Today I turn 40. I was not one of those kids who always imagined her future (perhaps to my detriment, since I sometimes think those people’s lives seem a lot easier and more fulfilled than mine, although the key word there is “seem,” since I really have no idea), so I didn’t really have any preconceived ideas about what my life should be like at this point, on the cusp of middle age. But I’m pretty sure I did not think it would be like this: uncertain, financially and professionally unstable, with that persistent sense that George Saunders recently described in The New York Times Magazine that “You’re now the father of two and you will work in that cubicle or you will be dishonored.”
Hindsight is supposed to be 20/20, but I often feel I know as little now about what happened then as I did then. Perhaps my hindsight is as myopic as my eyesight. Also, isn’t 40 the age when you have to start wearing bifocals? Anyway, it seems like my vision is pretty messed up.
40/40 is my slightly myopic 21st-century version of a midlife crisis. Even at 40, I still have that unsettling sense that I’m waiting for something to happen, and I wanted to try to create something both as a way of staving off that feeling and as a way of making it happen, whatever “it” is. The mystery and opacity of the “it” is what is so unsettling, so I will define it by creating something tangible, whose results I can see and enjoy (or fret over) right now. Click – voila! – instant gratification.
The question is, what? I am a private person and have no interest in writing a personal blog about my kids or my job or the persistent ache in my right shoulder. I love to write, but I am uncomfortable when people read what I’ve written or know what I really think about all kinds of things – this is probably why I chose an academic field in which anything I write is guaranteed to be read by no more than five people, give or take. I also love to read, but so does everyone else. Zadie Smith recently captured my own feelings on the subject of reading and expertise far better than I could myself:
“I have known many true connoisseurs, with excellent tastes that range across the humanities and the culinary arts – and they never fail to have a fatal effect on my self-esteem. When I find myself sitting at dinner next to someone who knows just as much about novels as I do but has somehow also found the mental space to adore and be knowledgeable about the opera, have strong opinions about the relative rankings of Renaissance painters, an encyclopedic knowledge of the English civil war, of French wines – I feel an anxiety that nudges beyond the envious into the existential. How did she find the time?”
I want to make myself find the time for a project that can satisfy and challenge me both, so here it is: in honor of my fortieth birthday I am going to read 40 books this year and write about them here. I am going to combine reading and re-reading, because one of the things I find myself doing more and more frequently as I get older is thinking about books I read long ago and wanting to read them again, but as I get older I’ve also realized that time is running out to do it, and I better get started. To keep it fresh I also want to read newly published books, fiction and non-fiction, things I’m interested in and things that are good that I might initially think I’m not interested in but then become captivated by. I’d prefer to read only good books, but I’m sure that won’t happen all of the time. I have a short list to start, but I need suggestions, so if you have any, please share. Check back shortly (oh, the optimism!) for my first reflection.