Endless summer for nerds
I read Nelson Mandela’s epic memoirs Long Walk To Freedom 13 years ago.
At the time, I was co-authoring my first biography of Philippine civil society leaders thrust into civil service. The 625-page masterpiece wasn’t planned essential reading. It wasn’t even something I could dive into for long hours uninterrupted. But the book stands out, to this day, because of the memory of being strangely jealous of a man who was incarcerated and locked up for 27 years.
A man who had all the time in the world to read.
He voraciously read anything he could get his hands on, even before his imprisonment:
“While I was stimulated by the Communist Manifesto, I was exhausted by Das Kapital. But I found myself strongly drawn to the idea of a classless society, which, to my mind, was similar to traditional African culture where life was shared and communal. I subscribed to Marx’s basic dictum, which has the simplicity and generosity of the Golden Rule: “From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.””
He mentioned other books that fascinated him, including Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. But because “receiving books at all was often a challenge,” given the “remoteness of (Robben) Island, the deliberate slowness of the sensors,” he oftentimes resorted to what was available at the island. Prison had the complete works of William Shakespeare, where Mandela would find solace in these immortal lines from Julius Caesar: “Cowards die many times before their deaths/The valiant never taste of death but once.”
A man who can freely quote Shakespeare is not only educated but cultured. Nelson Mandela became that man because he turned the darkest days of oppression into building blocks of opportunity. He fueled his intellect with art, in full surrender to self-education. The fruits of his labor were evident in his memoirs, where he eloquently expressed his strongest convictions, struggles, and reflections as the leader of post-apartheid South Africa.
When I finished his book, I realized that I was held hostage by the vagaries of youth. At 26, it seemed impossible to find the time to read! I was a performing musician in the evening and a senate speechwriter during the day. In between, there were these interstitial commutes and the occasional drop-ins at social communes. There was hardly any time for sleep.
Since then, I have been secretly wishing for “prison time,” preferably without really doing time. And no ban on book selections. One can dream, as they say, so might as well make it big.
Apparently, I am not alone in my delusion.
Zadie Smith refers to it as an addiction. In her essay What It Means to Be Addicted to Reading, she asks: “Are there other people who, when watching a documentary set in a prison, secretly think, as I have, Wish I had all that time to read?”
In March 2020, while everyone was frantically adjusting to pandemic paralysis, I was partly delighted.
It was irrational. My consulting business tanked. My band gigs stopped. Cashflow was instantly tight.
One evening, as I scanned my room for answers about my next move, I saw my towering stack of books. My impulse purchases and remnants of the good times, just waiting to be read. It did feel then that my life might be over.
But I could still read.
So I read and read for hours on end, every single day.
I’ve been unstoppable since, and unperturbed, judging by my self-talk.
“I know I have to look for more work. Or not.”
“I hope my only client does not call.”
These are the thoughts that get rational people into trouble especially when they turn into action, such as switching your phone to DND mode all day long.
It feels so wrong, yet so right.
In July, I surpassed my goal of 50 books for the entire year. Three years ago, I could barely finish a book in a month.
And you know what? That for me is a real accomplishment.
I would always have four active books at any given time: history, fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Ideally, all should be hardcopies since I often refer back to my notes. But in these coronatimes, prudence has forced me to lean on free books online.
I began my search for rare titles that my local bookstore does not carry, such as Jane Goodall’s In The Shadow Of Man and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. I finally found them, and they were exceptional, available on loan via the Open Library of the Internet Archive.
Project Gutenberg has a vast selection, where I downloaded my copy of Hermann Hesse’s Siddharta.
I relied on iBooks and Standard Ebooks for the complimentary classics: Epictetus’ Enchiridion, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Poems by Emily Dickinson I, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Shakespeare is, of course, finally in the pipeline.
