I am a slow reader, and not just because I read six or ten books at once. I’ve always been a slow reader, even when I could still maintain my focus on a single volume. On my to-finish table is one time-travel thriller, one dysfunctional family novel, one Vietnam war novel, three books of short stories, two classics-in-translation, one volume on animal psychology, a comedian’s memoir, a journalist’s memoir, a book of essays, and, most recently, a thousand-plus-page journal of psychonautical self-discovery called The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, released just last week from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
The Exegesis was edited down by Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem from 8,000-some handwritten pages composed by Dick over the course of 30 years, an enormously far-flung attempt to come to terms with the nature of the universe, in light of several mind-bending experiences he had during February and March of 1974. On several occasions, Dick believed that the veil of time had momentarily slipped away to reveal the inner workings of reality. What he seemed to learn from those incidents is that time is an illusion, that information from the future is constantly bombarding us in the present (by way of particles moving backward through time), and that the underlying structure of the world is entirely different from the way in which we perceive it. Before long, he felt like he was living in one of his own novels—he even ended up meeting a girl who matched exactly the description of one of his characters, down to her first name.
This I’ve learned from reading the first 30 pages of the 944-page text. From what I understand, having read Lethem’s illuminating introduction, is that Dick came to believe that life was one thing repeated endlessly, that history was simply a delusional reinterpretation of a single event that’s been hidden behind the curtain of time. Which means, if I understand correctly (and I may not), that the act of finishing a book—of finishing anything, really—is also an illusion, the same temporal lie that tells us anything has started, or ended, changed. From that vantage, the only honest way to read a book is to stop somewhere in the middle. For example, I may never pick up the Exegesis of PKD again, but that won’t stop its brain-melting ideas burrowing deep into my head—it’ll probably encourage it, since my conscious brain, which believes in things like time, now jibes with the unconscious processes that see through it to whatever event that the illusion of time hides. It’s the act of finishing a book, not abandoning a book, that diminishes it, disguising as discrete something that is, in reality, eternally present.
Okay, so it may not make a lot of sense in our day-to-day world, bound as we are by our meager senses. But it explains perfectly my suspicion that the last thousand-pager I made it all the way through, Stephen King’s Under the Dome, would have been much better if I had put it down a quarter of the way through.