All Too Much

One person’s excess is another’s insufficiency. Some of you know that I’ve been stockpiling books against the onslaught of the ereader, and it’s a task I’ve put my back into. Having a quick tot up, I figured I had in total, counting every book I owned, even the academic ones, about 8 year’s worth of reading stored up. I then made the error of judgement that was informing my menfolk. My husband burst out laughing and my son nearly fainted with horror. I was actually thinking that I should at least round the figure up to a full decade.

But the book I’ve been reading on and off recently, Adam Phillips’ latest collection of essays, On Balance, has a fascinating series of linked essays on excess and what it means. We are, he suggests, living in a time of excess, both obsessed and horrified by binge drinking, anorexia, bankers’ bonuses, celebrities and their multiple relationships, gluttony and fundamentalist religion. Excess is contagious, and so the more we see excess around us, the more excessive our reactions become, the more we feel entitled to be excessive ourselves.

Ever rigorous, Phillips begins by asking what excess means, and proposes that it represents more than the understood ‘right’ amount of anything. This right amount is usually culturally defined, changing from society to society and forming the basis for most of the big battles in cultural history – what, for instance, we used to consider the ‘right amount’ for women to be involved in public life, or visible outside the home, has been successfully argued to be nowhere near enough for the women concerned.  So already we see an important pattern evolving. That ‘right’ amount is the figure of conservatism, or to put it another way, what seems to be safe, orderly, healthy, controlled, comforting, within the regulations. But it’s often an emotional estimation as much as a rational one.

Phillips points out that when we are excessive in other people’s eyes, we are rarely overreacting or overreaching ourselves in our own. On the one hand, everyone’s internal limits and their sense of need are bound to be different, but on the other, an excessively angry reaction can indicate that similar needs that have been repressed or denied on the part of the angry person. Other people’s excesses can reveal things we’d rather not know about our own fears and longings, our regrets and frustrations. If we are appalled by a drug addict, it won’t mean that we want to take drugs too, rather, that we may be alarmed by the thought of losing our autonomy, of becoming emotionally dependent. Or we may wish, ourselves, to be someone else’s drug of choice, or we may be terrified by the thought of physical loss of control. There’s nothing more revealing about our history and tastes, Phillips suggests, than our reactions to other people’s excessive behaviour and it’s worthwhile figuring out why some of those infringements are so compelling.

But evidently, sometimes excess really is too much, and Phillips wonders what lies behind this too. What lies behind greed, he asks? And suggests that there is always actual or feared deprivation. We are greedy because we fear we might never get hold of something again, or it might be taken away from us and so we must hoard it. Or we may be greedy out of envy, because what we want doesn’t belong to us, and if we destroy it then we may finally be free of the desire for it, we might reach a point of satiation. We may be greedy because we don’t want to make choices, thus depriving ourselves of some pleasure or other, and that feels like an unwarranted punishment. All too often, though, we are greedy because we are trying to assuage one deprivation with something that is readily available but isn’t actually what we want. Comfort eating, for instance. We might really want self-esteem, or security, or love, or acknowledgement, but given that we can’t actually find them, then three cakes may do instead. Except, of course, they don’t.

Appetite, Phillips says, can be satisfied. What we have an appetite for usually comes with healthy boundaries. But greed is something else altogether, born out of a horror of deprivation and a belief that we cannot bear frustration.

So all of this made me look at my books in a new light. What is my greed for books really about? The first thing that books give me is a quieter mind. I have one of those noisy, busy minds that are thinking about three or four things at once. The only time it really calms down is when I’m reading and am focused on the story. Even writing isn’t enough to occupy my entire mind the way reading does. The second thing books give me is meaning, and that was an interesting thing to realise. I find that I have an abhorrence of meaninglessness. For instance, I hate parties, because for me nothing meaningful ever happens at them. All that small talk with people I’ll probably never meet again – who on earth would subject themselves to that? It’s not just a disinclination. I find myself overcome with existential dread at such occasions, like the vortex of lack of meaning is swallowing me up. The more meaningful an activity is, the better I like it. Plus, books themselves are often about the way that an excess has to be tamed or dealt with, or how excessive behaviour results in catastrophe or (very rarely) salvation. Stories are all about overstepped borderlines and unbearable frustrations. And perhaps, I wondered, is that why people read less than they used to, because stories ask us to consider restraint and balance in a society that more and more seeks to secure an entitlement to excess?