I also got around to relishing the longer books, such as Robert Caro’s The Power Broker. I have been wanting to read it for years, so during a quick trip to the mall for grocery shopping, I tried my luck at the bookstore. If by happenstance this 1,246-page book is available here in the tropics, I HAVE to get it. Now is the time to experience it. The store had the Holy Grail, so I bought it, instantly foregoing food for the rest of the week.
It was worth it. Not only is it the best book on political power I have ever read, but it also talked about a pre-pandemic problem I have long despised and no longer want to suffer through after this crisis: the commute. Here’s proof that for this pain point, the world is on the same boat:
“‘Get used to it!’ Accept as part of your daily existence two or three — or more — hours sitting amid dirt, rammed against strangers, breathing foul air, sweating in summer, shivering in winter. Accept that you will be doing this for a substantial portion of every working day of your life, until you are old. ‘Get used to it!’ One has to think about what those words, so casually uttered, really mean. One has to realize that the man uttering those words has accepted discomfort and exhaustion as a part — a substantial part — of the fabric of his life. Accepted them so completely that he no longer really thinks about them — or about the amount of his life of which they are, day by day, robbing him. We learn to tolerate intolerable conditions. The numbness that is the defense against intolerable pain has set in — so firmly that many of the victims no longer even realize that the pain is pain.”
What’s great about a reading mania is that no time is ever wasted. Even if I pick up a seemingly random book, I would always feel that I was meant to read that book at that exact moment. This happened with Just Mercy. It was a free book with a long queue on the Open Library. When I received a prompt that it was finally available to rent, I dropped the book I was planning to read and plowed through that first.
The injustices described by Mr. Stevenson were so visceral that I cried and was infuriated many times. It felt as if I had zero tolerance for abuse, a feeling that wasn’t so real to me before. Yet I live in a world where discrimination and inequality persist as the norm rather than the exception.
It made me ask myself: what am I doing with my life?
Just Mercy is the modern-day equivalent of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book on slavery so excruciatingly intense it was said to have sparked the Civil War in the United States. My heart bled as I listened to it, but it was important for me to finish it. Had it not been for that book, a favorite of Philippine national hero Jose Rizal, our own horrors buried deep under Spanish suppression (which he marvelously revealed in Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo) would not have seen the light of day.
As the Black Lives Matter protests have shown, the land of the free is not so free after all. That feels familiar. Reading these books that open up systemic social wounds makes me question my own realities, my country’s grievances, and my art. But am I writing enough about them? Am I asking the right but difficult questions?
Am I doing important work?
The pandemic is testing our will to adapt and survive. It is testing public health systems on the cusp of collapse. It is testing economies already in recession.
But isn’t it also a testing ground for art as a form of rebellion? As Toni Morrison in her essay asserted, it is in times of dread when artists go to work. And all of us, whether we like it or not, are artists now — creating a new future in the new normal. We certainly have our work cut out for us.
Even if I pick up a seemingly random book, I would always feel that I was meant to read that book at that exact moment.
We eventually become the books we read, so I would take this time to try a little bit of everything, see what clicks and build on that. This year’s early wild card was Quiet by Susan Cain and it changed my view on introversion. I learned to value it more, which definitely helps with our forced isolation. Solitude and silence is not a liability, but a luxury we can now take full advantage of.
Politics and political biographies dominate my bookshelf, so I pushed myself to read lighter fare. Fiction is now mandatory — Anthony Doerr showed me that I have been missing out. Even children’s books have become essential.
I see no immediate end to our collective suffering, but my anxiety has long been replaced by hope. I found that hope in books.
I experience empathy every day, from characters in conflict whether in a novel or a tell-all.
I march in lockstep with authors, who seem to be rooting for me as I navigate my own truths.
I have learned how infinitesimal our sacrifice has been compared with those who had lived through a world war and a pandemic. Just read about the year 1918. They didn’t have the means to interact remotely or be entertained in the safety of their own homes.
Good thing they had books.
“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times,” Dickens began in A Tale Of Two Cities, a reminder that what we are experiencing today has happened before, survived by those who have gone before us. But will we know that if we didn’t read?