A few years ago, I was complaining to a friend about the trials of moving, a friend who we’ll call Mr. Fifths. This man was rather austere with his domestic possessions despite having a reputation for being somewhat decadent when it came to women, drinks, and drugs. He asked me if I had a lot of stuff. I mentioned that my books were really the toughest and heaviest things to move around. He asked me how many I had.
A lot, I said.
“Have you read them all?” he asked.
Of course. Of course I’ve read, well, most of them.
When I got home, I surveyed my room. At the time, I had a queen-sized bed, a futon-couch that folded out, a cheap twenty-dollar clothing rack, a desk made of pressed wood and colored caramel brown, the books, and the bookshelves, which numbered in three. I owned two copies of Shakespeare’s complete works, one brown and faux leather-bound Illustrated Globe edition, the other a Riverside anthology; four D.H. Lawrence novels, The Rainbow, Women in Love, Sons and Lovers, Lady Chatterley’s Lovers, as well as his complete short stories, along with his complete poetry; The Complete Works of Edgar Allen Poe; an ornate hardcover edition of nine plays by Eugene O’Neill published in 1932; anywhere from ten to twelve issues of The McSweeney’s Quarterly; Aldous Huxley’s Island and a collection of his essay, which I’d purchased from a second-hand seller on the street either on the Upper West Side or the West Village; Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis which another friend of mind had let me pilfer from his living room; The Lord of the Rings and a copy of The Hobbit purchased on impulse at the now bankrupt and defunct Borders booksellers at Columbus Circle; about twenty-seven issues of The Believer magazine; The Only Astrology Book You’ll Ever Need and Sextrology; Remember Be Here Now; The Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey; and on and on and on…
I don’t have an exact count, but along with all the books I had to purchase for school (mostly used through online booksellers), I probably had close to one hundred and twenty-five books. As I surveyed them all during the packing, I began to notice something peculiar. Surely, I’d read eighty-percent of the books. Yeah, that sounds about right. Eighty-percent. Huh. More books into boxes. Okay, maybe not eighty-percent. Surely, seventy-percent. Yes, seventy-percent. Then I was packing away more books into boxes. Well, I haven’t really touched the short stories by D.H. Lawrence and I definitely haven’t read the Democracy in America or the People’s History of the United States of America. I don’t even remember where I got that copy of
So I’d read every issue of the magazines from cover to cover, 80 pages of almost pure verbiage full of essays and interviews. I’d read the entirety of The Lord of the Rings and The Brothers Karamazov and The Mists of Avalon, not only once but twice! But as I really began to pay attention, the realization that I’d only read maybe half of these books was beginning to dawn on me. It wasn’t a frightening revelation, but it was humbling.
Over the years, books were passed on, but even there were even more books coming in. I know the signs of an addiction. There’s a sort of whirl and dizziness that comes into one’s vision. Feelings of elation and seeming clear-headedness while in the presence of the coveted item. My mom is a shoe-addict, but ladies and gentleman of the literary world, I am a book whore.
Now, some of the readers out there might be thinking to themselves, What’s wrong with loving books? Shouldn’t we value a well-read person? Aren’t books one of the world’s great inventions and technologies? There are worse things than being a book whore. Of course, I’ve often felt the same way despite some nagging thoughts about the compulsiveness of book-buying. Our American, liberal, culture takes pride in being well-read as it’s a sign of one’s sophistication. After all, it puts one above the person who sits on their laptop or sits in front of the television all day. John Waters says, “If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em!” At a panel discussion with Werner Herzog, he told us in what was almost a battle-cry that he always tells his film students to “Read! Read! Read! Read! Read! Read! Read! Read! Read! Read! Read! …and read books! You’ll never be a good filmmaker if you don’t read.” So, of course it’s good to be a reader, even a voracious reader. This is the belief I’ve held for many years and one that I held until last week, that is, until I read this post.
