Sunday, March 30, 2008

How Many Books Can One Read?

Text and photographs © 2008 by Julius Lester

A month or so ago I was reading a novel and came across a sentence that changed my life and has had me thoroughly depressed ever since. The novel was The Dylanist by Brian Moore. (By the way, if you have not read anything by him, I recommend him with great enthusiasm. He has written four novels and each one is a marvel of fine writing and compassionate insights into what it is to be human.)

The words that changed my life were spoken by one of the principal characters who is in college:

“She was tortured by the thought of all the things she’d never have time to do. ‘I figured out that if I read a book a week for the rest of my life, and if I live to be eighty, I’ll have read about three thousand books.’ She clutched Sally’s elbow. ‘That’s not enough!’” p. 116

Until I read that paragraph I had never thought about how many books I would read over the course of my life. But only three thousand? I would have thought many more than that. I read a book a week, sometimes a little more, which means I read between 52 and 60 books a year. And she is right: “That’s not enough!”

The reason these words depressed me is because, like many of you, I am a compulsive book buyer and I have many more than three thousand books I’ve bought and haven’t read. Now I must face the sad fact that there isn't enough time to read them all.

I’ve reached two decisions. When I am browsing in a bookstore and feel a book calling out to me, I ask it, “Are you one of the three thousand?” More often than not I tell it, no. Helping me in this decision is also the fact that I have an Amazon Kindle the electronic reader that I really love. I’m finding that if a book is not available to download into my Kindle, I am much less apt to buy it. (However, as a writer whose books are not available via Kindle, please don't do as I do.)

The second decision I’ve reached is that I have to read more. My junior year college I set myself the goal of reading a book a day outside the books I had to read for classes. I ended up not reading books for classes and my grades suffered, but I always placed my own learning process above grades. So I figured out if I read three hundred fifty books a year, I can read more than three thousand in ten years. But, given that I can't devote all my time to reading, reading a book a day is unlikely.

However, my hope is this: If there is an afterlife, wouldn't it be incredible if you
could read for eternity!! I would not mind dying if I knew that I would be able to read after I’m dead. That’s an afterlife worth dying for!


Like many I am weary of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s bickering. In the 1300s to bicker meant “to fight physically, to exchange blows.” A century later the word meant “to exchange volleys of arrows or slingshot.” But by the middle of the 14th century, to bicker had acquired its present meaning of “to quarrel.”

What’s fascinating is that bickering was a way of coping because to cope originally meant “to come to blows.” By the late 1500s cope had come to mean “to battle well, to prove yourself a worthy opponent.” But by the mid-1600s it had acquired its present meaning of “to deal effectively with something difficult.” I find it interesting that the earlier meanings of cope did not carry the connotation of a successful ending but considered it sufficient to be worthy.


Woman Reading, Pamet Beach, Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Sex and the Media

Text and photograph ©2008 by Julius Lester

There was a time when the private lives of public figures remained private because people in the media believed that only someone’s public acts merited scrutiny. Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr. are just a few of the political figures the media knew were bedding women other than their wives, and the information did not become public until after these men were dead.

But something changed in American culture, and the lines between the personal and the public disappeared. Did the change start with Eldridge Cleaver’s simplistic dictum, “The personal is political”? Or was it former President Jimmy Carter confessing in his Playboy magazine interview that he had lusted in his heart? Was it Oprah Winfrey becoming America’s Mother Confessor for people who came on her show to tell their deepest secrets?

Whatever the origins, the result has been a coarsening of American life in which people in the media self-righteously delve into the personal lives of public figures and report with vulgar glee the sexual sins they find. This is egregious hypocrisy because how many of the newspaper editors, how many tv reporters, how many political commentators are having relationships outside their marriages? But no one is in the position to scrutinize their personal lives. They are able to act as Grand Inquisitors and self-righteously hide behind the First Amendment.

Well, I look forward to the day when a public figure has the courage to hold a press conference and say something on this order:

“I have been informed that the lead item in tomorrow’s news will be that I have been having an affair, and I have been having an affair with a very beautiful woman who is extraordinary in bed. I would go so far as to say that sleeping with her has made me a better Governor/Congressman/Senator/President. The fact that I’ve been having an affair makes me no different than at least half of all married people who are presently having sex with someone other than their wives or husbands. Let’s grow up, people! What you should be concerned about is how well I’m doing my job. I’m here to tell you that the quality of my decisions is better because I’m having an affair.

“I bet a lot of you reporters sitting here were in bed with someone last night who wasn’t your spouse. Don’t self-righteously condemn me if you aren’t willing to tell the public who you’re sleeping with. Why do you have the privilege of having a private life free from scrutiny and I don’t? Hell, your words do more to shape opinions on issues than mine but you get to keep your private life private and I don’t.

“Grow up, America! People have sex outside their marriages. So what! And, by the way, I am not resigning my office, and in fact, I am announcing my intention to run for reelection. Now, anybody want to talk about homelessness, health care, the economy, or anything of real importance?”


Alarm – The word begins in Italian when men shouted “All’arme,” meaning “To the weapons!” The word next appears in Old French as “Alarme!” By the 1300s the word has made its way into English. By the late 1500s, however, the English, alarm, has come to mean both a warning and a warning device.

Related to this is the word affrayed, which meant to be disturbed, to be alarmed.
It has a different meaning and different spelling today, afraid.

We are certainly affrayed when we sleep through the alarm clock and are going to be late for work, while on days when the alarm does awake us, we feel like killing it, and maybe someone else, too.


Halloween Masks, New York City, 1966