus has shortened the time and shape of our potential experience and made us all aware that milk and eggs are not the only commodities with an expiration date. You and I have one of those, too.

Imagine that children born in 2020 are likely to spend all their life until early adulthood under the COVID-19 cloud. Face masks might well become the official worldwide uniform of the entire decade.

The terrible swiftness of the virus means you could be happily watching Mork and Mindy on some oldies TV channel and be dead within 36 hours. But not only that but dead in lonely solitude except for masked, shrouded, heroic strangers who are trying to keep you alive.

COVID-19 is terrifying not only for its lethality but because it often requires you to die alone.

Faced with that new reality, what should a person do to avoid wasting whatever time remains for each of us? Consider how you might expend time, even if you remain healthy for your personal forever.

This is not only an existential question but also a practical one.

We must stop wasting what we have in such little supply.

For myself, and no one else, I have decided to read again. Until I was 40, it was about all of anything valuable I did for myself, if not for anyone else.

I read as a 7-year-old, and every day through every season of every year thereafter without pause until I was 40.

When I hit two score, I stopped reading what I had loved, and mostly worked with words as a newspaper editor. Many of them were very fine words produced by very fine writers. So there was no loss to my world forced upon me. It was a transaction.

But time is a defined resource that you often spend as an offering to others.

Nonetheless, I missed the words I had loved most and regretted the loss. I had missed Twain, Steinbeck and Faulkner. And Ray Bradbury? Why had I allowed myself to lose Bradbury's poetry - and Vonnegut's wrenching funniness?

A career seemed in the moment like a mature trade for their words. You must make money, and be as successful as life allows. Plus, there were wonderful children to love as their dad, and homes to keep secure; so there was human value and a sense of purpose that flowed from work.

Some men fill up their extra time with events that I could not. I always thought middle-age men could not possibly have thought golf was anything but a hideous, wasteful misallocation of resources. Golf was useless, like competitive dart-throwing in taverns. Or vapidly pointless, like bowling and video games.

Exercise? That's organized sweating. I do not sweat attractively.

But reading great writers was an investment in your soul because they can stay inside your mind for as long as your mind works, and I had somehow traded that away. Reading is your mind's habitual immersion in ideas. I had kicked the habit without intending a cure.

So now I will cure myself of the cure.

There are 100 bookmarks in my life, and I will visit them all again, and allow the cleansing waters of the immersion to wash over me. It will be like baptism and perhaps a rebirth even at this late stage. You are never too late for salvation.

I will visit the apostles again. Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (his best novel), Sam Clemens' Life on the Mississippi (a largely forgotten Twain masterpiece) and 98 other glorious human constructions.

I have no vanity in the best books I have read. After all, I didn't write them; only breathed them in, as if they were air. Besides, you would not recognize them all. They are mine.

Plus, I stumbled into all of them on my own. I was dumbly lucky. They were the happiest accidents of my life.

I ignored children's literature even when I was a child. Imagine being a solo-sailing 11-year-old trying to decipher the narrative social dynamics of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.

You can't ask your sixth-grade Benedictine Order teaching nun about Faulkner's novel. She'll take you to the parish priest for immediate moral counseling.

There is no academic or social advantage to being the only sixth-grader in Catholic elementary school who knows the word "incest."

Of course, there are other books that fall just outside the One Hundred: Saul Bellow, Stephen Hawking, Salman Rushdie, Aldous Huxley (any of his 50 books that are not Brave New World), and maybe Sophocles if I have the energy.

I am not merely accumulating a roster of old, dead white guys. Rushdie lives. Ursula Le Guin is on my list. Her The Left Hand of Darkness still haunts me some 50 years after I first read it. I wish to be haunted again.

Now that I reconsider my reading past, it inspires me (once this virus trauma has subsided) to camp at the library and reread those 100 books I do not want to forget.

The town where I reside has a library at least three times the size you'd expect in a small village, and it's the hub of a regional system of libraries. So the books are near.

But so is time, and I can feel life's boundaries pressing against me. We all are jittery. So I choose to use the fretfulness to rouse myself. I do not want to waste time only with memories if the reality of the words and characters can be grasped and be loved again. I'd like to again meet Tom Sawyer, Molly Bloom, and Philip Marlowe.

And even Arthur "Boo" Radley, though he didn't talk much. In To Kill a Mockingbird, vacationing friend Jem (thinly disguised Truman Capote who was author Harper Lee's real-life neighbor) describes a Boo he has never seen with this lurid, defamatory and inaccurate portrait: "Boo was about six-and-a-half feet tall, judging from his tracks; he dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch, that's why his hands were bloodstained - if you ate an animal raw, you could never wash the blood off. There was a long jagged scar that ran across his face; what teeth he had were yellow and rotten; his eyes popped, and he drooled most of the time."

I liked that Boo much better than the movie's Robert Duvall because I had met the real Boo in Lee's pages. He is still there, waiting to be revealed.

So this is my valedictory to idleness. No time to waste because the virus has taken away the luxury of indolence.

As social commentator and the hardest working man in showbiz James Brown announced in 1976: "Get Up Offa That Thing."

Tell the librarians I am coming, and I mean business.

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Previously by David Rutter:

* Kris Bryant's Future Bar Trick.

* Mansplaining To A Millionaire.

* Status Check: Chicago Sports.

* The Week In WTF Redux: Blago Is Back Edition.

* What Is A Chicagoan Anyway?

* Glenn Beck's Turn In The Volcano.

* Only Science Will Bring Back Sports.

* I Loathe The Lockdown Protestors.

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David Rutter is the former publisher/editor of the Lake County News-Sun, and more importantly, the former author of the Beachwood's late, great "The Week In WTF" column. He welcomes your comments.



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Posted on May 5, 2020


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