My Bookish, Puritan Habits

To anthropologists of the future my book buying will look as much like a sinister cult as a commercial triumph (for the bookstore, of course). Book-buying, after all, has all the basic lineaments of a religion. When I walk through the shelves I am an adherent, and when I seize upon a book I am as much motivated by feelings of guilt as anything more constructive. For when I walk through all those words, winking shyly at me, my hand never leaves my side without a twinge. There are so many, how can I only choose one? And then, right alongside, is the urge to atone for fleshly sins. ‘I can read this book,’ I assure myself, and in the process relax. It will be treatment for those long hours contorted into office chairs. My back shouts in triumph. I have neglected the finer things in life and with a bit of book all will be forgiven.

Another sign of puritanical, religious beliefs? Regularity. Many visit their places of worship with a fanatical regularity: a third of LA Fitness members, for instance, go virtually every day. Once there, believers are led by sacerdotal instructors, who either goad them into mass ecstasy during aerobics classes, or preside over the confessional tête-à-tête of personal training. Similarly, I am led by my greatest instructor: my nose. Otherwise, I am led through, confessional style, by a tightly clutched list of titles urging my not to stray too far from the path, but also indulging my tendency to get lost among the trees.

I can see your eyebrow raised, dear reader. ‘You are led by your nose!’ I’m afraid so. There is no other way to describe it. My only hope is that you, too, dear reader are a member of the (secret?) book-sniffer guild. Surely I cannot be alone. When I wander through the aisles of books I wish, or at least lie, that my buying habits were motivated by a curious but pleasant mix of knowledge, taste and refinement. That is simply not the case. The situation I am in is that of a slave. I am a slave to smell. The smell of a good bookstore has the same effect as that of, well, something appropriately illicit. Would it be fair to say that it is a fetish? I am not sure, and frankly I do not want to dwell on the subject too long. But there is something intoxicating about the right balance of glue, age and love that is the exclusive domain of pre-owned books.

What always surprises me about book stores is how transparent the books are. What I feel for any single book, like Alice’s Cheshire cat, threatens to disappear if I stare at it too long. Gradually and then all at once. I pick up a winking, colorful book with a title and cover art that promises so much. But then I am left with nothing but a disembodied smile. The book is not a thoughtful meditation, or even a frothy adventure. Instead it is something dully and duly pushed by an obscure publisher. I have tendency for picking up shallow devotionals. Scripture for the young, thirty-something entrepreneur. Sigh. Another book, which promised to be a riotous adventure through medieval theology, is at best something that gets placed on a coffee table never to be loved. The editors and publishers have done too much damage. Where is the substance? It prevents no one from seeing right through.

Allow me one quick aside, dear reader. A well replicated Borges critique: “Kafka’s idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem “Fears and Scruples” by Browning foretells Kafka’s work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now. In the critics’ vocabulary, the word ‘precursor’ is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotation of polemics or rivalry. The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.” In the same sense I feel that the best bookstores, and the best trips, modify my conception of the past. The best book stores burden my future, in the best possible sense, and brighten my past.

Each devotee has his or her own rituals, though most rely on the principles of self-mortification and delayed gratification. My own are simple. I must carry everything I buy in one armload or not at all. It is my absolute barrier. I do not do two trips. Perhaps this habit started out of hubris. But now it is a fail-safe that prevents my wallet from being emptied in a particularly riotous afternoon. I do not apologize for myself or provide excuses. Yet when my arms strain under the pounds I feel some sort of joy. Alfred Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons, I suppose I do something similar and in some perverse sense my arms are straining under the time they hold. In short, my aching muscles represent a perfect bridge between self-mortification and delayed gratification. There is nothing more gratifying than a book, and nothing dilates time like trying to herd my books from some obscure back table, to the front, to my car, from my car and to my book shelves.

That my grunts, sighs and quiet mutterings through this whole process provides a liturgy is only an excellent bonus. Perhaps they reach the firmament above? God I wish I was worshiping right now.

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