I’m getting worried about my books. It’s not that I’m afraid they’re going to do something to me, or anything, it’s more that they are crowding me out -taking up previously sacrosanct desk space, weighing my bookshelves down, and spilling over onto my dining table. I’ve even got a few stored on my kitchen counter.
I realize this may seem excessive, the description even hyperbolic, but it is a part of the reality in which I live. I suppose it is a self-inflicted wound -like obsessive scratching, or feeling hard done-by if I can’t watch the news on TV while I’m eating my dinner- but once I have read a book, it becomes an integral part of me and I could no more part with it than sell my dog.
Of course, I know it sounds a bit OC, but I’m otherwise rather messy and am quite willing to tolerate an unmown lawn as long as I can still see out the windows. Also, I am happy to get the cleaning squad in twice a month to vacuum the house and whatever. I do sometimes wonder where they put the books that get in the way when they dust, however. I mean I’m not running a library.
I suspect I run more of a hotel -an Old Folk’s Home, maybe. It’s where those characters I have grown to love, can rest, largely undisturbed, near me. To despoil them, to neglect them, would be to dishonour relatives. Family. What, for example, is the difference between the memories of a character who lives in a book, and those of departed kin? Neither are present, and yet both have had an effect on me emotionally. Both are stories, when you think about it, and whatever remnants of each that survive, cohabit a space deep inside me. Both are fictive once they are shelved in memory, both are subject to recall biases.
In a way, I suppose I hoard each anecdote in which I remember them being involved like the clothes in my closet. I do have a lot of clothes I no longer wear stored away. It’s a choice, not an obsession, though. But clothes are far easier to scruffle away in closets or rumple into drawers than books. Books, like people, have edges, and do not fold neatly away. And anyway, the clothes they wear -their covers, the scuff marks on their heels and the bend in their spines, the fonts used in their titles… all identify them as surely as the old and tattered cardigans that Uncle Henry used to wear. Instantly recognizable from a distance, these are often as much their personae as are their contents, their unique odours.
No doubt the digital era has tempted those of us who may wish to converse with a melange of personalities as whim or circumstances dictate. With an E-reader, I don’t have to carry a suitcase around with me in case I am suddenly consumed with a desire to peek into a different story, or another genre with a contrasting style. I see fewer and fewer papered books wiling away journeys nowadays, so maybe other people have the same issues -and possibly, bringing several books is just too heavy for wrinkled, arthritic hands to manage on public transit.
But I must confess, I cannot confine myself to a Kindle, despite its convenience. I miss the smell of paper, and the feel of turning pages, underlining sentences, and writing comments in margins. I’d miss the recognition of old friends standing on bookshelves each hoping for a glance. So I still hesitate beside those tables of assorted, often used books that so often sit on the sidewalk outside bookstores, hoping to entice a sale. And I still riffle through them in hopes that one or two will talk to me, but I seldom venture inside the store, and I’m not sure they accomplish anything for the owners.
It was on one such stop that I met him. Holden must have been in his eighties, judging by his weathered face and the vein-rich hands that were eagerly thumbing through some threadbare paperbacks on the sagging table. With hair as white as newly fallen snow, and an old brown suit that hung from his shoulders and waist like a cassock, he seemed totally unaware of my presence until we both reached for the same book.
Suddenly his eyes warmed my face, and he moved aside some wrinkles with a smile. “Was it the title or the colour that attracted you?” he asked in a hoarse voice that made me wonder if he used it much.
I almost blushed at being caught out so quickly. “I’m rather fond of purple,” I answered. “How about you?”
“Blue’s my colour, but this was close enough,” he said, obviously embarrassed as well. “It’s interesting what makes us reach, isn’t it?”
I nodded affably. “For me, I think it changes with my mood. Usually it’s titles that attract me -especially with nonfiction- but…”
“But how do you know which it’s going to be before you examine it, he interrupted. “Especially on these sidewalk tables? I’ve always thought it comes down to stimulus-response for most of us.”
“Salivating to the sound of a bell…?”
He cocked his head and regarded me with evident amusement. “Pavlov?” His eyes twinkled with glee -like he’d met someone with whom he could talk. “You’ve been reading too much non-fiction, I think.”
I chuckled and extended my hand to him. “Name’s G,” I said.
“Holden,” he answered and gripped my hand like a vice.
I surveyed the table for a moment. “I sometimes wonder what makes us stop and look, let alone examine individual books on these tables.”
His smile broadened and he shrugged. “Answers,” he said, and glanced at the table again.
He nodded absently, as if he were still looking for some on the table.
“You mean, we come to the table with questions…?”
He turned his head slowly and examined me for a second or two. “Don’t you?” he answered and turned back to look at the books.
I had to think about that for a moment. “Well, sometimes, I suppose, but it’s curiosity as much as anything.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know… the world? People? Problems…?”
His eyes twinkled and he rearranged a few more creases on his forehead again. “Aren’t those things just questions on the hunt for answers?”
I blinked. He was far more profound than I might have guessed. “Okay then,” I continued, “Entertainment. I’m looking for something on the table that might entertain me, maybe.”
“As an answer to boredom? Ennui? Meaning? An answer to the question ‘what’? Or how about ‘where’ and ‘when’?” He leaned on the table as if he’d been standing there far too long and was exhausted. “Or, more importantly, ‘why’?” He glued a tired smile onto his face. “They’re all questions, you see. And since we all have different needs at different times, we need an assortment of books.”
He began to head towards the door of the shop, but before he opened the door, he turned and gave me a long, serious look. “I don’t sell much from the table, but I do sometimes raise questions in passersby…” He sighed and opened the door. “That’s important, don’t you think…?”