Eulogy for an Aging Book Guy
I’m thinking about giving up my identity as a “book guy.” (Which doesn’t mean that I’m giving up on reading per se; simply that I’m considering no longer so aggressively inserting that particular pastime into my outward facing persona.) And not because “book guy” has somehow become any less gratifying a façade — if anything, my affection for its particulars have only strengthened with time. (I love the thick-rimmed glasses, the T-shirts adorned with faded images of out-of-print novels, the smug sense of superiority I get to feel as I stare over the spine of “Infinite Jest” on the subway — the teeming mass of my fellow commuters immersed in the decidedly less-worthy diversions of “iPhones,” “newspapers,” and “not desperately trying to impress a trainful of strangers with a faulty air of intellectual authority.”) The honest truth is that I actually really like being a book guy; it’s simply that, as time progresses and mores shift, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for me to justify the “book guy persona” as anything resembling efficacious. (For one thing, I’m finding that, past a certain point, people are unwilling to tolerate the use of a word like efficacious in what was, up to that point, casual conversation.)
Compounding the issue is the fact that, at some point over the last several years — a time which was for me primarily spent agonizing over the decision as to whether or not taking up pipe-smoking would be seen as a bit too “on the nose” — television has apparently become really, really good. Not to overstate the fact, but the near universal consensus appears to be that we’re living in what can only be described as a new golden age of the medium, with legitimate auteurs reshaping the television landscape through a groundbreaking combination of breathtaking cinematography, innovative storytelling, and an eagerness to confront even the most pressing social issues of the day. Which is — of course — objectively good for humanity.
But it’s objectively terrible for me.
Because the underlying premise that “television is inherently not good” is one of the core tenets of the entire “book guy” identity. At least, it used to be. It used to be that I — a “book person” — stood in stark contrast to you — a “television person.” I represented a “beacon of urbane intellectualism.” You represented a “couch-sustained root vegetable.” I didn’t “watch TV.” I “derived pleasure from the written word.” I didn’t “laugh at situation comedies.” I spent my days “quietly admiring wit.” You’d ask me if I’d “seen the new King of Queens” and I’d ask you if you’d “read the new David Sedaris.”
(Sure, I was a dick. But I was a literate dick.)
And yet, even in the face of all that obnoxious pretension, I still maintain that my core thesis held true. Because, at the time when I was truly coming of age as an adult — the time when the various facets of my personality were coalescing into something resembling a coherent identity — television was, for the most part, just not that good. Although it seems antiquated by the standards of today, this was a time when people still casually dismissed their television sets with such trivializing monikers as “the baby-sitter,” the “idiot box,” and, perhaps most efficaciously, “the boob tube.” (The implication being, of course, that anyone who owned a television set was, at least in some peripheral sense, a boob.)
The timing of which could not have coincided better with my newfound emergence into the world of post-collegiate adulthood — that brief, ephemeral window in which humanity seems willing to tolerate a modest degree of douche-baggery as the necessary byproduct of a youthful personal development. (And here please note the use of the qualifier modest, as the line separating “acceptably douchey” from “insufferably repellent” is a thin one, and easily crossed. After all, the boundary between the book people and the people who brag about not owning a television set at parties is a precarious threshold indeed.)
We all know those people — drunk on their own brilliance and your own booze — forcefully examining your television set with an air of studied confusion akin to that of a bewildered archaeologist thrust into the ruins of some heretofore-undiscovered rainforest civilization. Those friends-of-your-friends seemingly incapable of completing a thought without the addition of an off-handed “… but then again, I don’t even own a TV, so …”
(And, to be clear, while I never crossed that line, I certainly did tightrope my way across it.)
But all of that was — at least for that particular moment in time — OK. I was young and I was inspired and I had just been awakened into the world of literature. Which is, it should be noted, an actual expression that I would find a way to work into almost every conversation that I was having at the time. (Speaking more accurately — I would start conversations with the sole intention of ram-rodding that particular phrase down the unfortunate throat of anyone with whom I happened to be engaged in what was, up to that point, casual conversation:
“So, are you reading anything these days? No? Me? Well, me — lately I’ve been reading this incredible writer named Philip Roth and … I don’t know … I just feel like I’ve been awakened into the world of literature, you know?”)
