There is a time to read and a time to write. The latter is upon us. I have denied this for as long as I could—not because I fear or dread the act of writing, but because I feel so sickened with guilt every time I put my books aside. The good news is that my current task, A People’s History of the United States, can be halted at the end of any chapter, and recommenced without significant trouble.
[Why are you convinced that this is the time to write? Or, perhaps more accurately: why are you convinced that now is not the time to read?]
Because the act of reading has become so bloody painful. A People’s History is not laden in the least; it is actually one of the most accessible works of political analysis you will ever find, hence the frustration in my struggle to read it. I had set myself a goal to finish the book by Monday, but I’m only one-third of the way through it.
[Are you struggling relative to the standards of performance you set for yourself, or do you find yourself struggling, period?]
Unfortunately, I’m just struggling. It happens to me sometimes. If I read too much, too quickly, I burn myself out, and my mind just shuts down. It refuses to accept any more text. People think it can’t happen, but it can: have you ever exercised excessively, at which point your body responds with aches and pains, thereby preventing any more exertion?
[As the Editor-in-Chief, I am unconcerned with the corporeal limitations of mortals. My concern is ideas, ideas whereby I am forever unexhausted.]
Well, aren’t you just a blessed little being? However, those of us who have to stop and catch our breath every now and again must pull ourselves away from whatever is of present interest, if only so as not to become bogged down in whatever it is that fascinates us.
[I thought you said that you could not lose yourself in A People’s History? Doesn’t this mean that you are fascinated not at all by the book before you?]
No, I think it means that I have to take a break, or else I’ll miss something that would fascinate me, if only I weren’t so bloody overtired. It’s paradoxical, but it makes sense to me.
[Oh, to be human and to be puzzled by something as meaningless as a paradox.]
Oh, to be so snide as to tower above those of us who actually read and write. What, then, would you prefer to discuss?
[If I were to choose, I would select your curious conviction that the antidote to this excess of text is the manufacturing of such; in a word, the act of writing. How may this solve this problem of yours?]
Text, if we cannot use so prestigious a term as literature in reference to a modest project such as this, is a pour. To read is pouring in, to write is pouring out. If you don’t replenish your tank with new readings, then eventually, you won’t have the inspiration to write; but, so, too, can you have the opposite problem, a tank that must be emptied before it can accept any more information.
[How does one determine if “the tank” is full?]
I have no idea how other writers work. Stephen King likes to listen to metal while he writes, but I have a hard time composing in anything short of absolute quiet. All I can say, I say for myself: I know I’ve exceeded critical mass when I can’t get through the pages, if you follow.
[This is different, then, from disinterest in writing. This might be more accurately described as a disability, then?]
A dis-ability, more likely. Temporary, of course. Usually, I just shut down the reading for a week or so, if I can force myself to stop reading for such an unbearably long time, and then, I’m totally refreshed and ready to dive right back into the deep of the literary pool. The only problem is, I’ve found myself compelled to take these “vacations” more and more frequently as of late. If I can, in fact, commit to this pause, it will be the fourth I have taken this year, the last being back at the beginning of August, right before I took my first look at Rousseau.
[What were you reading before you took the break?]
The Prince. Machiavelli.
[I would have opined that it is the intensity of the content, or the difficulty of such, that requires these suspensions, but then again, you said that A People’s History of the United States is not so terribly difficult?]
No, it’s actually pretty straightforward, simple enough for a high school student to follow. And for the record, The Prince, while hardly “easy reading”, is not exactly on a par with Nietzsche, or something. I don’t think it’s the complexity of the content that is establishing this hindrance. It’s the fecundity of ideas that the reading inspires. I have so much to say, and I don’t give myself nearly enough time to say it.
[Because you feel guilty if you don’t read instead.]
You got it.
[Speaking of Nietzsche, he once said that he rarely read books because he did not want to burden his mind with bad ideas, or bad perspectives. Do you suspect you might benefit from a leaner literary diet, not in fear of fat, but in fear of too much protein?]
I would rather diagnose the problem as one of too little time in the day. Regrettably, writing is not my profession. This is much more to be than a hobby, clearly, but by the simple division of time, it cannot comprise as much of my day as I would like. There is only so much time to go around, and I have to make do with what I have.
[You believe that, if you had no other obligations in the day than to read and write, that you wouldn’t experience this literary nausea, to coin a phrase?]
I think it would be much more difficult to come into being.
[Do you envision this website as a means to the end of writing professionally?]
That would be lovely, but I don’t know if this site will be the vessel for that outcome. I’m still trying to figure out what it all means, and right now, I have to work my way through this gluttony of text before I can even try to create something substantial.
[Is that to say that this conversation is insubstantial?]
A conversation is ongoing. It’s potentially infinite. And the infinite is nothing if not weightless, insubstantial.
[Yes, it sounds like you’re about to have a mental breakdown. Maybe you should take it even easier than you are already planning.]
It’s not a breakdown in the sense of inexplicable or causeless destruction. It’s an interruption of specific apparatuses, the inevitable result of information bottlenecking somewhere just beyond the point of entry. It’s overwhelming and frustrating, but it’s not devastating.
[Is it comparable, then, to a flood, or a forest fire, or some other natural disaster?]
Well, it speaks to a need, which it purportedly satisfies. Maybe the solution is to take a shorter pause, more often, and not to wait until the situation becomes so chaotic than a total shutdown is proven necessary. Better pacing would probably prevent, or at least mitigate, this problem. The time has come to get this house back in order.
[Howard Zinn, we’ll come back to you.]