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I recently dusted off a journal from my high school years in which I had made sporadic (and sometimes embarrassing) entries. The one aspect of my life about which I was diligent in my record keeping was a list of the books I read over the roughly two years of the journal’s active life. I must say, I’m impressed by that list of over a hundred titles: War and Peace, A Tale of Two Cities, And Quiet Flows the Don, My Antonia, For Whom the Bell Tolls among them. The list reminded me that I subscribed wholeheartedly to the notion that there existed a better world beyond the narrow focus of high school and that the one aspect of that world to which I had ready access was the literature in the local library. That adolescent reading binge whetted my appetite for ideas such that I never doubted I would take the next step – a university education.

I no longer keep such a list but a moment of reflection over my reading of the last few years reveals a telling contrast with that other list, namely, a clear preference for non-fiction over literature. In fact, I can’t think of a single novel I’ve read in years. I never decided to stay away from fiction; I just haven’t gone there. I don’t have any agenda for reading; I simply follow my nose and it appears my nose has led me to factual accounts.

I mention this change in reading preference because it’s news to me. Until I looked over that list in my journal the other day I didn’t remember how ambitious a reader I was once upon a time. I think I sought understanding through literature because I saw it as a shortcut to understanding the wider world. Rather than painstakingly assemble a base of knowledge through a compilation of fact, I imagined I would take advantage of one served up ready-to-eat in the form of literature.

At this late date it is impossible to untangle the path that led to my present world view but I wonder which part, if any, can be attributed to Tolstoy or Dickens?

I was reading a fact-filled book review in The Claremont Review of Books today when it occurred to me that on several levels I was probably wasting my time. That’s because from time to time I re-read a book from my collection after several years have elapsed and I’m always disappointed to discover how little of the book I remember. If the information comes in one ear and goes out the other – what’s the point? Ironically, this poor retention rate reminds me of a short story I remember from my high school literature book. The story’s title, I believe, was something like Road to the Isles. It was about a high school girl who was fretting that her parents would embarrass her at an upcoming school function. She considered her father a hopeless nerd because he did things like set a goal for himself to read their entire set of encyclopedias. At the time, I thought that sounded like a pretty good idea and I think I even embarked on such a venture several times. I never followed through on that one and I realize now it would have been a colossal waste of time but isn’t it interesting that I remember that bit of fiction so well when I have forgotten so many facts?

The other sobering realization, and this is a new one, is that in my younger years I always felt a sense of accomplishment when finishing a book, especially a factual book, because I told myself I was adding to my storehouse of knowledge – knowledge that might someday result in a higher SAT score or in securing me a job. But I’m 62 now and retired. I am unlikely to apply for any jobs down the road and I certainly don’t plan to take the SAT any time soon.

This fundamental shift in perspective where I transition from preparing for my future life to watching my life in the rearview mirror has manifested itself in other ways. A case in point: I was going through the contents of my nightstand awhile back and I pulled out some science activity sheets that I had stowed there almost twenty years ago, telling myself I would use them with my own children. I never got around to it. My children are adults now with children of their own. It seems I will never use those activity sheets. C’est la vie!

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