17 thoughts on “All Too Much

  1. Good questions, Litlove. Something else occurs to me about greed–that it can also be about status. In our society accumulation shows how successful someone is, and therefore, how “good” as it’s defined here. Even though if asked, most people will say goodness is about something else. But it’s not how we feel, how we’re taught to feel. I have a question about your book hoarding though. Everything you say about what books give you makes sense, but that is about the text and act of reading, not the form (paper books). Books aren’t going to disappear. I don’t even think paper books will. There are more books being published nowadays than 50 years ago, more by an incredible order of magnitude. Have a look here: .

  2. Only eight years of books? I think you need more than that. I mean, what if, well, we won’t go to the what ifs 😉 Seriously though, sounds like an interesting group of essays and your thoughts on them are interesting too. I am totally with you on the meaning thing. I really don’t like watching Tv or movies because they often seem to me like a waste of time. But I can sit and read a book for hours and feel like my time is meaningfully spent. I also worry for some reason that when I want to read a certain book that unless I own it I might not be able to obtain it at the right time. I have no idea when or why this worry began but there it is. It’s like when people overeat because they are afraid of being hungry.

  3. Wow, really good questions and thoughts. I think that my one earthy lust/greed is books and I can’t really explain why. It’s for relax and escape and probably a bit for a bit of pseudo-intellectual building up.

  4. These do sound like interesting essays. I’m a big advocate of balance in life, but it’s not always easy to sort out what that means because one person’s balance is another person’s obsession.

    Your point about meaningfulness of reading vs. going to parties interests me because I feel much the same way. But I know a lot of people who see all that small talk as leading to more meaningful friendships and books as keeping people insular and disengaged. That can certainly be true, but it’s not true for me. I suppose that meaning, like balance, can be different for different people.

  5. I suppose if I were to see eight years of reading piled up I might be horrified but also delighted. One of my biggest frustrations at the moment is not having the time to read. I get 20 mins here and there and it’s never enough. So I’m hoarding up books and articles but also trying not to until I get through what I already have. Adam Phillips’ latest collection of essays sounds very interesting. I wonder why he put skeletons on the cover though – is that the opposite of excess?

  6. ‘All that small talk with people I’ll probably never meet again – who on earth would subject themselves to that?’ I was at a wedding lunch recently, seated on a table with friends, but put on the part of the table with strangers (that’s how it goes when you’re the single lady) and I swear I was telegraphing dread as some perfectly nice people engaged me in a very adult conversation about the best kind of cheese. See, but to them that was probably very worthwhile, meaningful chat (one of the people seemed to have a similar relationship to nice food that I have to books and if I remember rightly had some kind of food business). To me it was a panic inducing vision of what kind of adult I was supposed to be by now, the kind of adult who has deep and meaningful conversations about the best way to produce food and wine. Like you say one person’s obsession is another person’s fine, balanced interest 🙂

  7. I talk all the time about how horribly materialistic and greedy our society is, but then I look around our house at all the books and know I’m just as greedy as the next, although I can feel superior, because at least I’m hoarding something that, technically, can help bring meaning to my life, unlike those who hoard clothes. Oh, wait a minute, I also hoard shoes. Never mind, then. Anyway, it is very interesting to think about why we hoard what we do. I understand my obsession with books: (like you) quieter mind, escapism, curiosity, etc., etc. Also, I grew up in a house full of books, and my childhood home was a safe haven, so books probably make me feel safe. The shoes are a bit more difficult. I’ve never quite understood my obsession with them, but my mother claims it’s been there basically since I learned to walk.

