August 22, 2012

Depressing Thought, or Maybe Not

In need of an activity for a melancholy mood? Go to a library. Pick an aisle of floor-to-ceiling books and walk down it, running your fingertips along the spines. Go slowly and, as you go, consider how every single book on these shelves was a huge enormous deal to its author: likely one of the biggest accomplishments/excitements of the author's life.

Imagine the huge amount of work that went into the writing and submitting of the manuscript, the thrill of hearing the book had been chosen for publication, the frantic stress of editing and decision-making, the anticipation of publication day---and at last, the book in the author's hands! Their OWN BOOK! THEIR words on REAL pages!! A dream come true at last! And then the reports coming in of sales! The commissions! The excitement, perhaps, of interviews and book-signings! The parties with friends and family!

And now the book sits with rows of other authors' dreams come true on library shelves, and hardly anyone reads them even when they can do so for free, and most of the authors' names are completely unrecognizable. And in a few more decades the books will be in the "Fill a bag for a dollar!!" library sale, and still no one will want them, and they'll be recycled. A few decades after that, a few of the books will show up in antique stores where, again, most will be passed over even though they're only $2 and are Snapshots Of An Earlier Time.

It is not a very cheery thought, to see all the NOTHING everything comes to after so few years. On the other hand, sometimes it is good to put accomplishment goals into perspective: even if those goals ARE accomplished, will they be as marvelous as expected, or less so? and then what NEXT? Another book to be quickly forgotten? A new, loftier goal?

I have a feeling the letdown after achieving a Big Goal is worse than postpartum or postwedding: so much anticipation and such fervent hopes, coming to something that turns out, once obtained, to be surprisingly ordinary. And that can be encouraging and perspective-straightening to think of, particularly if the goal never IS achieved---and if it is achieved, good to think of ahead of time to reduce the letdown.


Jessica said...

That is depressing. Sort of. It actually seems like a (don't shoot me) religious point of view: everything in this world fades away, so focus on the only thing bigger than this world (your god).

Jessica said...

Also, I could FEEL myself in the library, running my fingers across book spines, even though I'm sitting at my desk at work. I love the way you brought it to life.

Robin said...

I actually wonder about my thoughts on the this subject. It's all I can think about when I go to the library with my kids. How many people's greatest hopes and dreams resulted in just another book on the shelf to pass over.

I think the same thing in my inlaws house - they have spent a lifetime carefully considering purchases and paying for a household and I consider every single article in it to be complete crap. I obsess how I'll get rid of it when they die.

I often wonder when I have these thoughts if I need to get back on Lexapro. Is it normal to be that melancholy/depressed about inanimate objects?

Swistle said...

Robin- I think what we need here is SPIN: it's not "melancholy/depressed thoughts," it's an admirable higher-level anti-materialistic perspective! WE'RE the ones who See Things As They Really Are, Rather Than Being Blinded By Trivialities! (How's that?)

Katie said...

Oh dear. That IS depressing. Mostly because my loftiest of lofty goals is to be a published author, and for what? Except that I am the person who loves discovering books no one has picked from the library shelves in years, so maybe my consolation is that someone like me will always exist, so maybe there's always the chance whatever I (loftily) published will be read? Nope, still depressing. :)

Nicole said...

Whoa. Nelly.

bluedaisy said...

This makes me think about how sometimes the journey is bigger than the destination (even if the destination is truly wonderful). The same could be true for any of the things that are considered life's "big" accomplishments: diplomas, marriage, kids, buying your first car/home, climbing a mountain, (fill in your thought), etc.

I think that perspective and expectations are the keys to whether these thoughts are depressing versus affirming. For me, I tend toward affirming because even if a book "ends up on a shelf", I still have the knowledge that I wrote that book and the experience was an important piece of my life.

I also love the library image- I could feel the books, smell the library smell. A very vivid image indeed.

el-e-e said...

I like the last sentence, and what I get out of the exercise is this: The things we think are so stressful, so giant, so important, aren't any of those things necessarily, in the long run. We can do our best but, hey, whatever.

marilyn c. cole said...

I don't know -- there is still an intrinsic and immediate happiness that is not to be dismissed. The excitement you mentioned of getting the book in your hands can be satisfying in and of itself, without regard to what it'll lead to in 5, 10, 20 years. And what about the happiness that (some) of those books surely have brought to their readers? How many people affect strangers' lives like that?

Though I guess we must also consider that some of those books affected strangers' lives more with the increase of anger and frustration over a crappy book.

Anonymous said...

But how cool would it be to walk through the stacks and find YOUR book with YOUR name in the author spot? I don't think I would ever not feel excited about that.

Nowheymama said...

I actually find this comforting. Like, I'd love to write a book and have it published, but I'd hate to be recognizably famous in any way. The chances of that are slim to none, even if I WERE to get published! And sometimes I lie awake worrying about the personal stuff I've put on the internet, but I am one of MILLIONS of voices out there. The stakes are really low, Self, so go for it!

