Sisyphus’s reading list

With apologies to my parents and the various governmental and charitable bodies that funded my higher education, I have to confess that I remember almost nothing from my undergraduate courses. One obscure factoid, however, stands out with surprising clarity: the seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza read every book in print during this lifetime.

The Gutenberg press was invented around 1500, and for the first few decades almost all books were printed in Latin. Despite the obvious improvements from the days of hand copying, books were still relatively rare and expensive commodities. Only tomes of great importance, written by men of means, were deemed worthy of publication. To possess a vast library, or even a single book, was a mark of distinction. Throughout the sixteenth century, though, printed books became more and more commonplace, and the array of printed matter increased exponentially with each passing decade. By the seventeenth century, when Spinoza lived, there were hundreds of presses across Europe and the entire canon of classical Greek texts (Plato, Aristotle, and various other toga-ed toffs) was in print. During Spinoza’s lifetime and after his death, this proliferation only increased as books and pamphlets in vernacular languages flew off the presses. By 1800, a new kind of press could churn out almost 500 pages every hour.

Walk into even the shabbiest small-town library and you’ll be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of printed paper arrayed before you. I despair of ever finding time to finish Julia Spencer-Fleming‘s wonderful Clare Fergusson mystery series, much less read every book in print. Getting through my reading list can feel like a never-ending task, a “to do” that will never, ever be done.

Spinoza had a couple of advantages over you and me. First, he didn’t have kids or a spouse or a regular job, and, though I can’t prove it, I suspect he also didn’t have a demanding miniature schnauzer. Most importantly, though, he lived during the sweet-spot era of knowledge creation and dissemination when there were thousands, but not yet millions, of books in circulation.

Northwestern University, my alma mater, is organized around approximately 10-week “trimesters” rather than semesters. This gives students the opportunity to cram in more courses during the academic year than is typical. I must’ve taken close to 40 different courses during my time there, and this anecdote about Spinoza is what has stuck with me. If you love reading as much as I do, the idea of being able to read every book inspires awe and envy. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have time to really read each word that passes in front of your eyeballs? And to savor your favorite passages?

As you glance at that pile of unread books on your bedside table or file yet another friendly suggestion of a “must read” book into your mental Rolodex, maybe you, like me, will give a jealous thought to Spinoza. We live in an ever-expanding universe of words that continually stretches further from the Big Bang origin of the invention of the printing press. Quit your job and spend every waking minute with your nose stuck in a book, and you’ll barely have begun. But take heart. Though you didn’t live at Spinoza’s perfect moment in publishing history, you can take some comfort that you live in the era of indoor plumbing, Oreo cookies, and Dr. Who.

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1 Comment

Filed under philosophical nuggets

One response to “Sisyphus’s reading list

  1. As Ecclesiastes says, “Beyond the guidance of the wise,my child, exercise caution; of buying and writing books there is no end, and much study will only wear your strength away.” He got that right, especially about the writing part. It is ironic that he himself added one more book to the bunch, but at least it (and the rest of the Bible) has been on the best seller list.

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