(And lest you be concerned that this was a popular persona: it was not.)
Of course it was obnoxiously self-indulgent. But it was an obnoxious self-indulgence with a purpose — a pretentiousness in the service of determining exactly who it was that I sought to become as a fully actualized being-in-the-world. (“Being-In-The-World” itself being a phrase that I’d stolen from Martin Heidegger after a brief and misguided stint as a “college philosophy guy.”) And isn’t that ultimately the point of your early twenties? To try on different personalities like so many costumes and see which wig works best with your complexion? Some people grow dreadlocks and hitchhike to Burning Man, some people get political and run for local office, and some people drink cognac and start hanging around The Strand.
And so I grew out my hair and I bought a tweed jacket. I argued with strangers about the importance of “assonance.” (I revised those arguments when enough strangers pointed out that I actually didn’t know what the word “assonance” meant.) I started drinking black coffee and carrying around a worn copy of Ulysses — a book that I found to be utterly incomprehensible and therefore, for some reason, life-changing. (“Sure — it may not be readable in the traditional sense, but wouldn’t you say that therein lies its true genius…?”) In my mind, I was a mere hop, skip, and one published essay away from a tenure-track professorship at some small-but-renowned New England University — an Amherst, a Williams … hell, even Dartmouth if they’d be willing to reimburse my stipend for expenses accrued whilst hosting my off campus “literary salons.”
And then Friday Night Lights came along and fucked everything up. (Although I do begrudgingly admit that there is something deliciously satisfying in the irony of the idea that an entire generation of aspiring literati — a population whose very existence was defined through a dogmatic avoidance of all things athletic — would see their heyday cut short at the hands of a beautifully lit, subtly scored, three-camera show about football.)
And being, as we are, on the topic of begrudging admissions, I suppose that I should also here confess that, despite all of my protestations to the contrary, it is likely that the Dillon Panthers were not the sole beneficiary of Coach Eric Taylor’s messianic arrival onto those hardscrabble streets of south Texas. For just as he was saving that rag-tag ensemble from its own host of existential demons, so was his arrival perfectly timed to save me from my own. (And here I should note that if those references elude you, go check out Season Two of Friday Night Lights on Netflix. It really is — I can now say with the benefit of hindsight — that good.)
Because to everything there is a season, and the season for “trying on identities like costumes” is somewhere between the ages of 7 and 26. Anything beyond that, and all you’re actually doing is simply “wearing a costume.” It’s a sad yet basic truth that humanity’s tolerance for “youthful experimentation” is truly limited to those who are, indeed, youthful. (When you see a 19-year-old with ripped jeans and pierced cheeks you think, “Cool — I bet he’s in a punk band.” When you see a 43-year-old with ripped jeans and pierced cheeks you think, “Wow — I hope he’s not a parent.” A 22-year-old on a skateboard says “eco-conscious entrepreneur.” A 39-year-old on a skateboard says “lost his car in a really bad divorce.” It isn’t as if growing older requires that you abandon your passions outright, but at some point you need to synthesize them into something resembling age-appropriate. )
And yet, you still want to be able to project something — something unique or engaging or at the very least notable — something that serves to distinguish you from the teeming mass of homogeneity that you’ve spent your life thus far so deliberately avoiding. Because otherwise, we’re all just … well … us. And with the exception of those fateful few who can truly skate by on personality alone — the majority of whom are later revealed to be sociopaths or white-collar criminals — “us” just isn’t all that great. How is “us” going to come up with anything interesting to say about ourselves at parties?