It’s Consumption Awareness month at the Interdependence Project, a group and community of urban-dwellers dedicated to Buddhism. As you’ve probably just read, this last week was about buying less books. The post recounts a retreat where students were not allowed to read. That’s right, students weren’t allowed to read because they didn’t want the students comparing their own spiritual journeys with other’s, which might make one’s personal journey seem meager in comparison to the one’s read. After all, don’t stories and anecdotes in books always seems more dramatic and larger-than-life than the humdrum of the reader’s? (I always think the authors or the characters in books are always having more sex than I am or will ever have). Beyond this, though, there’s an account of the book-buyer’s dilemma.
The contributor of the post, Sharon Salzberg, talks about how she makes a deal with herself about just buying one book even though she’s promised herself not to buy any until she has given some away. To that, Henry Ward Beecher says, “Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?” Let’s face it, there’s a tumblr blog called Book Porn if one needs further example of just how insidious book-lust can be. Books are incredibly sensual. They have that musky (alright, some will argue musty) smell. I love the way a book feels, the weight of it when you’re holding it up or if it’s hanging at your side, the texture of the cover. We often talk about book covers and their design, whether they’re aesthetically pleasing or not, suggesting that a pile of 8 1/2 x 11 paper with the text of East of Eden on it wouldn’t be as pleasing an experience as having the Centennial edition printed on acid-free paper. Alongside the temptation and the more illicit connections we might have with books, though, I love the feelings of solitude and relaxation and curiosity that set in and are aroused when one is surrounded by books, especially in the bookstore. Yes, I’m alone, but the world and its history, its ideas, thoughts, stories, and secrets are all at my fingertips. Whenever my mom set me loose in the mall, I always went to the bookstores. It’s a sacred space.
Still, beyond all the good stuff, how easily one can slip into narcissism, arrogance, and downright compulsive consumption. On the subway or street, how many times have I turned the cover of my book towards someone who I found attractive? I’m like a flasher. How many times has my natural speech turned towards the bookish, trying to impress? How many times have I gone to the bookstore buying a book that I never intend to read. And then there’s this guy!
For all the knowledge we might obtain and no matter how large our libraries become, it’s all rubbish. On the one hand, Amos Oz says “…human beings come and go, while books remain forever,” but on the other hand, E.M. Forster says, “It is a mistake to think that books have come to stay. The human race did without them for thousands of years and may decide to do without them again.” Rousseau says, “I hate books; they only teach us to talk about things we know nothing about.” Isn’t that why we read? Is all this knowledge just vapor? Well, he might have a point. I can’t tell you how many discussions about books turn into “my favorite part” discussions, not deep and heated debate. While I don’t agree with Rousseau’s statement wholeheartedly, the quote does make one think; whereas for Charles Lamb, there is no thought induced by a book because “Books think for me.”
So where and when does knowledge become power? Where are the limits of that power? I think (and hope) that we are part of a time where we are acknowledging the limits of the rational mind. Will we one day at the height of our knowledge and wisdom not only take breaks from our television, internet, and iPhones, but from the seemingly harmless pastime of reading and book-buying? When does a healthy love for books become a dangerous obsession? Erasmus says, “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” Not such sound advice. And let’s acknowledge the plain fact that books are consumable goods. They are things we own, and as Tyler Durden says…
Fine, Tyler. I will do what I like because the truth is I will never abandon my books. And hell, even a healthy dose of lascivious thought and action towards one’s spouse after years of marital bliss and torture (is this possible?) can be good for one’s sex life. So let’s say, too, that I’ll never wholly abandon my lust for books. And literature. And poetry. And theater. If that desire was diminished even a little bit, this blog would have no reason for existing. At the same time, just to add a little tonic to the liquor, I’ll try to remember this final quote from Robert Louis Stevenson: “Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life.”
Disclaimer: Many (read: all) the quotes I’ve pulled were not from the bevy of books I’ve read. No sirree. As I’ve already stated, the Werner Herzog quote comes from a panel discussion I attended. The John Waters quote came from the internetz. And while I’ve read a good deal of books in my life time (he said without even the slightest hint of humility), all of the literary quotes used in this essay were pulled from the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Quotations, edited by Peter Kemp.