\”The flesh is sad, alas, and I\’ve read all the books,\” (La chair est triste, helas, et j\’ai lu tous les livres) yawned the French poet Stephane Mallarme a hundred years ago. He was a young man then, and his wife had just had their first child, but he got bored easily.
It\’s taken me longer to get to that point–to the book part, that is–but lately I\’ve been feeling depressed about reading. It\’s not that I\’ve read all the books, of course–neither had Mallarme. But I\’ve read an awful lot of them, probably too many, and now I\’m like a foodie who\’s tired of fancy food.
I feel as if I\’ve read all the dead authors, and the living writers I do like don\’t write fast enough to feed my habit. Kate Atkinson, A.S. Byatt, Nick Hornby, Penelope Lively, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Margaret Drabble, get on with it! You\’re not getting any younger, and I\’m almost to the end of everything that Trollope ever wrote. Please write faster!
Meanwhile, the great annual book sale for the benefit of the village library is coming up next weekend. It\’s held at the local school\’s gym, which is crammed full of cafeteria tables loaded with thousands of books, from novels to manuals on auto repair.
The minute you walk in the door, you see everybody you know, carrying cardboard boxes and tote bags and pulling shopping carts. When the books they\’ve chosen get too heavy to carry, they stack them up along the walls. Occasionally you stumble on the semi-recumbent body of someone who couldn\’t wait until he got home to start reading.
People circulate among the tables with their eyes glazed, bumping into each other and muttering excuses. And from the full cardboard boxes and overflowing carts you can get the feel of a Vermont winter, of long dark evenings by the wood stove with a stack of books at hand. Gathering reading provisions at the July book sale is one of those preparing-for-winter rituals, akin to chopping and stacking wood, that prudent Vermonters engage in even in the heat of summer, because in these parts winter is always lurking in the back of people\’s minds.
Every year since I moved to Vermont I have attended the library sale, and staggered home with a New Yorker tote bag full of old books. But I\’m thinking about skipping the sale this year. I\’m afraid of finding that I\’ve read everything out there, and even more afraid of buying books only to discover later that I\’ve already read them.
Still, I\’ll probably go just for the pleasure of seeing my friends and neighbors preparing for winter, and because there\’s always the chance that I might find an author I\’ve never heard of before and without whom I cannot live. Maybe I haven\’t read all the books.