And thus we tend towards a vast overreliance on our jobs as a means of differentiation — substituting “employment specifics” for “personality traits.” (There’s a reason why the default introduction for strangers at parties isn’t “Tell me who you are” but “Tell me what you do.”) Which would, of course, be fine, if we, as a society, didn’t feel the collective need to convince the world that “we’re really good at our jobs” by also convincing the world that “we’re really stressed out at our jobs.”
And yet the exhausting reality is that we always find a way to compel every conversation that we have about our careers into an ego-fueled race-to-the-bottom where we compete with each other to see who can come across as the most miserable:
“I worked for 13 hours today.”
“I worked for 15 hours today!”
“I worked on Easter.”
“Yeah? Well, I worked on Christmas!”
“My wife is ready to divorce me.”
“My son calls me Jeff The Stranger!”
Skateboards and pierced cheeks aside, there are few displays more tragic in their despair than two accountants arguing over which one has worked the most Saturdays during “busy season.”
(On a side note — if you ever truly do want a glimpse of meaningful insight into exactly who your co-workers are outside of their cubical confines, find an excuse to get everyone to come into the office for a few hours on a weekend. Free from the shackles of the work-a-day dress code, one’s true personality is apt to breathe freely. You’ll get to see which Junior Analyst is covered in arm-length tribal tattoos normally masked by a long-sleeved button-down, which Marketing Adviser has a collection of jewelry made exclusively out of bullets, and which Senior Account Manager is going to try and use these off-work hours as an opportunity to eschew the company-mandated “ear-bud policy” to reveal a penchant for a particular strain of death metal music whose sub-genre would be best categorized as “aggressively German.”
And so, with “work guy” clearly serving as the option-of-last-resort, exactly which facet of my personality am I now supposed to put forth as a microscopic representation of my macroscopic self? What is my calling card — that outward manifestation of some complex inner life — that thing screaming out to the world-at-large that “I’m unique! I have thoughts! I’m interesting!” (Without, of course, the associated burden of actually having to be unique, thoughtful, or, God forbid … interesting.)
I suppose that I could try and become an expert in jazz, but that seems to carry with it some racial implications that I’m certainly not prepared to contend with at this point. I could answer in the affirmative when those guys in Times Square ask me, “Sir — are you Jewish?” (But I’ve also been going to SoulCycle lately, and I think that might be as much of a cult as I’m currently able to handle.) I could finally watch Game of Thrones so that I could participate in literally every conversation that everyone is having right now, but that would seem to be a whole-scale abandonment of my previously adopted “book guy” principles, and one that I honestly don’t think I’m quite ready to commit to. (I guess I could just try “being myself” — but I would have absolutely no idea what jeans I was supposed to wear …)
You know what? Fuck it. I’ve spent way too much time putting in the work, and the least I can do is ride out this “book guy” thing until it reaches its logical conclusion. (Which is, of course, becoming that overbearing guy at your party cornering strangers in the kitchen to inform them that “I’ll never use a Kindle — I’m just way too attached to the idea of books as physical objects, you know?”) I think that I’m just wired to be the person whose default reaction will always be “… yeah, but the book was so much better than the movie …” And if that makes me anachronistic than so be it — I guess that I’m just always going to be that guy using the word anachronistic in places where “out dated” would seemingly work just as well. (Or whatever word would best apply to that guy at your party who apparently brought a copy of White Noise with him for some reason …) After all, why would I commit to watching seven seasons of Game of Thrones when I can already talk to you about “the influence of science-fiction in literary culture in the era post Philip K. Dick?” It’s the life that I’ve worked for and the one that I’ve chosen, and there’s no sense in changing that now.
And lest you be concerned that this will be a popular persona: it will not. But that’s fine — just introduce me to that guy over there staring at your TV set with a carefully crafted aura of bewilderment. The two of us will be busy for hours.
Tim Eberle is a Brooklyn, New York, based writer and comedian. He is a graduate of the improvisation training programs at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade and Magnet Theaters, and his writing has appeared in McSweeney’s,Splitsider, Heeb Magazine, and many other publications.
Reprinted from Witness (Spring 2018), a literary magazine of the Black Mountain Institute.
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