Books: Summiting

Children Climbing a Mountain of Books 1993

Children Climbing a Mountain of Books 1993

The Seven Summits are the seven highest mountains on each of the seven continents. Summiting all of them is considered to be the ultimate in mountaineering challenges. To achieve such a goal takes time, effort, money, strength, and training. But more importantly it takes focus, will, and drive. George Mallory once famously said one climbs Mt. Everest because it’s there. While that’s the idea, he actually said this:

“People ask me, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is of no use.’There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behaviour of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron… If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.” – George Mallory, Climbing Everest: The Complete Writings of George Mallory

This is the best comparison to my thoughts on reading. I don’t read books solely for enjoyment. The enjoyment is a happy byproduct of my need. My hunger. People who have summited the highest mountains often say they were compelled by something inside them, something in their nature thrust this hunger for climbing into their DNA. That’s how I feel about reading. Books are what keep me going. Reading is as much a part of me as the tattoo on my back or the blood in my veins.

Instead of fighting it, I relinquished to it. I am a slave to books. I’m not being dramatic here, I literally carry them around all day, tuck them back into their proper spots, and make sure no harm comes to them. When you work in a bookstore the gravity of books, both literal and philosophical, are around you every day. Sure, they fall from shelves or get left on the floor. They topple from my arms and land on my foot. But they also taunt me. The unread ones, that is. Those which eluded me day after day, year after year. Those discovered and forgotten repeatedly, a horrid and lonely fate. I know. Those I’ve read haunt me like ghosts or perhaps old friends I remember fondly, but fade a little over time until all I am left with is a faint memory, like summer grass from childhood.

I read because I have to. I want to be the guy that has read all the books. Not out of a sense of competition, but rather for personal accomplishment. Nothing gives me greater joy than finishing a book. Well, perhaps the feeling I get when I am almost finished with a book. It usually happens maybe sixty pages away from completion. My mind begins to think of the new possibilities before me. What I chose is important, for I will be spending much of my time with it. But that feeling of possibility, that feeling is the need. That is the Book Summiter calling out to me, “Hurry up ‘ol chap! There’s another mountain over here! It won’t climb itself!”. I don’t know why, but the Book Summiter inside of me is of British descent, and dresses like Edmund Hillary.

I will continue my quest to summit the many mountains of books in the world. I will take it one step at a time, taking from each book some new treasure or tool to aid me on my journey. Because reading makes me smarter. Not just in the obvious ways such as vocabulary or how to tell a good sentence from a poor one, but in little ways I could never have even dreamed of. The world opens a little wider with every book I read. I am a more well-rounded person. Reading Watership Down gave me a sense of discovery I haven’t had since I was a child. In a novel where the world is seen from the point of view of rabbits, a boat becomes a strange and wondrous thing. I got the joy of discovering, along with Fiver and Hazel, what that strange wooden thing in the water was. And it was delightful! There is something worth finding inside each good book. Another summit, reached!

I hope nothing more than to inspire you to read today. Take a moment. Close your eyes and let your mind wander. Follow where it leads you. Did it take you down a dark path in a dark wood? Perhaps you’ll consider Shirley Jackson. She is one of my favorites to spend an afternoon with. Maybe it took you instead to a secluded beach on a far off shore, in which case The Island, by Alex Garland will suffice. If your mind took off to another planet, please spend time with The Book of Strange New Things by the always formidable and gifted Michel Faber. You will be surprised in all of the best ways possible.

And isn’t that why we read? To feel? To release emotion or to remember it. To learn something new and to ultimately learn “something new” about ourselves. Big picture and little picture. Me and you. From the haunting poetry of Frank Stanford to the charming prairie life of the Ingalls family, there is something to be gained from reading. Memoir or history. Poetry or literature. I am learning about the human experience and my part in it.

So far this year I’ve summited twenty-three books, and I’m off to climb another mountain.

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