“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Albert Camus (1)
Consider Sisyphus … (2)
A mythical king condemned to spend eternity atoning for his lifetime sins by pushing a boulder up a mountain in Tartarus, only to have it roll to the bottom overnight: as a result, he was obliged to start afresh each morning.
I like to think he is the patron saint of English teachers. If you are struggling to work out why, the answer’s at the foot of the post.
Camus posited, in an essay considering the choice to be made between living on and committing suicide(!), that the key, as you can see from the quotation above, was to focus on the here and now. To enjoy the task in its own right, ignoring the fundamental unachievability of a satisfactory result.
Which leads me from what was French Algeria when Camus was born, to Japan, and Mount Tsundoku: a glorious figurative mountain which deserves its own shelf at my new, improved (or improving) Boar’s Head Bookshelf at Goodreads, which I may have casually mentioned over the last day or two.
Tsundoku – say it out loud as few times, until you can combine those three syllables fluidly, and you’ve stopped thinking about fiendishly challenging maths puzzles. It’s fabulous word for a lifestyle choice that makes life worth living – for me, at least. The basic idea is the act of buying, of stockpiling, more books than you can ever possibly read. But the concept embraces so much more than simply bookbuying. Here are a three relevant quotations – two are old favourites and the third found in researching this post:
‘There is one way only to bring a reluctant smile to the face of a bedroom which looks as though it doubted your ability to pay the bill – smother it in books! Pile them on chairs, tables, washstands, on mantelpiece and, if possible, on the floor.
The most bitter and resentful room is flattered if you try to turn it into a library.
Books and a fire can humanize any room, so that if you travel, as I do, with more books than clothes you have nothing to fear from any hotel’ (3)
Morton is especially apt as I pack today for a short break, and have to make some hard decisions about what to take with me. Then there’s this one:
‘Books are a delightful society. If you go into a room filled with books, even without taking them down from their shelves, they seem to speak to you, to welcome you.’ (4)
‘Even when reading is impossible, the presence of books acquired produces such an ecstasy that the buying of more books than one can read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity … we cherish books even if unread, their mere presence exudes comfort, their ready access reassurance.’ (5)
New visitors will be wondering what this has to do with Shakespeare and the Early Modern Period. Regulars will have learned to be patient …
Who needs another biography of the essentially unknowable life and character of Shakespeare? Or another navel-gazing essay (remember, we don’t read Shakespeare, he reads us) masquerading as academic analysis of whether or not Hamlet fancied his mum? Or, actually, another version of ‘The Complete Works‘ or any of the individual plays?
I do. That’s who.
Not just for all the reasons above, or because what I seem to be building is more a reference library to dip in and out of as required for teaching / blogging / simple pleasure purposes, and less a shelf full of books I have read from cover to cover. And as to multiple copies of the same plays, especially the Complete Works, these are increasingly gifts rather than purchases – usually from students, with moving, heartfelt dedications. Most of these are old, second-hand, and cherished as much if not more than my work-a-day Ardens. As A Edward Newton alludes to above, my books – read or unread – give me something that nourishes my soul.
So, I’ve got a new shelf in the virtual library, the Mount Tsundoku shelf. It is so much more than a TBR pile. It comprises impulse buys from second hand shops (aka ‘rescues‘), often but not always seducing me with the vague promise that they might prove interesting or useful in the future; or half-drunken purchases from eBay on the rare occasions I go there; or copies given to me by people with whom I have / have had some form of connection. All books I own, which might or might not be read one day.
There’s probably already more there than I can read in a lifetime, let alone with all the other, non-Shakespeare books I own. But they are Tsundoku, and each addition to the mountain, or each brief foray along one of its slopes, makes me happy. I don’t feel the pressure of destination or outcome, only the joy of the journey and evolving landscape. It’s as simple as that.
Ironically, being away from home means I’m not really in a position to start properly populating the shelf, but when I do, I have a job for you all, please: a request really. Take a trip to Mount Tsundoku every now and again, and let me know if there’s something on the mountain I need to make a special effort to read. Thanks!
Finally, I promised to explain Sisyphus’ appeal to English teachers, or at least to this one. The boulder and the slope eloquently metaphorise our working lives: each boulder is a class set of books or plastic wallet full of essays. No sooner have you shoved it up the slope by marking it, than you have to begin again with another class.
And Camus was wrong, by the way, when you have 100 confused and confusing end-of-term Year 8 essays on Helena and Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Not even St Sisyphus would smile, sometimes …
(1) Albert Camus, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, (trans. Justin O’Brien), (Vintage Books: New York, 1991)
(2) GNU Terry Pratchett
(3) HV Morton, In Search of Scotland (Methuen & Co: London, 1939)
(4) William Ewart Gladstone, http://www.gladstoneslibrary.org
(5) A Edward Newton, quoted at ‘Tsundoku’, http://www.wikipedia.com