  8. I’m afraid I have far more than 8 years of reading piled up but it does bother me a lot. I don’t enjoy it. It doesn’t seem so much to be greed or addiction as compulsion. Maybe greed as well, in any case it is excess and I’m aware of it. And a bit ashamed.
    Small talk is not pleasant but to a certain extent it’s funny. I love analysing how people say things (the eternal linguist in me) not what they say as under those circumstances it’s often boring. How people utter their small talk is quite interesting. Luckily I don’t have to go to that kind of parties very often.
    The worst conversation topic I ever had to endure was on the ripening of bananas in special factories.

  9. I’ve seldom read such an accurate description of my own feelings on going to parties. The dreaded vortex of meaninglessness – yes, exactly!

    It’s such an interesting question, the conservatism of standards around what is enough, not enough, too much – and also how each of us constructs our own boundary about how much of something makes us feel safe versus how much makes us feel trapped, or weighed down. I’ve always had about a year’s worth of reading in my TBR stack at any given time, but now because of France I have two year’s worth…and it’s kind of freaking me out! It feels excessive because my personal boundary was doubled so quickly, but I don’t feel that way when I hear about other peoples’ stockpiles. And I’m curious to see if I’ll address the situation by actually reading down the pile until I’m back to only a year’s worth, or merely by becoming accustomed to having a larger pile-in-waiting.

  10. Lilian – that’s very kind of you to reassure me! One talk by publishers I attended suggested that publishing had long been a multi-media enterprise (paperbacks, hardbacks, audio books etc) and the ebook would just be one more alternative form. I do hope that’s true. You should hear my husband on the subject, though – he thinks it’s all a ruse on my part just to get more books in the house (and there may be a little bit of truth in that! Take any excuse going, I say).

    Stefanie – ooh I recognise that – ‘I really must have this book in my possession for the right moment’ feeling. Plus, when I see a good deal, I find it hard to walk away, because who knows how long that deal will last? Ahh the comforting relief of being the blogworld where people UNDERSTAND that 8 years’ of books is nothing, nothing, a mere blink of the eye!

    Niranjana – that’s no reason for shame! That’s something to be proud of – I feel infinitely potentially smarter with lots of books around me. All those nuggets of wisdom, just waiting to be cracked open….. that’s a lovely reason for liking books.

    iwriteinbooks – all of those things necessary and good for the morale! It’s funny how we think we should be so self-sufficient that we don’t need props and boosts, and yet of course we do, because we’re human and life is tough. Much better books than drugs or booze!

    Teresa – absolutely! We all have different needs and ways to balance our lives. I can quite see that many other people think socialising is hugely important and that’s fine by me. What I don’t appreciate is people telling me I have to live the way they do…. I have become quite stubborn about that in my forties!

    Pete – I confess I don’t understand the skeletons! The book’s good though – but then you know I love Adam Phillips. You have all my sympathy and commiserations about the lack of time to read. I remember it well! At least mothers get time when breast-feeding to do a bit of sneaky reading. But I promise you that it does get better and that the time rolls around again when there are spaces in the day for reading. Children are often a bit miffed to see their parents read (like seeing them on mobile phones – one child I know dropped his mother’s down the toilet as a protest). They must realise we are unavailable in quite a profound way then. Hang on in there, it improves.

    Jodie – oh lord, those conversation at weddings. I was often placed near the French people (as if I wanted to spend my conversation time practising my French!). And I remember one reception where the young (competitive) man sat beside me could not stop struggling to find some European writer he could discuss with me. In the end he dredged up Nietzsche, of all people. He probably thought that was a meaningful thing to do, too! 😉 I do hope you were rescued in the end!

    Emily – ach some things just are, like the changing of the tides. You have to let them be. My husband longs for me to have an obsession with shoes but I can’t quite manage one. He would approve VERY much of your choices!

