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The bane and beauty of books

Published: December 2, 2011
Section: Opinions, Top Stories


Books and I, we get along well but I treat them terribly. I turn down pages, I spill coffee and leave greasy fingerprints in the corners. I flip pages too quickly and leave little tears at the bottom of every page. And the worst habit of all, I collect them compulsively. I hoard them, pack them away in three-volume deep shelves, away from light and air and dust and humanity. I have to stop and dig through every Three-for-a-Dollar cart I pass. I never, ever give back a book someone has loaned me. Erasmus would buy books if he had any money, and then food and clothes. I just spend the rest on more books.

This compulsion has not exactly created unforeseen issues, but issues of incomprehensible magnitude. There is a significant likelihood that I will die under an avalanche of books. It is almost certain that I will never finish all the books I’ve bought, but I’m resigned to that. It won’t stop me from giving it a shot.

I have a bad habit of picking up a book and beginning it while I make coffee or wait for laundry, without any intention of continuing to read it beyond that moment. It’s more for the sake of the words themselves than the story they tell—I’ve started at least three Isak Dinesen stories this year and have finished none. I’ve been in the last 20 pages of “Ragtime” for three years, and never managed to finish “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” (Though, in the latter case, D. H. Lawrence was beginning to wear on my nerves. He’s not as much of a stud as he thinks he is.)

I’m sure the books feel very badly as a result, completely forlorn, sitting on the shelf unfinished, but at least they are loved and they have plenty of makeshift bookmarks to keep them company.

My other problem results from being overly possessive of my books. I still own every novel, nonfiction and copy of National Geographic since I began reading. I refuse to donate them or to loan them to my friends. I form sentimental attachments to them, remembering exactly where I was when I started and finished the book. They correlate so exactly to points in my life that giving away a book is like giving away a part of my past. Without the physical object, I might forget. So, in order to save my past from oblivion I have created monstrous bookcases. I have 14 of them, with an average of five shelves, and on each shelf there are multiple rows of books.

This is, obviously, a very inefficient system. I have no way of reaching the books that are four rows behind the ones in front, which means occasionally I have to check a book out from the library that I know I already own. Or I buy it again.

Despite the inconvenience, the system has a rare beauty. During the manic episodes where I clean out my bookcase and throw all of my hundreds of books on the floor, I find little gems that I haven’t thought about in years, that I then sit on the floor and flip through and remember what I was doing when I first read it. I know I will be crushed to death when my bookcases tip over onto me, and I know it will be ineffably painful, but I’m okay with that. It’s not like I can stop myself anyways.