March 2, 2008
Michael Epstein does what I’ve always meant to do. He keeps a list of the books he has read. In fact, it’s a list of 1082 (and counting) books he’s read since 1978 . And since he retired last spring from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where he was chief operating officer and executive vice president, the list has continued to grow even more impressively. What began as simple listing has expanded to include a brief synopsis and what he calls “nuggets,” meaningful passages, pithy quotes, memorable characters.
Suddenly book lists are part of the zeitgeist, it seems, almost hot in the way “journaling” and “scrapbooking” were just a season or two ago. Art Garfunkel has one on his official website--1023 books read at last look since June, 1968 (cq). The United States Army Chief of Staff has one, too, broken down into categories from Sublist 1 for Cadets, Soldiers, and Junior NCOs to Sublist 4, for Senior Leaders Above Brigade Level.
After talking with Epstein near his Cambridge home, I am filled with regret that my pathetic attempts resemble those diary entries where “not much happened today.” What Epstein has, by contrast, is an organized body of work listing the books, yes, but even more documenting time spent and ideas encountered. His list shows a way of honoring the passing days by paying attention to them.
“It’s a reaction to the total fleetingness of life and our inability to stop time,” he says. “Maybe it’s aging or maybe it’s the pace of the world, but having started the journal and having it now in its 30th year, I think it’s one of the best things I’ve done.
“It’s a day by day record of your life. How many days can we remember? How much can you keep in your brain’s CD-ROM?” Epstein asks, laughing that he’s got a lot of 1950s song lyrics in there that he’d like to delete. But, looking at his list, he can remember not only the books, but the days spent with them-- the summer at the rented house in Wellfleet with his baby daughter.
Part of the pleasure for him, too, is the tactile experience. If you’re looking for a gift for him, don’t get an audio book.
“I like the physicality of books, the heft of a book, the look of the cover.”
Lately Epstein has added a new dimension to his reading, memorizing poetry. I am reminded of the beautiful old-fashioned term, “having a poem by heart,” that acknowledges the reader’s ownership of a poem that has been committed to memory.
“The act of memorizing opens up a new level of understanding of the poem,” Epstein says. “The poet worked to get every word right and, in memorizing, I have that same struggle.” He tells me about a William Stafford poem he has begun to memorize and how working on it word by word has made the alliteration and the sensory images spring to life. He stumbles a little reaching for the first line and we laugh when it turns out to be “Starting here, what do you want to remember?”
That is a question can be asked, too, about why one might want to keep a reading list. Starting here, what books do you want to remember? What days?