The Curriculum, The Canon, The Clock

by Garrett Zecker


There's never enough time to read the best books. We all know it. We all want time to read and think deep literary thoughts, but my reality is filled with the mundanity of appointment reminders for my eight-year-old’s orthodontist. I stowed the card in my pocket before dawn and I removed it with my keys well past midnight. I realized almost immediately that I couldn’t make it when I booked it three weeks ago. Nescio's Amsterdam Stories kept me company in the waiting room during his exam. Nescio had my attention, not the appointment date. This appointment is Monday, and the clock just struck Saturday morning.

We want to read the best books, the books best suited to improving our craft. In college we hammered away at ambitious collections, with a focus on thought and lenses of interpretation rather than the concrete nature of the unit tests that hounded our youth. After our formal education, only a few of us revisited these texts as an adult, and even non-writers have difficulty where to begin. At one time I wrote for an online service where anyone could pose questions to volunteers who had been screened as experts in their field. Many questions often began with, ‘I want to read the great books, but I don’t know where to start.’ There are as many great answers to that question as there are completely inadequate ones.

My approach has been to find well-curated lists, oftentimes featuring books I never would have picked up otherwise. I tick a new obscure book off the list, hit the public library, and open it. I learned to explore whenever I can, from listening exclusively to audiobooks when I drive to making sure I am always carrying a text for that three-minute wait at the coffee shop. Much like my habit of scribbling upon little scraps during those blank little moments of the day, I keep a curated book at the ready at all times. No matter the list, no matter the book, I train my voracious, never ending appetite for words like a tireless Olympian.

I've adventured through lists as notable as Modern Library's 100 Best and as controversial as the Esquire 75. The lessons on writing and close reading present in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer opened an astonishing new list as book after book of notable prose passed by to culminate in an incredible bibliography as beautifully suited to wonderment as it is to modelling perfection. Each issue of The New York Times Book Review that arrives on my Sunday doorstep leads to a binary fit of rapturous longing and suffocating anxiety. How is it ever possible to even touch upon our exponentially-growing choices? What about old dog-eared favorites? Toward the end of his original thirteen-part television series Cosmos, Carl Sagan delivered a curious message about time and the canon. In an episode entitled The Persistence of Memory, in only ten or so paces he indicates the one-tenth of one-percent of the New York Public Library’s millions of volumes that it’s possible to consume in a lifetime. He concludes, “the trick is to know which books to read.”

The need for a book in my hand, a pen in my pocket, and my characters whispering behind my eyes have become as autonomic as breathing, but just as necessary. The orthodontist will always be there, but my writing won't without persistence.