    Caroline – lol! That IS a dreadful conversation. I used to be able to take an anthropological interest in what was said and how, and how people behaved towards one another, and it did keep me going through all my twenties and thirties. I rather miss it, actually, and wonder why it died away. But there it is. Don’t feel bad about your books – there’s nothing wrong intrinsically with having a lot of them, (as vices go, it’s rather a virtuous one!) and when the time is right you can give them to charity or donate them to libraries or find other people who will give them good homes. As it is, they must mean something to you, and provide you with something you need, and that’s a reason to be kind to yourself first and foremost. If you’re kind the chances are much better that you’ll see why you want those books and then be in some measure freed from the desire.

    Emily – you have no idea how it cheers my heart to find another person who feels the way I do about parties! And yes, you hit the nail on the head there about finding the balance between what’s safe and what’s oppressive. I am very interested in your two-year experiment and do promise to write about how it is going at some point. I’d love to know!

    Sigrun – thank you, that’s so kind! I am probably excessively keen on self-analysis, too! 🙂

  11. Wow, this post is like a book in itself – not in the length, but in the amount of ideas there are to chew on! I’ve never really thought of book acquisition as greed or equated it with consumption and hoarding of other commodities, like clothes or ornaments. I suppose in fact that I resist thinking of them as commodities at all. It’s not the books themselves I’m collecting but the worlds inside them. That’s what I love about reading – each book is its own world, many of them worlds I could never access in any other way (e.g. nineteenth-century Russia). So many ideas, so many different points of view – I don’t think of that as excess, although I appreciate you making me think about it through your post and the reference to the essays, which sound interesting.

    It’s also interesting that your experience of parties is just like mine. Since my novel was published I’ve had to go to various social events organised by my publisher, and while I’m grateful to them for the publicity efforts, I am pretty uncomfortable in those situations. It’s interesting that writing events are getting more popular all the time, even though writers and avid readers are people who by definition like to spend a lot of time alone.

  12. I think I have maybe four years worth of reading saved up, so I have a long ways to go to match you — thanks for naming the number so I have a good excuse to keep accumulating! And I totally agree with you about parties; I don’t think I feel the same existential dread, but I do loathe talking to people I will never meet again. It takes SO much energy, and why bother? I like the way my yoga teachers talk about balance, which is to say that it’s not about finding one point where everything is perfect, but it’s about constantly changing to adapt to what’s going on in the moment. What balance looks like is going to change based on whatever is confronting us. I like that idea, because I tend to think I can get it perfect, somehow, and keep it that way.

  13. How interesting. I think this book might present a few too many painful truths, however! 🙂 Not only do I have books to excess, but I like to complain about people who act in excess–am feeling slightly guilty. And I’m usually excessive about that, too. Reading these comments I wonder if bookish people are generally unsocial? I know I am. And I am sure I have a well supplied library that will last me well into eternity–if I can reread that is.

  14. I love your last paragraph, it sounds like you’ve been hearing what’s on my mind. I hate parties and social events for the reasons you mention. I never know what to do with myself in such places. I dislike small talk and hearing stories I don’t care about. It prevented me from doing the job I’m good at but one has to accept their limits.

    I’ve been thinking about you and you book shelves the other day: my husband kindly found a new place in our house to stock books, bought the shelves, installed them and when I came home, I only had to decide which books I’d transfer from the library to the new shelves. He said I needed them given the number of books I buy…I don’t think my book gluttony stems from greed but from enthusiasm. (At least that’s my excuse)

  15. That last paragraph is fantastically insightful. It’s almost exactly how I read, too, except I would add that I get a fantastic, quasi-synaesthetic sort of pleasure from words themselves. For some reason there a quite a lot of words which, to me, look and feel like what they mean in a totally insubstantial yet quite unshakeable way. The word ‘smile’, for instance, arranges itself in my mind into the bright toothy curve of the real thing; ‘grey’ conjures for me a very English sort of mossy, damp churchyard sort of grey, whereas the American ‘gray’ is somehow redder, earthier.

    I might think about this in a post of my own eventually.

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