Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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At Midnight With a Book

Res Publica

July 2003

by Alan Huntington

My library is very small. It consists of a shelf of books about five feet tall at the end of my loft in my room. On that shelf sit most of the books that I own.

I find that it is a joy to me that the shelves are nearly full. They are laden down with serious and frivolous books, reference works and novels, new and old. I delight in the fact that they are all mine.

Some nights, when it is getting late and I am at the desk at the other end of my loft struggling with a book that was assigned to me, they catch my eye. Their colors have a particularly alluring property in the subdued lighting under the desk at midnight. The reflective quality of paperbacks and dustcovers leads me to scrutinize them and cast my eyes about in search of something to interest me.

This is very dangerous to the completion of the work I had begun. Sometimes I search for the darkest covers, sometimes the brightest attract me. Some have little power of attraction to my mind once I read their titles. Sometimes I want to find something I have read before. More often I take a book that I have never begun to read and, contrary to my custom, scan its pages. I am looking for something to catch my eye. Most times I do not let my eye read for long. Sometimes I will become engrossed in the subject matter and, instead of turning to the beginning of the book to start over (it is too late), I sink onto the carpet to read for a while. Sometimes I become engrossed in this play with my books, pick up two or three in rapid succession, and read a paragraph or so from each. Then I look at my clock and realize I must go to bed.

I dream of a land in which we have no obligations to prevent us from exploring. I do not have to decide between my rest and my books. When this play leads me to new places, I do not want to stop.

On my shelf of books there are some that I have never sat down to read the whole way through. Some that never catch my eye while scanning should probably not be there. In order to have new places to explore, I need to continue buying books. To do this I will need to get recommendations. The new books I buy will be recommendations from learned people whose eyes lit up when they talked about them. They would come from the few that are justly famous. I would talk to people I respect and get a broad range of reactions about these authors&151;from laughter to rage. I already have a few in mind.

Doubtless I am going about my education all in the wrong way. It has been said that “One should memorize the works one cherishes.” I cherish the works I remember and can’t help thinking about. I am all for the exploration in my mind. The journey is paramount; it can come through one book or many. The books that get me thinking come up again and again in conversation and in thought. I remember them because they are worth remembering. There are many books worth reading. Not all of them are worth reading twice. I am mindful of that fact when I read and when I buy. I buy books I have already read only if they are worth thinking about, talking about and writing about. I only want them if they are memorable.

My memory is crowded with fragments and chips of thoughts and experiences. This is all I have to express to the world. I only remember what interests me. Therefore, the things that are swimming around in my mind have a special stamp on them. My self has latched on to them. This is how I have gone about discovering who I am. The only way I can do this is by conversing. My self resists being exposed in the open to scrutiny. I can only engage it in discussion and see what it says. My books are good conversationalists. I can yell and throw them to the floor. I can cry or laugh. But the book is still there, waiting to converse with me.

“It” is a poor term for a book. Every book is created by a person. Thus, it has a personality. When I engage in conversation, I do so with an individual. Conversation with this individual can help me discover who I am. I do not try to agree or disagree with any part of what the book says. The books that I am talking about are not divine Scripture&151;that is for another discussion. Sometimes the books I disagree with the most are the ones that I learn the most from. Sometimes they are worth reading twice.

I am engaging in an act of self-discovery those midnights on the floor with a book. I am allowing each author to pull me in. Me&151;the real me&151;not a product of accidents. I have been shaped, but it is still me. And, when I go to bed, I take my self with me. Perhaps even I know my self a little better. When I wake up I may not remember what I have read. I cannot forget my self.

Alan Huntington is a sophomore from Holley, New York, majoring in Political Science and History.

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