Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
Ecclesiastes 12:12 has horrified me for years, and for two reasons: I love to read books, and I love to write books. And apparently, it turns out they’re meaningless and weary the soul.
My husband is presently engaged in the herculean business of writing a dissertation for his doctorate in the philosophy of religion. Never mind that philosophy of religion seems a misnomer to me, he just told me that every dissertation ever written is published. Who reads these published books? So far his footnotes take up half of each page like impossible to read ingredients on the side of a cereal box.
The reading room of the Library of Congress has a masterfully constructed domed ceiling painted in gold leaf. Encircled high above the floor are nine carved stone statues of authors: Demosthenes, Emerson, Irving, Goethe, Franklin, Macaulay, Hawthorne, Scott, and Dante. They stand as though observing the long tables and reading lights and books like things to banter back and forth about. I wonder if Demosthenes, Emerson, Irving, Goethe, Franklin, Macaulay, Hawthorne, Scott, and Dante would care if you’re reading their work or if they’d get all irritated if you were reading someone they considered low-brow; Jane Austin, Thomas Hardy, maybe they sniff the air and whisper “smut.”
Sometimes important books are on display in the Library of Congress such as Steinbeck’s, The Grapes of Wrath or Tim O’Brien’s, The Things They Carried. The books are opened to important pages where the author’s gift to the world of letters can be appreciated and cherished. Someday I would like to have a book on display open to a profound page I wrote. Adults would stroll by and point to it and whisper my name to their children who would have no interest in me or my book and would only be biding time until they could get the ice cream they were promised after they went through this one, last, museum.
Sometimes my husband and I talk about his dissertation, and while I’ve had to ask him what perdurantist and noesis means, I’ve learned a lot. In fact, I’ve made a few good points myself, after which we both pause and say, hmm, that is a good point and I feel very smart. These conversations always take place in the mornings, before my Adderall wears off. If he refers back to the conversation later in the day, I bring up dinner, something to distract him because I no longer feel very smart and can’t remember the very smart point I’d made that morning.
A week ago, after I told him I thought it was foolish that there are all those dissertations floating around out there that no one reads, he said something interesting; he told me that every dissertation, no matter the discipline, has to have a different slant, that it has to introduce something that’s never been examined before.
Which means that PhD candidates have to come up with narrower and narrower topics to write about because—as Ecclesiastes points out—there’s no end to the books already written, and how do you find something to discuss that’s never been explored except to roil on about how many possible worlds can fit on the head of a pin, because Augustine already got to the problem of evil years ago.
I wonder if when Ecclesiastes says books weary the soul, it’s referring to the many books that have been written about things that don’t matter when there are so many things to write about that do matter, or read that do matter. Stuff that makes contact with redemption in this day and age in a unique way, or circles back to the problem of evil, only this time instead of the unjustness of leprosy, the backdrop is racism or metastatic brain tumors.
But then there’s still writers like David Sedaris, who refuses tact and makes me laugh so hard I once called my daughter on the phone just to read a paragraph to her. There might not be an obvious subtext—at least in the sense that there’s a solid take-home—but even so, when Sedaris writes about his mother’s lifelong affair with cigarettes it’s much more than just a funny story, and Demosthenes, Emerson, Irving, Goethe, Franklin, Macaulay, Hawthorne, Scott, and Dante’s opinions notwithstanding, Austen has more to say about the British class system than any egg head behind a leaded glass window at Cambridge.
Austen and Sedaris don’t weary my soul.
Perhaps I’ve missed the point of the verse. Ecclesiastes 12:12 doesn’t say books are pointless, only that there are a lot of them and they weary the soul. Attempting to get through even one percent of them would weary my soul—and trying to make sense of them all would most certainly weary my soul.
Reading Ecclesiastes, or the Gospel of John, or Ezekiel, or so many other books of the Bible don’t weary my soul. Every word deposits a moment of eternity in me in such a way as to make all other books meaningless. I think it’s about comparison; the wisdom of God vs the wisdom of man, like trying to compare the small glories of this world with the eternal glories of Heaven. Compared to Heaven, we live in a weary world, and the fact that we can read about the riches and love of God is a remarkable thing; Jesus healing a blind man is an Eternal Story, and in that sense, it gives us sight.
Eugene Peterson, in The Message, translates Ecclesiastes 12:12 as:
“But regarding anything beyond this, dear friend, go easy. There’s no end to the publishing of books, and constant study wears you out so you’re no good for anything else. The last and final word is this:
Do what he tells you.”
I like Peterson’s translation; Go easy. Books fascinate and will inhabit your head for a time, but they’ll always recede back down the New York Times bestseller list and become obsolete. Maybe a few authors will stick around long enough to earn a stone statue in the Library of Congress, which is quite a feat to be sure, but then that only confirms the fact that they aren’t eternal.
Katherine James holds an MFA from Columbia University, where she received the Felipe P. De Alba fellowship. Her novel Can You See Anything Now? was a finalist for the Doris Bakwin prize and won Christianity Today’s award for best fiction of 2018. She has studied at Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference and taught fiction at the Festival of Faith and Writing, Taylor University, and other venues. Katherine’s work has appeared in many journals and anthologies, most recently, Ruminate Online and The London Reader. A Prayer for Orion, her memoir about her son’s heroin overdose is forthcoming in October of 2019.
Up next, Writing from the World's Weight
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Dear Ms. James,
I enjoyed reading your comments about the evanescent importance of books generally (and of human life generally, according to Kohelet), and I appreciate both your and Peterson’s comments about the weariness that comes with too much reading. I am impressed, BTW, with Peterson’s eschewing the translation of “soul” for the original Hebrew of “n-f-sh”, because in Biblical Hebrew “n-f-sh” never means “soul” (pace the KJV translation) but rather “being” or “person.” (Only in post-biblical Hebrew did “n-f-sh” take on the coloration of “soul.”) Peter argues, convincingly I believe, that “constant study” physically wears on a person, that it saps his/her energy and makes him/her less ready to engage with the real world. Maybe constant study really is good for the soul — that’s arguable — but it’s not healthy for the person.
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July 07, 2019
Sitting on the porch in the late morning fresh air, wondering if I should tackle one of the ‘serious’ titles in my books-to-read pile… poking through emails… and I find this lovely piece of yours, perfectly in tune with the blue sky and the breeze and the moment. Thank you Katherine James!