How's that for a random takeaway?

Melospiza said...

This very thought is what sometimes makes me panicky in bookstores (also libraries, but especially bookstores). Partly it's because someday, dammit, I will have a book on those shelves - but also there are so many books I want to reeeeead. And there is just no way, no way that it's possible to read and savor every book.

I try to remind myself, though, that it's not about Eating It All. It's eating what you need and getting sustenance and enjoyment. It's not possible to know everybody in the world or even in my small corner of it. But it is possible to know some people well. And books are like people. Or meals.

Beylit said...

First off, I am terrified of libraries, so this entire scenario makes me panicky to start with. Second, that is horribly depressing.

Carmen said...

"The letdown after achieving a Big Goal.." Exactly. The weeks after I finished my PhD and was finally Dr. Carmen were the most depressing times of my life. I had spent 9 years of my life in University, working towards this goal of getting a PhD in molecular biology and suddenly I was done. My life was now listless and without aim; I was drifting in a sea of worthlessness. I had NOTHING to work towards anymore and life was grim. The letdown was huge. HUGE.

Eventually, perspective was found: it's just a piece of paper. Goals can actually be things other than pieces of paper. But it took a while for me to get to that point. There was some wallowing, I'll admit.

Robin said...

Swistle, just want to say that I know it's weird but I'm pretty sure we actually share a brain. I have never read another blog (and comments) that so often addresses thoughts and problems in the way that I feel I would. I would say more people like you should exist but I think that would be construed as me saying more people in the world should be like me and that's so conceited!

Just wanted to say that you're awesome and I love reading what you write!

Anonymous said...

That never depresses me actually. I used to work in a library so being around all those books, even the ones no one read anymore, had me more in a state of awe at all the stories that have been told, and all the information that has been shared.

And now as a published author, just the knowledge that someone has read the story that I've sent out into the universe is a thrill. Even if no one ever reads it again. It'll never get old or not exciting.

Maureen said...

I am another who doesn't find this depressing at all, I think it's wonderful. Life is made up of moments, and I think how happy all these authors must have been to get that letter that their book will be published, the first time they hold the book in their hands, the thought that just one person might read and enjoy their book.

I routinely browse the shelves at the library, and will check out books written 50 yrs ago. When the book is good, and I can't put it down-wouldn't the author be happy to know that all these years later they are still reaching people with their words?

Lawyerish said...

Ah, this is so perfectly written, Swistle. You just GET IT.

I think, in the end, it's not a depressing thought. I'd love to publish a book someday, and even if it ended up being read only by a few friends and my mom, I'd still leave something permanent behind after I died. I like the thought that I would have a dusty tome sitting on a shelf in the Library of Congress forever.

I also think this kind of perspective is healthy, because (1) it helps me remember that I'm not a huge failure if I never do publish anything, and (2) that even Big Goals become mundane once you're in the aftermath of them.

Anne Lamott writes about this in Bird by Bird -- about how aspiring writers think that being published will make them famous and rich, and solve all their problems. But of course the vast majority of books end up forgotten, most authors don't get rich/famous, and post-publication you still have to get out of bed and put your underwear on in the morning.

Heidi J said...

This reminds me of:

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.

Ecclesiastes 1: 2-11


Of making many books there is no end...
Ecclesiastes 12:12b

Swistle said...

Robin- Nay, more people SHOULD be like us!

Swistle said...

Jessica and Heidi J.- Yes, I think religion stems from the despair of feeling as if nothing here really matters. The brain searches: "There must be more, or else this is REALLY DEPRESSING!!"

Anonymous said...

I don't find it depressing- it is just the nature of our place in the universe. It is what it is.
It reminds me of something that resonate with me from Maya Angelou which I'm now going to butcher bc it's 2 am and I'm up nursing a baby....
Basically your importance in the universe can be illustrated by putting your finger in a pond. When u take your finger out, does the hole remain?
Simple, beautiful, true.

Hulga said...

Love this. When an artist has a big exhibit that they have spent a lot of time working on, then they have the opening, it's up for a month, sales reviews etc.. But when it comes down. hoo boy. A lot of artists call it "post show" like postpartum. Eventually you move onto the next project, but the loss sticks around for awhile. The running your fingers over the spines reminds me a lot of the sand through the hourglass imagery. Everything fades.

Rita Arens said...

Actually, it give you perspective. The letdown is a huge lesson. Your life doesn't change. You just entered the Dewey Decimal system. And I've found it makes me extremely hungry to do it all over again, for there to be a new creation with my name on it.

Having put a book on the shelves and realizing it's just a book on the shelves also makes it very difficult to take someone self-important very seriously.

Surely said...

I'm just gonna lay down here on the floor for a little while, if you need me.