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By The Book

So Many Books, So Little Time

Michael sloan for the boston globe

We have refinished our wood floors. Before we carry the furniture back in, my wife sends me out to buy felt pads.

It’s sleeting; the Home Depot parking lot swarms with wet headlights. “Aisle 18,’’ says a lady wearing an orange apron and - for no apparent reason - a jester’s hat. “Back half of the store.’’

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“This place should have its own ZIP code,’’ says a man in shorts and a blazer.

“Ha,’’ says the jester lady. No one smiles.

Sparrows cheep invisibly in the ceiling struts. I am lightheaded by the time I find the felt pads. Thousands upon thousands of adhesive-backed tan and black shapes - circles, rectangles, squares - wait imprisoned beneath plastic. There are, I count, 65 different kinds of packages.

. . .

This is how I feel, lately, about my reading life: dizzy, overwhelmed. Somehow, seemingly overnight, I have 70,000 choices.

When I was a boy, all the books I owned fit on a single shelf. Now I have several thousand stacked around the house. I carry 618 books - more than would comprise a lavish 16th century library - on the slim black square of glass vibrating right now in my pocket. All of Eliot and Woolf. Conrad’s novels. Twain, Nabokov.

I wedge in paragraphs at soccer practices, at the grocery store. Once in awhile - deplorable, I know - I sneak a few lines while I’m at a red light.

I bring 100 felt pads home from the store and drop them on the counter. The sun goes down, and my wife goes to book club, and our sons read comics in their beds. Our dog whines to go outside. I sit down at the computer.

In 20 minutes I learn: Giant super-Earths made of diamond probably exist. Kyrie Irving is averaging 18.3 points-per-game. Surgeonfish are calmed when tiny cleaner wrasses massage their fins. Alexander von Humboldt was one of the first observers to recognize that the Atlantic side of South America fit neatly into the Atlantic side of Africa.

Before I shut the computer down I go to Gutenberg.org and download - for free - all of von Humboldt’s books.

The kids have fallen asleep. So has the dog. The moon is pouring reflected sunlight 238,000 miles across the frozen wastes of space all over our backyard and making tiny diadems and coronas out of the frost on the grass, and no one is paying attention to any of it.

. . .

Have you ever done the math? If you’re lucky enough to have 70 years of literate adulthood, and if you read one book every week, you’re still only going to get to 3,640 books. Then you die.

If you consider that the Harvard University Library system’s collection is counted in the tens of millions, or that a new book of fiction is published every 30 minutes, 3,640 doesn’t seem like so many.

I get a choking feeling whenever I think about this stuff. Will I never read all of Philip Roth’s books? Or all of Edith Wharton’s? What about the 10,000 pages of von Humboldt I just downloaded?

. . .

Here’s the novelist Cormac McCarthy, in 2009: “Anything you can think of, there’s going to be millions of them. Just the sheer number of things will devalue them. I don’t care whether it’s art, literature, poetry or drama, whatever.’’

. . .

Here’s the physicist Michio Kaku: “In the future, the Internet will be everywhere - in wall screens, furniture, on billboards, and even in our glasses and contact lenses. When we blink, we will go online.’’

. . .

Most environmental scientists write, in some form or another, about scarcity. We’re running out of fuel, out of endemic species, out of genetic diversity. Pick up any newspaper and you can read about lots of things we’re running out of: silence, jobs, amphibians, tact, newspapers.

But lately I’ve been feeling the opposite: That we have too much. Too much sodium in our food, too many interesting news feeds, too many Facebook friends asking us to play too many Words with Friends games.

Maybe scarcity isn’t always a bad thing. Maybe scarcity is something to seek out, to fabricate for oneself.

What if I stopped trying to cram so much into my head every day? What if I stopped feeling guilty for leaving whole sections of the newspaper unread? What if I gave up trying to read 4,000 more books before I die? What if I just choose one book very carefully and let myself dwell inside it for as long as I want?

. . .

I’m three weeks into my experiment. I still haven’t finished a single book. For 20 days I’ve been rereading “Dubliners’’ by James Joyce, just a few pages here and there, not in between emails or while I’m waiting to pick up a pizza, but when I can make proper, heedful time for the prose.

One Saturday morning I rediscover this bit from “Araby’’:

“When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.’’

Then I go downstairs and make pancakes. My sons ask whether they can play Super Mario Brothers. I say, “Let’s go to the pond instead.’’

We bring hockey sticks, a tennis ball, the dog. Frost glimmers in the trees, and the whole world seems to shine and billow.

The pond has frozen solid. The dog slides around on her nails, ecstatic. The boys investigate cattails while I make goalposts out of sticks.

Why does the world bother to make so much beauty and then erase it and make it again? Why are we here for just long enough to witness it before we go? Can I find the answers on my telephone, or on the Internet?

We play hockey. My sons win 17-16. We have nothing in our pockets.

Anthony Doerr, author of the story collection “Memory Wall’’ can be reached at adoerr@ cableone.net.
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