There's a verse in Ecclesiastes that’s horrified me for years, and for two reasons: I love to read books, and I love to write books. And apparently, it turns out they’r meaningless and ‘weary the soul’.
My husband is presently engaged in the herculean business of writing a dissertation for his doctorate in the philosophy of religion. Never mind that philosophy of religion seems a misnomer to me, he just told me that every dissertation ever written is published. Who reads these published books? So far his footnotes take up half of each page like ingredients on the back on a cereal box.
The reading room of the Library of Congress has a stunning domed ceiling painted in gold leaf. Encircled high above the floor are nine statues of authors: Demosthenes, Emerson, Irving, Goethe, Franklin, Macaulay, Hawthorne, Scott, and Dante. They look down, as though observing the long reading tables and lights and stacks so you can check out a book from the stacks and spend an afternoon reading. I wonder if Demosthenes, Emerson, Irving, Goethe, Franklin, Macaulay, Hawthorne, Scott, and Dante would care if you’re reading their work or if they’d get all irritated if you were reading someone low-brow, Jane Austin, Gone With the Wind, smut like that.
Sometimes important books are on display, books like The Grapes of Wrath and Tim O’Brien’s, The Things They Carried. They’re open to important pages, where the author’s gift to the world of letters can be appreciated and cherished. Someday I would like to have a book on display open to an important page. Adults would stroll by and point to it and whisper my name to their children who would have no interest in me or my book and are only biding time until they get the ice cream they were promised after they go through this one last museum. But still, you know . . .
My husband and I have talked at length about his dissertation, and while sometimes I’ve had to ask him what perdurantist or noesis means, I’ve learned a lot. In fact I’ve made a few good points myself, after which we both pause and say, hmm, that is a good point and I feel super smart. These conversations always take place in the mornings, before my Adderall wears off. If he refers back to the conversation later in the day I bring up dinner, something to distract him because I no longer feel super smart.
A week ago, after I told him I thought it was foolish that there are all those dissertations floating around out there that no one reads, he said something interesting; he told me that every dissertation has to have a different slant, a new way to approaching a topic, something that’s never been examined before.
So inevitably PhD candidates have to come up with narrower and narrower subjects to write about because, as Ecclesiastes points out, there’s no end to the books already written. How do you find something that’s never been written before? The problem of evil?, leave it alone. Augustine got that one.
I wonder if when Ecclesiastes says books weary the soul, it’s alluding to the many books that have been written about things that don’t matter when there are so many things to write about that do matter, or read that do matter. Stuff that makes contact with redemption in this day and age in a unique way, or circles back to the problem of evil, only this time instead of the unjustness of leprosy, the backdrop is violence in the Middle East or metastatic brain tumors.
But then there’s still Jane Austen and John Irving, writers who’s work is a blast to read, but it might be a stretch to find in them a voluble subtext with ties to our sputtering existence. But then Austen has more to say (and a more effective way of saying it) about American culture in [ . ] than any egg head behind a leaded glass window at [cambridge]. Ditto Irving.
So. Hmm. The problem of Ecclesiastes 12:12.
Perhaps I’m looking at the verse wrong. It doesn’t say reading or writing books is pointless, it only says that there are an awful lot of them and that they can ‘weary the soul.’ Trying to get through all of them would weary my soul—and trying to figure them all out would certainly weary my soul.
But reading the Bible, reading Ecclesiastes or the Gospel of John, doesn’t weary my soul. In fact it lifts up my soul. There’s meaning in the non-fiction parts and the figurative parts, every word addresses my sputtering existence. Jesus healing a blind man really happened, but it's not just about healing a blind man. It also opens our eyes to the bigger, beautiful story—the story to end all stories. John Irving, Willa Cather, W.H. Auden; I should hope to write so profoundly, but I’ll never approach anything as important as one crossed T of the Bible.
In the end I think it’s about priority. Eugene Peterson, in The Message, translates Ecclesiastes 12:12 as:
“But regarding anything beyond this, dear friend, go easy. There’s no end to the publishing of books, and constant study wears you out so you’re no good for anything else. The last and final word is this:
Do what he tells you.”
Fifty Shades of Gray notwithstanding, there's nothing wrong with a good beach read, but I also love a rich story, where I'm struck by subtexts and deeper meanings, and wonder about the author’s intent and accidental narratives. But I need to remember I shouldn't make it my life’s work to study books when the book to end all books is on my bedside table.
I like Peterson’s translation; Go easy. Books fascinate and will inhabit your head for a time, but they’ll always dribble down the New York Times bestseller list to obsoleteness. A few might stick around and continue to be read in high school, or at least the Cliff Notes will be read, which are usually pretty good at outlining the main points you should remember.
And on that note: I wrote a book. It’s a good book. Buy my book. Read my book.