Friday, April 24, 2015

"I Don't Want to Go": Or, Having an Existential Crisis in Barnes & Nobles

I recently finished journalist Christine Kenneally's The Invisible History of the Human Race for a kind of unofficial book club I accidentally started at work (I was joking when I suggested it...). I enjoyed it for the most part, especially since it was the first book on genealogy I'd ever read. In the very first chapter, Kenneally describes an experience her husband had years ago:

When my husband was a graduate student, he had to physically brace himself every time he walked into the university library, as the sight of all those books, written by all those people, about so many more people, with references to even more people who had written many more books about other people, was too much to contemplate. Or rather, what was too much was the multiplicity of the books plus the intrusive realization that he would never in his lifetime be able to read them all. Hundreds of people blithely stepped over the library's threshold all day long, but for [my husband], to catch a glimpse of the library's immense holdings was to come face to face with his own mortality.[1]

I had a similar experience about a month or so ago in Barnes & Nobles. It started out small. I walked by a section of Best-Selling or Classic Literature (can't remember which), pausing to note how few I had actually read. This caused a slight increase in my breathing tempo, but I calmed down as I made my way to one of the store's comfy chairs. After reading an article on performance compensation in the latest issue of Harvard Business Review, I began my serious browse. Before I upgraded to an iPhone, I would write down book titles on small scraps of paper as I perused the numerous sections in the store. Now I snap a picture of the cover of any book I find interesting for future reference and serious consideration. Having gone back through my photos from that day, I count 9 book covers. Nine. And I only browsed the new books tables,
Nope
the business section, and the rather small psychology section. But what really hit me was when I started riding the escalator down to the lower level. As descended, I had a somewhat aerial view of the bottom floor. The shelves of books expanded further and further out the more I came down. It was only when I had a full view of the lower floor that I realized I would never read all of the books in view. Panic set in. How many wrong ideas were rattling around in my head solely because I hadn't gotten to one of these books? What if those ideas stayed there all my life? It was a reminder of how little I know. An uncomfortable uncertainty set in. If I were Belle, the Beast's gift would've freaked me the hell out.


Furthermore, it got me thinking about why I wouldn't get to all the books: I'm going to die. As the quote above put it, I came face to face with my own mortality. Do I believe in an afterlife and eternal progression? Sure. But the chance of being wrong still looms, especially when you're looking at a wealth of knowledge you know you don't possess. It made me feel stuck. I didn't want to leave the store. And I didn't want to leave this life. I've been trying to turn this realization into a regenerative process; an embrace of epistemic humility. Some would experience this situation in just such a way: the realized ignorance and amount of unread books would be exciting. Boredom could never set in because there would always be something new to read or learn. Life is an incredible adventure, with the universe and its mysteries waiting to be explored.

Unfortunately, that is not my experience. All I keep thinking is "I don't want to go."





NOTES

1. Christine Kenneally, The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures (New York: Viking, 2014), Kindle edition. Chapter 1: "Do Not Ask What Gets Passed Down."

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