I’m addicted to books. The reading of them, primarily – but by no means exclusively. I love the browsing and buying, the owning, arranging, and rearranging of them on shelves and nightstands, in cabinets and closets, on top of dressers and, really, on any other flat surface I can find. I have all sorts of reasons for acquiring books. Some of them I want to read. Others I think I should read. Some are given to me as gifts and others are obtained for a variety of vague reasons that could be grouped together under the heading “just because” – which more often than not functions as a kind of verbal shrug, a way of batting off the question before I reveal to myself that there really was no good reason for buying the thing. It’s this late category that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.
Over the Thanksgiving Day break, I made a point of picking up some of the books that I’d bought “just because” and that had subsequently languished, unread, on my shelves. I figured I’d be lying around a lot, recovering from some good ol’ American overeating, and that it would be a great time to get some solid reading done. One of the dusty books I plucked off my shelf was William T. Vollmann’s Riding Toward Everywhere, a collection of essays about train-hoppers and hobos and, somehow, individual freedom and the American Dream. Superficially, this book couldn’t be any different from the stuff I’ve been reading these past few months (mostly Middle Grade adventures and mysteries, plus a smattering of satiric sci-fi). But precisely because of this, it was perhaps the perfect time for me to dive into Vollmann’s book.
I can’t remember exactly when I bought Riding Toward Everywhere. It was at least a couple years ago. Maybe even three or four. I do remember where I bought it, though. It was at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, MA. I found the book in a bin at the back of the store where the remaindered and otherwise-discounted items are kept. I’m pretty sure the book was priced at $4.00.
I picked the book up and paged through it. After reading a few snatches of text and glancing at some of the sixty-something full-page photos at the book’s back, I decided to buy the thing. But buying something “just because,” even a book, has never felt entirely right to me. Maybe it’s some sort of Puritanical holdover, but I always feel at least a smidgen a guilt when purchasing something for which I can’t identify a definite and immediate purpose. (I should say that this doesn’t always stop me from buying the stuff. I’ve just learned to live with the guilt.) So on my way up to the register, I justified the purchase by telling myself that, over the years, a handful of people had told me that I really should read some Vollmann (true), that I had always meant to do so (sort of true), and, what’s more, that I had always been interested in learning more about train-hopping (not true – though now that I had been thinking about it for a couple minutes, it did sound pretty interesting). Also, the book only cost four bucks. I’d gone into the bookstore in order to feed my addiction, and leaving with a four-dollar “luxury item” was better, financially speaking, than a fourteen- or twenty-four-dollar one (which are about what brand-new paperback and hardcover books cost).
So I bought the thing. I bought it and I brought it home and I stuck it on my shelf. Then, after a few weeks of fending of any lingering guilt by assuring myself that I would get around to reading the book real soon, I forgot about it. I remembered it again when I put it in a box along with a bunch of other books when moving into a new apartment. There, I stuck it on my shelf, once again forgot about it, and re-remembered it only when I packed it up to move into yet another new apartment. A year-and-a-half after that I finally sat down to read the thing.
The book is wonderful. It’s wonderful because William T. Vollmann, as it turns out, is an intensely curious, intelligent, and insightful person, and one who happens to be capable of producing huge chunks of truly exquisite writing. These essays are bold and rollicking and lush, full of passion and energy, yet delicate and tender and deeply moving, too. But Riding Toward Everywhere is also wonderful because, as I mentioned before, it is so (superficially) different from everything else I have been reading lately. I picked up the book literally less than an hour after putting down The Neverending Story. I went from watching Bastian Balthazar Bux wend his way through the psychedelically colorful and fertile land of Fantastica to this – here’s Vollmann after trudging several dark, wet, cold miles through a wintertime rainstorm, only to scramble into the boxcar of a train that ultimately starts chugging in reverse, bringing him right back to the spot he initially set out walking from:
“Such is trainhopping, with its myriad reversals of fortune and feeling. Because these impress themselves on me so intensely, I never perceive even defeated attempts to catch out as any kind of failure, for one truly lives more on these occasions, whose memories, however obscured by night and rain, remain on my mind’s tracks as numerous as the trains themselves. This one night alone offered ever so many other experiences, no less precious for being brief: a glimpse of an ancient Pullman car, as fabulous to us as a woolly mammoth, the sudden sweetness of breathing night air after a rest, and, best of all, a spectacular shadow show on our boxcar wall when the adjacent train began to move; every grainer car silhouetted itself in succession, stencil cuts of perfect beauty whose beauty in fact consisted of simplifying reality until even I with my human stupidity became capable of marveling at it – how many grainers had we passed on that night, and how many had reached me? What was I missing in my rattleclank journey through life? – Why, almost everything.”
Now, with all of this in mind, I suggest you go buy/borrow a book for no reason or finally get around to the one that has been gathering dust on your shelf for weeks or months or years. And it really doesn’t matter whether the thing turns out to be life-changingly great or nowhere near as good as you’d hoped it would be. If you can set aside the time and space to let it reach you, you’ll walk away with something you didn’t have before, even if it’s only the knowledge that you’re actually not that interested in, say, Roman architecture or marine biology. In other words: you should never feel guilty about buying a book, no matter your reasoning, so long as the thing gets read eventually. This is because of the power of reading.
Take Riding Toward Everywhere. I doubt I’ll ever find myself sneaking into a train yard and onto a freighter, but reading Vollmann’s book gives me a taste of what it’s like and some ideas about why other people might do it. And even if his book wasn’t as superb as it turned out to be, I would strive not to see the experience of reading and reflecting on it as a “failure” or – what’s even worse these days (and another enormous potential source of guilt) – a “waste of time.” Reading Riding Toward Everywhere and all those other books I bought “just because” allows me to live more (imaginatively and empathetically). In their own way, they all slow me down, tap me on the shoulder and direct my attention toward all sorts of beauties that, because I was moving too fast or just being too stupid, I hadn’t before noticed. This brings to mind another passage, one in which Vollmann rhapsodizes about the luxury of lingering in a soft warm space, thinking of nothing, after waking up from a good long sleep. And this morning, because of it, I stayed curled up in bed an extra couple minutes before getting up, putting on the coffee, and launching the day. A seemingly small thing, sure – like a lungful of night air or some shadows on a boxcar wall – but a deeply enjoyable and enriching one that shouldn’t be passed by (at least not every morning).
As Vollmann writes elsewhere in his book: “Since I had no reason whatsoever to go there, I set out for Cheyenne.” Because it’s the journey that matters, right? It’s the living more. Or, to bring it back around to my somewhat tired metaphor: it’s the empathetic living more we do through reading that matters. Which is to say that having no reason to do something – like buying a book or, hey, buying someone you love some flowers – is sometimes the best reason to go ahead and do it.