Saturday, 16 March 2013

The Man Who Bought Books

Sometimes I wonder if we book readers don’t suffer from a terrible addiction. Usually I don’t like to write in this blog about my personal life, but there is a topic that I can’t discuss with people I know in the physical world, because they wouldn’t understand me. I mean the compulsion to buy books.

In January I made a resolution to moderate my book buying and only make new purchases when my TBR pile had been reduced to half its size. From the start I didn’t expect to achieve good results since, for more years than I can remember, not a long time went by without my buying a book. Even so from mid-December, all presents having been bought earlier, to March I managed not to buy new books, which, as insignificant a period as it may be, for me was a remarkable personal achievement.

But it was hard work keeping away from books. It seemed that the more I tried not to think of books to buy, the more books I remembered that I wanted to buy. And this aggravated a problem I have: I’m obsessed with lists. I have book lists for everything: lists of plays (with divisions like Ancient Era and Before 1900), lists for novels (in chronological order from La Celestina to William H. Gass’ Middle C), lists for poetry, country lists for Brazil, Italy and Spain, dozens of non-fiction lists on varied subjects (history, politics, biographies, language, science), and more. Now while I was trying very hard to shrink my TBR pile, I was also spending a lot more adding new books to all my lists. This is, I realize, quite foolish because, even at my rapid reading pace, I can’t read fast enough to read everything I want. Most of the time I spend expanding my lists is pointless because I’ll never have enough time to read most of these books. Another problem is that since I’m always on the lookout for new books, and I buy a lot on impulse, depending on fleeting caprices, many of the books I do end up buying aren’t even on my lists, meaning their size remains static most of the time. But nevertheless I enjoy my lists very much, I enjoying reorganizing them and going through them. There’s something very soothing and reassuring about their existence that I can’t explain.

But going back to my book addiction, well, towards the end of February I was beginning to waver in my determination. I had no shortage of books at home, but I just wanted more. And then, unexpectedly, I received a Book Depository 10% discount coupon, and I thought to myself it’d be a shame not to use it wisely. I was also finishing my reading of The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake: I had carried this tome with me everywhere for two weeks, ingloriously trying to appreciate the incoherent ramblings of a madman, and I thought I’d just be wasting my time if I didn’t read some books that shed light on Blake’s life and work. This got me starting another list, now of books about William Blake. And then it finally happened. The juxtaposition of the coupon and urge to read books on Blake led me to rashly order Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake and Charles Algernon Swinburne’s William Blake: A Critical Essay at the start of March. That was it, the end of the new year’s resolution. Perhaps this craving could have stopped there, though, if something totally unexpected hadn’t happened.

Around September or October I visited a little bookstore in Lisbon I had never been to before. I had only discovered it days before going there for the first time. It was too out of the way for me, being rather distant from the centre of Lisbon where I tend to buy my books physically, and its only distinguishing feature is that it specialised in Brazilian books. I had only gone there with one purpose alone: to buy João Guimarães Rosa’s The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. They had run out of copies: it seems it’s a very requested book. I bought a book (obviously) of poems by João Cabral de Melo Neto and ordered a copy of GR’s novel. Now this is an actual Brazilian bookstore, and the books really come from Brazil, on crates, shipped only when they’re totally full as a means to cut down costs. Since sagacity is not one of my virtues, I naively asked when the book would arrive from the other side of the Atlantic. Six months, one year, was the reply. Well, that was good news: I was unemployed at the time so perhaps when it arrived I already had a new job and money to pay it without having to suffer pangs of consciousness for wasting my shrinking savings on frivolities. In fact I pretty much forgot I had ordered the book.

