“The truth we make for ourselves is just the sum of what is in someone’s interest. . .”

People are all the time giving me books to read or suggesting the book I must read next in order that my life be complete.

I make my own reality?

I make my own truth?

Every academician—or anyone who wants to be thought of as literate and intelligent—knows one is supposed to read books. Lots of books.

I don’t get it. I don’t like to read. I find it very difficult to read. I used to read. I used to read a lot. I have hundreds of books behind me on homemade shelves to prove it. I’ve read (at least parts of) almost all of them.

I find the thought of plowing through a book daunting. I can’t concentrate. I can’t keep a story in my mind (if it’s fiction), and I can’t absorb huge amounts (or even small amounts) of information (if it’s non-fiction).

If this is a sign of old age, my old age began when I was about 55. The last time I read lots of books was 1999 when I was preparing for the qualifying exams for my (2nd—unfinished) PhD. I passed the exams after I finished reading 30 novels in one summer. Mostly 20th-century American, so—if there had not been so many of them—it would have been fun (Madison Smartt’s Washington Square Ensemble was my favorite).

In the last week I have bought the Nook versions of:
Rottenberg, Jonathan. The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic. New York: Basic Books (2014), 272 pages.
Gardiner, John Eliot. Bach, Music in the Castle of Heaven. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (2013), 672 pages. (672 pages! Yikes!)

I usually won’t even look at—much less purchase—any book over 300 pages. It seems impossible that anyone can write 672 pages worth reading. I don’t know why reading is such a chore.

I’ll bet most people who tell me I must read such-and-so book (or what? I won’t go to heaven?) have read that one book and not another in the last year. Not “all” — “most.” I know people who read all the time. Most of them watch a lot of movies and listen to music, too (unless they’re academics, in which case they live somewhere the rest of us don’t even want to visit).

Jo Nesbo. My kind of guy?

Jo Nesbo. My kind of guy?

Here’s the truth. The books I read these days are Stieg Larsson’s novels (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest –I’ve read the entire trilogy); Jo Nesbit’s trilogy (The Bat, Cockroaches, and The Redbreast—I’m on the second one); John Morgan Wilson’s “Justice” trilogy—which I started, but—as so often happens with gay literature—being gay is more important than being a good story, so I didn’t finish even the first of those.

So what’s with this? Crime, mystery, serial novels. Right up my alley these days. None of them is as good as Raymond Chandler, of course (who is?), but they keep my mind occupied and hold my interest. I suppose Danielle Steele is next. Or, HORRORS! J.K. Rowling. (No, even in my dotage I can’t stoop to that level of BAD writing. Shudder. What insults to the English language.)

I don’t understand. I’m supposed to be at least a “pseudo” intellectual. I remember 35 years ago having a conversation with a friend in Muscatine, IA, when I was in graduate school (for my first PhD, which I did finish). She was the go-getter director of a foundation that did lots of educational stuff, and she said to me, “Isn’t great that we’re part of the intellectual elite?” Well, no one who was would say so, and I knew we certainly were not.

As Rosencrantz says, “I like a good story with a beginning, a middle, and an end” (Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Act II, line 322).

You see, I’m at an age when pretense and obfuscation (in the name of whatever intellectual game) are just silliness to me. If a writer can’t say what they mean in plain English and spin a good yarn, I don’t want to be bothered. I tell my students to write for their 6th-grade siblings, that Poor Dumb Reader is just that, “dumb.”

And then I come across a passage in one of those low-brow books that I think is worth not only reading, but making note of.

Truth is relative. . . We have forensic psychiatrists who try to draw a line between those who are sick and those who are criminal, and they bend and twist the truth to make it fit into their world of theoretical models. . . and journalists who would like to be seen as idealists because they make their names by exposing others in the belief that they’re establishing some kind of justice. But the truth? The truth is that no one lives off the truth and that’s why no one cares about the truth. The truth we make for ourselves is just the sum of what is in someone’s interest, balanced by the power they hold.  [Nesbo, Jo. The Bat. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (2013) page 200. I think it’s unfortunate that the detective’s name is Harry Hole, but. . .]

OK. I know it’s Nesbo slipping not-very-intellectual “big ideas” into his fiction. Preaching even. Not subtle. But an idea I can get my mind around. The truth we make for ourselves is just the sum of what is in someone’s interest, balanced by the power they hold.

My interest is in getting through this life with some grace and dignity. I hold almost no power. The sum of my self-interest and my power diminishes every day. And so I stop trying to make “the truth for myself” and care about truth. That’s what Nesbo’s cop is trying to say, I think. Without obfuscation. girl dragon