The other day, my friend Michael called me, pretty proud of himself because he took a serious step toward “downsizing” by getting rid of 1,000 books, which he donated to the annual library sale. I imagine he’ll also take a hefty deduction on his income tax.
“Why don’t you do that?” he gloated, eager to tell me how to live my life. Some people have all the answers. What made this particularly troubling to me is that Michael spent many years as an editor at some of the best book publishing houses. He was a book lover once upon a time.
He knows I have thousands of books stored in a barn in New Hampshire and several thousand more in Connecticut, on shelves and in boxes, not to mention 2,500 more on my iPad.
But I’m not as big a man as Michael, who’s in his 40s and has no business downsizing as far as I’m concerned. I love possessions. I also love the feel and smell of books, especially old books.
You see, I suffer from a classic disorder called “bibliomania” and there’s no known cure, except maybe channeling these desires in another direction like, say, Wendy’s pretzel burgers or the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. Some people vacuum, others watch Wrestlemania, I buy books. Someday I may learn to love Twitter as much as I love Tolstoy, but not today.
When I turned 50, two things happened. First, I began getting solicitations to join AARP, which I jumped at because I wanted to find affordable health insurance so I could retire at 51 and move to the mountains, far from the madding crowd.
Second, I came to the sobering conclusion that I have way too many books, which meant I had to confront the terrifying reality that I’ll never read them in the time I have left, even if I live to 100 like those people in Okinawa and Sardinia who eat raw vegetables, wash with olive oil, get drunk on homemade vino, and till the soil when they’re not playing Texas hold’em poker.
I calculate that if I read two books a week—and I’m not talking about Dickens or Dostoevsky—I’ll still never read everything I own. Besides, do I really want to plod through Shakespeare’s collected plays and sonnets, not to mention the complete works of Victor Hugo? Even though I loved the classics in my youth, I have trouble remembering the details. Does Raskolnikov die at the end of Crime and Punishment? What about Little Nell and Sherlock Holmes? Does Holden Caulfield find true love and happiness? I don’t have the time to reread them so I’ll get the Cliff Notes instead.
My wife and I often argue about this, and it follows a familiar pattern:
WIFE: “This house is going to collapse, just like that house in Poltergeist, because we have so many books. I’m scared.”
ME: “Stop exaggerating. There’s no evidence of demonic powers here. At least I hope not.”
WIFE: “They weigh too much. The floor joists are sagging.”
ME: “Okay, I’ll get rid of some suits and ties… and the lawn mower.”
At home, my books are two deep in the bookcases, piled on the floor and stacked perilously high on my nightstand, which means I could be buried alive if they topple over on me some night when the poltergeists get really rowdy.
For years, I listened to my four daughters complain because their bedrooms were lined with bookcases, which meant there was no room for Little Mermaid posters or pictures of Hugh Jackman and Lady Gaga.
CHORUS of WHINING DAUGHTERS: “We’re the only kids in school who have nothing but books in our rooms!!! It’s sooooo annoying!!!” (They love to use exclamation points when they talk.)
I also suffer from a condition called “crowd-pleasing,” which prompted me to pack thousands of books in bins and boxes, cart them to New Hampshire, and store them in a barn so the field mice could chew up the pages and poop on the covers. At least some of God’s creatures still love the printed word.
Adding to this indignity, my daughters have no desire to inherit my library, not even my early edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, my J.D. Salinger first edition, the autographed copy of Judy Collins’ biography or the 175-year-old Bible made of Moroccan leather.
You see, the Millennial Generation is addicted to text-messaging, Instagram and Twitter so they limit what they read to 140 characters and a hashtag.
I, however, love being surrounded by books. It’s Downton Abbey without the Edwardian sexual tension and British accents. Plus I always wanted to be an intellectual like Alistair Cooke and spend long hours in the library, lounging around in a smoking jacket and slippers, puffing on a pipe and expostulating about Western Civilizaaaashun, otherwise known as “civilization.” I’ve even affected a British accent, which is pretty unusual for an Italian who grew up in a place called Pine Rock Park.
When we have guests over, they assume I’m a deep thinker in the tradition of Jean-Paul Sartre because my bookcases are full of history, philosophy, theology, classics and literary criticism. Truth be told, I’m more like Mr. Rogers. Forget the smoking jacket—hand me my cardigan.
I’m not an intellectual at all. I’m nothing more than a compulsive spender who started buying books as a kid and never stopped. If I had invested that money in Apple stock, I’d be a very wealthy guy today, who could have retired at 51 and savored the finer things in life. I would have learned to tweet. I would have taken selfies in my smoking jacket and put them on Instagram. My motto would have been “Who needs books when you have Facebook?” But that opportunity was lost a long time ago.
By Joe Pisani