Until Richard from Caravana de Recuerdos e-mailed me, last January, asking me to join a Guimarães Rosa Read-Along. I wasn’t sure I could get the book on time, I promised I’d call the bookstore to check if the tome had arrived. It’s a tell-tale of my interest in the read-along that it took me more than a month to actually contact the bookstore. Anyway the book hadn’t arrived from the New World yet. And that was that, as far as the read-along was concerned, or so I thought. Then, I don’t know how, the bookstore e-mailed me asking to contact them. And, well, since I’m a very literal-minded person, when someone asks me to contact them, I interpret this as meaning physically. This being a weekend I decided to go there next Monday, during my lunch break (why, yes, I did find a job in the meantime), since my work place and the bookstore are rather close. I should add that during the morning the bookstore tried to contact me some four times, but since I always ignore unknown numbers, I didn’t know that at the time. So after hurriedly eating my lunch I go to the bookstore, walking up a ridiculously steep street that is a tourist site, only because it has this streetcar you can ride on up and down for a euro or so, under a mild rain, feeling like a character in a Fernando Pessoa poem. So I arrived at my destination rather humid and panting, because I was in a hurry to go back to work, and right on the counter I see a pristine copy of The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. Nevertheless it had been in the Old World for some time now since it had been returned from another bookstore to the warehouse, which in turn had contact the Brazilian bookstore. The lady behind it told me they had tried to reach me all morning, to know if I still wanted the book because there was a list of people interested in them. I got the impression I had gotten ahead of others who had ordered the book before me, no doubt because I had recently phoned, and this made me feel maliciously content. Anyway, I almost missed the chance buying it.
So March had only started a few days ago and already I had three new books. The curious thing is that rather than sating my need to buy new books, these purchases made it easier to buy even more books. So one week after this relapse I ordered more books from Book Depository. I pretty much annihilated whatever was left of my self-discipline and abandoned myself to literary hedonism, a binge book buying. So this time I bought T S. Eliot’s The Sacred Wood, Aleister Crowley’s The Simon Iff Stories, Adam Zagajewski’s Another Beauty and Two Cities, Eugene O'Neill’s Three Plays: Mourning Becomes Electra/Desire Under the Elms/Strange Interlude, Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader vol. 1, and W.B. Yeats’s Collected Poems. And just let me say it felt great to buy the hell out of all these books!

But this still wasn’t the end of the story. To go back to where this all started, I bought The Sacred Wood because it has an essay on William Blake. And this got me thinking about another book with early essays on William Blake, a book called Ideas of Good and Evil, by W.B. Yeats. And I decided I wanted that took. Now this is one of those olds books that doesn’t have reliable modern editions. But after looking around, I learned it was included in The Collected Works of William Butler Yeats Volume IV: Early Essays (a new list is being made of all the books in this collection), so a few days later I ordered this one too. Now you don’t need to tell me that I’m out of control. I think, however, that my craving is dying down at last. I was this close to also buy Eugene O’Neill’s Complete Plays 1920–1931 alongside Yeats’ (only because I wanted to read All God's Chillun Got Wings, a play amongst Jorge Luis Borges’ suggestions; this is what I mean by impulse buying) but sanity and self-control prevailed.

So now I’m back to buying books again, and I feel very happy about that. I know I don’t need so many, and regardless of my lack of time, and more importantly space to put all my books, a problem that is getting too noticeable for me to ignore, buying books does relieve me of my melancholia. And I don’t know what says about me.


  1. It says that you like books :)

    Of course, in the blogosphere it's easy to lose perspective. We probably think this is normal behaviour - in the 'real' world, you'd be hauled in for psychiatric testing...

  2. How wonderful to hear about your recent book-buying experiences, Miguel, esp. since it appears you included a picture of that tourist trap street you mentioned in your post. The street does looks like a vision to this armchair tourist, but I'm glad I didn't have to walk up its steep incline myself. On a related note, I tried to go on a book-buying reduction plan last year and failed miserably. I too am better at buying than not buying, but I've been thinking about giving it another try since the results suggest I didn't try very hard last time. Your three months without buying would have been an all-time personal "best" for me. Anyway, enjoy your bounty!

