By Jessica Zafra
BOOK LOVERS go by many names — bibliophiles, bibliomaniacs, bibliolaters, Larry (McMurtry, the Pulitzer and Oscar-winning author who runs a bookstore and has a personal library of 30,000 books). I prefer bibliophibians, which suggests that the species lives partly in the “real” world and partly in books, like salamanders with overdeveloped imaginations. If you belong to the species, or associate with them, you will have noticed certain behavioral patterns seemingly incompatible with an addiction to books. For instance, you would assume that when they walk into a well-stocked bookstore, they are vibrating with lust. After all, this is what they live for: being surrounded by books, knowing each book intimately, committing the literary equivalent of wanton adultery by reading several books at once.
I can assure you that they are hyperventilating inside, though outside they may act as if they’re being dragged into the bookstore against their will. “I can’t buy any more books,” they will moan. “I don’t have any more shelf space and my backlog is enormous. My bedside table just collapsed from the weight of half-read books.” They inspect the bookstore shelves with looks of distress. After pawing many volumes, they announce that despite their better judgement, they are going to buy the stack of books they are hugging to their chests. Among the statements they might utter in justification of the purchase are:
• “This is an important book. James Wood wrote a 10-page review of it in The New Yorker.”
• “That asshat James Wood praised this book to death. I have to prove him wrong.”
• “If I don’t buy this, it will be gone by the time I come back for it.” This excuse is employed most often by people who lived through the dark days before globalization, when just seeing a new title in a local store was considered miraculous.
• “I’m a completist, I have to buy everything by David Mitchell.”
• “Look at the design, it’s gorgeous.”
• “Books are so much cheaper in Manila than in London, so I’m actually saving money.” (Rational decision making is not their strong point, or they would just not buy them.)
• “It’s a present for Ted.”
• “I can never pass up a copy of A Sport and A Pastime.” If anything, there are not enough copies of James Salter’s novel in stores.
• “I have to read it before the movie comes out and Hollywood ruins it for me.”
• “It’s a new translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky.”
And off they go to the counter, with further protestations. Do not be fooled by this elaborate play-acting. They are buying those books because they want to. It would cause them physical pain not to acquire more books. When a bibliophibian complains about his reading backlog, he is not really complaining. He is boasting about how many books he has and how he will never run out of parallel universes to escape into when actual life proves unsatisfying.
People who think of reading as a boring activity only nerds enjoy, or as we like to call them, cretins, justify their illiteracy by saying you can’t learn about life from books. This is how they will remain cretins forever. Bibliophibians know that your personal library IS the story of your life. Benedict Anderson wrote a whole book (Under Three Flags) based on the contents of the personal library of Jose Rizal, and used these titles to argue that Rizal was a budding anarchist. Books are the bibliophibian’s madeleines. I know exactly what was going on in my life when I read Atonement and Cloud Atlas and The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. When my mother was in hospital I sat at her bedside reading Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem, and now Motherless Brooklyn IS my mother even if she was never a detective with Tourette’s Syndrome.
Nevertheless, reading backlogs do pose problems, especially when you have to pole-vault over stacks of half-read books so you can sleep on your bed. Bibliophibians mock visitors who behold their shelf-lined walls and ask, “Have you read all these books?” Books are not an interior design choice; they are parallel universes in printed form. However, the answer to the question is, “No, but I’ll get around to them.”
Many space-conscious readers have taken to Kindles and iPads as a practical solution. Tablets and other reading devices make sense: you can take your entire library everywhere you go, without the inconvenience of being followed around by a truck. Whenever I am reading a doorstop-size volume and developing temporary biceps from lifting it, I am tempted to download the e-book instead. Then I remember the review attributed to Dorothy Parker: “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly, but thrown with great force.” A book would survive being hurled across the room; an iPad might not, and you would feel the pain in your wallet. Also, it doesn’t feel right to read Dostoevsky on a phone, though he probably wouldn’t mind as long as you read him and he got paid his royalties.
Making sense is not a big priority in the bibliophibian world. Unless you’re an academic, and barring all-time favorites, after you’ve read a book there is little likelihood that you will read it again. But you keep it on your shelf to gather dust and a coat of cat hair, because who knows if you might get the urge to read it again. Meanwhile your floor disappears under the piles of books, and you can barely get the door open. Time to resort to desperate measures in dealing with the backlog. (Strangely, none of them involve speed-reading.)
• The Moratorium. Declare a moratorium on acquiring new books. In theory this will give you time to catch up on your reading. In reality it probably won’t, but at least you feel like you’re doing something about the “problem.” (Which is not really a problem, as we’ve discussed.)
• The Tower of Books. Arrange all your unread and half-finished books into a single stack in the middle of the room, and contemplate the bruises and concussions you would incur if the books were to fall on you. It is in your best interest to make the tower lower. Start reading.
• Credit Swaps. Only buy a book whenever you finish a book. Book out, book in.
• Brutal Honesty. Stare at your shelves and decide which books you are never going to read again. Take them down from the shelves, put them in boxes, and donate them to public school libraries. Useful books, okay, not obsolete programming textbooks. You loved those books, but it’s time to move on. Some young nerd will pick up those books and give them the attention they deserve. Voila, you have cleared shelf space! You know what to do.
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