Like most reasonable people, I have spent the past 12 months largely ignoring the advent of the year 2000. But now that we are only a few weeks away from Y2K, millennial thoughts have been troubling my usual readerly calm.
Maybe I ought to be making thoughtful preparations for the UFO landings? Or steeling myself for Armageddon? Or examining the state of my soul before the Rapture or the Second Coming? Should I, in short, be taking this whole millennium business more seriously?
A quarter-century ago, I happened to read a medieval theological tract -- ah, the dizzying joys of graduate school research! -- which listed the various signs that will alert the wise to the impending Biblical Apocalypse. Of the dozen or so sure indicators that the End was exceedingly Nigh, the only one I now recall is that during the last days rocks will split into four parts and begin to converse in strange tongues. So far as I am aware -- and I feel reasonably confident that my colleagues on the Maryland Weekly would have covered this -- geologists have yet to report any unusual seismic events, let alone conversations among the boulders in Rock Creek Park.
But perhaps I've been lulled into a false sense of security by the usual seasonal cheer. The bookstores glisten with crisp, oversized art books, spirited biographies, pushy bestsellers and, best of all, those unexpected works of reference that once seen prove irresistible. I myself have squirreled away for wintry afternoons the new edition of The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi (brilliant short essays on Gondor, Gormenghast, Grand Fenwick and Gont, to mention just some G spots); Frank M. Robinson's Science Fiction of the 20th Century: An Illustrated History (pulp graphics, paperback cover art, movie stills -- sensational eye candy); and Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World, edited by G.W. Bowersock, Peter Brown and Oleg Grabar (11 survey essays; 500 encyclopedia entries -- a vade mecum for anybody drawn to what we used to call the Dark Ages, that swirling, little-understood period from the 3rd to the 8th centuries). Of course, such books encourage the illusion that we have all the time in the world for learning, reflecting on life, enjoying the works of the human imagination.
Yet for people of a certain age -- that is, almost anyone past 35 -- this New Year's Day rings like a tocsin. Dies irae, dies illa. The millennium, after all, tolls for the middle-aged. Say 2000 and we can't help but calculate the number of years since our birth, and before long we contemplate sitting down upon the ground to tell sad tales about the death of kings. Most of us try to resist such dire propensities toward old fogeyism. Hey, we think to ourselves, 45 or 51 or 60 isn't that old. Still feel pretty chipper inside; not too many aches; not that many pills. We can't complain -- or rather can't complain much. Nevertheless, it grows harder and harder to keep up interest in a world that seems to be just escaping our grasp. Do we really care about e-books? DVD? Faster Internet access? Once we regarded even personal disasters as kind of exciting, something we would learn from, look back upon, possibly feel a certain nostalgia for one day. No longer. Instead we adopt a cautious hedonism: Not the fruit of experience but experience itself is what we wish to savor. And right now. Carpe diem. Seize the day. Seize the minute.
In Barry Targan's short story on this classic theme, "The Rags of Time," a college professor embarks on the familiar ill-advised affair with one of his students. Near the story's climax, the pair are discussing Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress," and the teacher asks his own young mistress what the poem is about. "Love," she ardently replies; no, he cries out despondently, "Death." Both are right. And thus is it with a new millennium: For the young it signals hope, energy, passion, fresh beginnings; but for others, the end of something. A world. A way of life.
As a newspaper and book person, I might readily bewail the triumph of digital technology: By the close of this year Book World's print version will no longer be available by subscription; readers in Oregon or Florida will have to peruse these pages on The Post's Web site. This is not how I think of enjoying a book review section. Yet art and literature will certainly survive, mutate and flourish in the next century. Universities have already shown us that the humanities and the hard drive can support each other.
My real regret lies elsewhere. More and more, I sense that focused reading, the valuing of the kind of scholarship achieved only through years spent in libraries, is no longer central to our culture. We absorb information, often in bits and pieces and sound bites; but the slow, steady interaction with a book, while seated quietly in a chair, the passion for story that good novels generate in a reader, what has been called the pleasure of the text -- this entire approach to learning seems increasingly, to use a pop phrase, "at risk." Similarly, even a basic knowledge of history, classical mythology, and the world's literatures now strikes many people as charmingly antiquarian. Or irrelevant. Or just sort of cute.
"One of the more frightening things about our age," wrote the poet and critic Randall Jarrell, is "that much of the body of common knowledge that educated people (and many uneducated people) once had, has disappeared or is rapidly disappearing. Fairy tales, myths, proverbs, history -- the Bible and Shakespeare and Dickens, the Odyssey and Gulliver's Travels -- these and all the things like them are surprisingly often things that most of an audience won't understand an allusion to, a joke about. These things were the ground on which the people of the past came together. Much of the wit or charm or elevation of any writing or conversation with an atmosphere depends upon this presupposed easily and affectionately remembered body of common knowledge; because of it we understand things, feel about things, as human beings and not as human animals."
So there I go, starting to sound more wistful than the Ghost of Christmas Past. But, after all, 'tis the season for such melancholy. The really great tragedy of life is that we are linear beings in a hypertext world and we only get to play the game once. Robert Frost observed that "two roads diverged in a yellow wood" and he was sorry that he couldn't travel both. In fact, life is chockablock with intersections and there are myriad roads we'd like to go down and can't. If you aim to become the greatest lover since Don Juan, you can't also live as a Buddhist sage; if you want to emulate Mother Teresa, you won't have time to dazzle as the finest soprano since Maria Callas. Life is made of choices. Yet people, alas, are made of yearnings. Most of them unfulfilled. Yet through books we can augment our inherently limited selves, explore that achy solitude we all carry around within us. By turning the pages of James Salter's The Hunters I know the exhilaration of a fighter pilot in Korea. By reading Annie Proulx's Accordion Crimes I can relive the immigrant experience in America, among Italians, Slavs, Germans and Mexicans. By plunging into Ben Okri's The Famished Road I can enter a modern Africa haunted by ancient spirits. Books don't just open up the world to us, they open us up, too.
That sounds . . . altogether corny, I realize, but about reading I remain shamelessly, irredeemably sentimental. As this holiday and Y2K season runs its course, I fervently hope we will be opening up books on Christmas Day, receiving them as Hanukkah presents or Kwanzaa gifts, at least for a little while longer. Still, who knows? "The millennium which is about to end," wrote Italo Calvino, "has been the millennium of the novel." He may have only been partially right. Increasingly, it looks as though it may have been the millennium of the book too.
Oh, well. As much as possible, we must fare forward, hopefully. So, come New Year's Eve, I will tipsily welcome the millennium with John Dryden's once-famous lines:
All, all of a piece throughout:
Thy chase had a beast in view;
Thy wars brought nothing about;
Thy lovers were all untrue.
'Tis well an old age is out,
And time to begin a new.
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.