  3. Well, at least your book buying is directed by your own desires and interests. That seems disciplined to me. I am addicted to Charity Shops and find it hard not to buy everything that I could conceivably enjoy. I am also becoming increasingly aware that space and time are a lot more finite than the number of interesting books.
    In a Lovecraftian nightmare I imagine myself trying to exit a maze made of books which is growing at the rate books are published. No matter how fast I go I am getting further and further from the exit. But then after a while I have no desire to escape and pull a book down, sit on the grass and start to read.

  4. I too am a compulsive list maker at times have been a compulsive book buyer. I totally agree that one can never get ahead or even caught up. The cheap nature of used books exacerbates the problem even more for me!

    I think that the best thing to do is just accept it :)

  5. “Between the moment when the book first came to us and the moment when we opened it … you realize that even that book you had not read was still part of your mental heritage and perhaps had influenced you profoundly.”
    “Borges and My Anxiety of Influence,” Umberto Eco

    Eventually one realizes it's not always about having read the book. Every time one finishes a book it often suggests several others (influence, same author, similar ideas, genre, counter-arguments, etc.). This list grows exponentially faster than you chase it, but this impossible list becomes an important part of your "mental universe," almost as much as the books you have read. Embrace it!

  6. - Tony, yes, I suppose it means nothing more sinister than that, he he. This is just me trying to make a big thing out of little thing.

    - Richard, the street looks a lot nicer when you're going down.

    The first item of the bounty arrived today, incidentally, Swinburne's book. Now I'm waiting to have all my Blake-related books so I can read them chronologically. How do I get myself into these plans?

    - Seamus, that nightmare seems more Borgesian than Lovecraftian ;)

    Charity shops is not a concept we have here in Portugal; but I am always tempted to buy cheap books whenever I find them at 3 or 5 euros.

    - Brian, yes, accept our sickness ;)

    - severalfourmany, that's a lovely quote and I agree with its thesis. Some books I think I know without ever having read them, like Don Quixote and The Divine Comedy. And yet once I read these books they're always so different from our popular collective constructs, and that's a good thing.

    Where is Eco's essay published, in one of his books?

  7. I would argue against acceptance. The struggle is valuable. It will change as you age.

    I do not think it is online as anything but a fragment, but James Wood recently wrote a piece about dealing with his father-in-law's library after his death. It is a good piece about the meaning of a personal library, but it ends with Wood's vow that he will not inflict this task on his own heirs.

    Joseph Epstein wrote a fine essay about breaking up his own library. It is in part just a gleeful wallow in his remaining books.

    Now, if I did not have access to public libraries, I would not struggle. Instant surrender to the book shops.

    Those lists are valuable, too. I have made many lists, much like you. Assembling them is itself educational. The only bookish people I have met who do not make physical lists are ones smart enough to keep their lists in their heads.

    1. I never felt the allure of the library. The trouble of going there, requesting a book, taking it home, or staying there to read a bit and then have to go back next day, it seems such a chore. I really, really like to possess my books, to have them close to me.

      Still I have to say I'm fascinated at how libraries are such a widespread concept in the Anglo-American countries: many people I talk to online seem to use its services constantly. I don't think people have that connection with the public library here in Portugal, it's a cultural thing.

  8. How did I miss this post, Miguel? I just happened to see it over in the corner while I was reading your Sciascia piece. There's something reviving and restorative in knowing that there's a line of people waiting to read Guimarães Rosa - glad you managed to get your copy.

    Though I have access to a splendid library (and can check out books for a year at a time), I too cannot stop buying books. But I've at least finally managed to put a monthly budget cap on my book expenses, which I don't allow myself to exceed. Except when there's the semi-annual public library book sale, like this weekend. And except in some other special cases. Lots of other special cases. This rule is very flexible.

    1. seraillon, I've tried setting budgets for myself too, but that didn't work. As for libraries, I'm most likely to give than take. Just today I walked to my local library and offered some 10 books I no longer wanted to have on my shelves, mostly to clear off space for new ones ;)