This New Year's, make what's old new again.
Posted Jan 03, 2021
In 1978, a Princeton architecture student stumbled upon something deeply unsettling. She was writing a paper on a skyscraper in New York that was the talk of the town for its daring design: it stood on stilts. But as the student pored over the engineering blueprints, she found — could it be? – a math error. The wind-shear tolerances had been miscalculated. A big gust from a certain direction could conceivably take the 59-storey building down. The student’s discovery was conveyed to the building’s chief structural engineer. After confirming the error, and reviewing his options (which included suicide), he set to quietly having the building shored up with extra internal bracing. Disaster averted.
Roman Mars tells the riveting story in his new book The 99% Invisible City, which I found myself browsing before Christmas. I bought the book on the strength of that anecdote alone. Then a few days later something clicked. I’d liked that skyscraper story just as much when I first heard it 15 years ago. Liked it so much, in fact, that I’d included it in my own book, U-Turn.
Okay, that’s troubling. A sign of early-onset dementia, maybe. Or is this just the kind of thing that happens to all of us as our increasingly overloaded brains start culling old memories. The things we once knew just … evaporate. We lose the hard details, and then we lose the broad outlines, and then eventually we lose the remembrance of ever having known the thing at all. For me it was a bracing moment: if I can’t remember things I wrote in books, what hope is there to remember things I’ve read in books?
Look at your own bookshelves. All those faithful little soldiers lined up collecting dust. Books dating back to your college years, books so dear to you that you schlepped them from dorm room to apartment to house. How many months did you spend pouring their precious contents into your very soul? And how much of that material has since leaked out of you? Ninety-nine percent?
This Christmas, generous relatives plied our family with yet more new books. It was a thrill to unwrap them. It always is. Because this is what consumer capitalism primes us for: keeping up with the zeitgeist. Each new book we get our hands on indulges our craving for novelty – until we get halfway through, and our taste buds become saturated, and our pace slows, and then we get a whiff of the next sizzling thing flying off the grill of the Internet's “best of” lists.
Meanwhile, the ghostly voices of once-loved companions whispering from our bookshelves – Don’t forget us — grow fainter. What life-changing wisdom are we turning our backs on because we have, well, moved on?
Here is my modest proposal. It pains me a little to say this, since writers depend on each other to support their work, but I suggest a strategic pivot. What if we devote January to not buying any new books, and instead re-reading old ones? Not just the ones that lit us up, but also the ones we thought we’d love, were told we would love, and then failed to love. Was the problem with them or with us?
There’s a never-the-same-river-twice dimension to this endeavor: All books become new again on the second pass. That’s both because the world has changed and you have. Invariably, some lines that barely registered the first time will detonate as profoundly meaningful now. And possibly the converse, too: Some bits that struck you as mystical and sophisticated will now land as kinda juvenile (talking to you, Tom Robbins). That’s still a worthwhile thing to discover about yourself; it means you’re growing up.
Really, what this is is an exercise in identity. You’re returning to the headwaters of the streams that made you who you are today.
Not long ago, the writer Jenny Offill dipped back into Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway – a book she returns to periodically, as if getting a booster shot. It seems to deliver exactly what she needs at each phase of life.
Her first visit, at age 17, had been for “extra-literary” reasons. Offill wanted to see how Mrs. Dalloway had gone mad, exactly — as research, because Offill was feeling a little on the brink herself.
On her second visit, Offill came looking for philosophy. Now a mother in her thirties, marooned at home with a baby, she felt somehow both exhilarated and crashingly bored. Life’s peaks and depths had converged in a way she knew Mrs. Dalloway could understand. How to find the universe in a grain of sand – or a mushy pea?
Most recently, Offill, now in her fifties, found herself coming to the novel the way a jeweler looks at a fancy watch – not to tell time but to study the mechanism. Those sentences, the “shocking velocity” of them and they shoot into the sky, trailing sparks of emotion.
A great book can be a life companion in that way.
(As an aside – and just so I can sneak a little actual social science into this post – there’s another psychological payoff to returning to half-read books and getting over the finish line with them. Unfinished projects occupy RAM. We can never really “close the book” on something until we’ve completed it, as the psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik discovered a century ago.)
In 2018, Canadian writer Dan Cain took the literary leftovers idea and scaled it up. Why not declare a moratorium on everything new for awhile, he thought, and instead really re-engage with what you already own?
“In my house I’ve got a guitar upstairs that I don’t play very much,” he told the CBC. “And I’ve got all these learn French books and I haven’t really learned French. And I have a set of watercolours I’ve barely used.
“But if I were in a prison cell with just those three items, I would totally become the accomplished guitarist and the polyglot and the painter that I kind of pictured I would be when I bought those things.” Acquiring stuff is easy; following through is harder. Cain decided to deny his “sweet tooth for novelty” for a full year. His “depth year,” he called it. It turned out to be the most fulfilling period of his life. And the experiment had an unexpected trickle-down effect: it forced him to confront the reasons he’d left those pursuits half-finished in the first place. Mostly it was fear. Being a dilettante is easy; actually committing to something you might fail at is harder. Sometimes we abandon things not because they’re too cold but because they’re too hot. That’s certainly true with books. Could it be you put that "boring" novel down all those years ago because it was stirring feelings you couldn’t quite handle?
Covid-19 has thrown us all into a prison cell of sorts. So if any of this resonates with you, now’s the perfect time to try the experiment. Run your finger across a bookshelf like a dowsing rod and where it stops, pull that book. Relish the feeling of long-dormant neurons flickering to life as you encounter those beloved old turns of phrase, as you excavate those old insights and hold them up to the light.
In a moment when so much feels up for grabs, it’s good to remind yourself how much you already know.