Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Confessions of a Bibliophile (Part I)


It's September. A perfect month for talking about books, books and more books. 

I've extolled the virtues of reading many times here, but now I want to turn to books themselves.  Because yes, I am a bibliophile, a bibliophile being: a lover of books, one who loves to read, admire and collect books.

I love books. Reading them, collecting them, being next to them, sniffing them, admiring them. Books are an obsession to me. I must have them. I buy at least one every week. (Truthfully, most weeks it's two or three...)  I simply don't feel right if I don't buy one! Even though my to-read pile is approaching dangerous heights, the week is not complete if I don't add to it. And for every book I purchase, I find ten others that I would like to get! It's an endless but enjoyable quest. 

Buying a book never creates guilt, not like say, buying clothes would. Books are just so easy to buy, unlike the physical exertions of buying new garments. Although I am not averse to stylish wearing and a big believer in au mode - fashion builds you from the outside, but books build you from the inside. If you want to invest in a personality, buy books. If you want to furnish your mind, buy books. If you want to nourish your soul, buy books. Who knows how one will transform your life view, shed light on subjects you never even knew existed and present thoughts and feelings to you in a exhilarating helter-skelter of words, new worlds at the flick of a few pages. Kipling was right - words are the most powerful drugs known to mankind.

I love being in the presence of books.  In a strange space I gravitate towards the bookshelves to regain my familiar equilibrium. Houses, schools, workplaces, dentists, doctors. Books okay the space by adding character, warmth, meaning. Books are clues that lives are being lived. Books are signs that people there are not immune to immersing themselves in a bubbling hot-tub of life through literature's lens. 

And what is a bibliophile's favourite place in the world? Why a bookstore of course. Bookstores are hallowed ground to us. Like an oasis in a desert is a bookstore in a busy city centre. You can hush the world for a while by stepping through its doors to a quiet, contemplative sanctuary. A bookstore is the one shop I always find myself hoping to go to, a welcome destination. You don't have to buy - you can happily browse. You will always find treasure. Many's a hard day of mine was softened by the serendipitous discovery of a poem by random selection in a bookshop. It feels like sustenance to drop into a bookstore amidst all other shops.

I could spend hours in a bookstore. I feel I among friends there, inanimate ones yes, but none the lesser. If you listen carefully, you can hear the whisperings of all the great authors on the shelves. It is instantly reviving. I remember who I am there, I remember lots of things I didn't know I'd forgotten. A bookstore is like a museum of life, a magic vault of information, an oasis of calm and certainty, of rapt attention on the world. Where else would you find such a place tell me? 

My favourite place at university was between the literature bookshelves of the library (the James Joyce library of UCD - right).  It was like a church, its many quiet cloisters and corners home to devoted students. The unique hush of an academic library engenders a sense of mighty awe so heady that every time I walked among these shelves the overwhelming feeling  I had was respect - here I was in the presence of greatness. I would often sit there on a stool, or the floor (students are flexible when it comes to reading positions) and wile away an hour browsing and reading. Not always for a pending assignment or the course reading list, just reading in a space precisely and piously made for that very act. In a church you kneel and pray, in a library, you kneel and read. 

Some of the books were like artifacts - old vellum yellowed velvet-to-the-touch pages and big musty dusty hardbacks that felt like holy relics to be handled with the utmost care. Here was a record I always thought, looking around at the towering shelves, hard copy proof, of the human race's attempt to interpret life for centuries. I often think, if ever extra terrestrials come to earth, surely they will be fascinated most by our hugely astonishing feat of noting down our behaviour, every aspect of it, in every way, from time untold in books? If they want to know about us, they have plenty of resources to plunder in libraries. No need for abductions and poking and prodding procedures. You want to know how humans live, who we are? Visit a library. Every iota of life is documented there. 
A true mark of a bibliophile I fear is ranking suitors in terms of whether they read or not.  I tried to explain this to a non-reading friend once, her mistakenly thinking it was a trite point, akin to the likes of a petty hobby mismatch. No, NO - reading is much much more than that. Unfortunately, my protests were an instant reaction heart's hyperbole, but now I'm much better equipped to define it. Books are props of life, not of pastimes. They are proof that their owner is someone wholly devoted to living life. To understanding it, delving into it, appreciating it. I will never back down from my prognosis that people who don't read are of a different species to those who do - not inferior, but different in soul structure.  

We fellow readers click better, albeit able to 'read' the other better. We vibrate on the same wavelength. We uphold the right and might of the imagination to transform reality's deadpan stalemate. We believe in stories. In narrative arcs, in subtexts, plot twists, thinking aloud and following our hearts. We talk the same talk. We walk the same meandering, keenly curious, sensitive walk through life. It's only fitting that a life partner is one you would want to match and communicate perfectly with? (Plus I would dearly like somebody with the ability of reading to me in older age.) Ergo, I don't date non-readers. Or, as Haruki Murakami puts it:

To qualify as a bibliophile you must be in love with the physicality of a book. Check. I love the sight of books, I love the touch of of books, I especially love the smell of books - the old musty ones and the liquorice new shiny textbooks. That's why I don't and won't use Kindles. Maybe this is the difference betwen a reader and a true book-lover. For some avid readers, the book is merely an item on which the words are presented. They fold pages, spill coffee on them, sit on them, bend them, fling them, forget them. A Kindle is a happy reprieve to holiday book packing and everyday lugging. But where is the physical magic in a Kindle? A bland computer screen?! No ruffling pages, soft to the touch, imprinted with your thoughts as you turn them? I love that quote floating about Pinterest about how a book changes its appearance when read - it becomes fatter, the pages swollen somehow from absorbing the reader's self. It is as if the reader has breathed life into it and left a little of it there in the process. 
No Kindles for me. I love holding a real book in my hands, the hills and valleys of the pages read and to come, the suspense of turning the page, the font, the smell, the feel of the book as it moulds itself to my grip. I love stopping every once in a while to look at the cover and the blurbs, run my fingers over it. I love skimming back to favourite passages, underlining them, sticking a bookmark proudly in a page to mark the achievement of the day. A book's personality is present in its physical make-up, to reduce it to a screen is an act of sabotage. In this digital age would it not be wise to retain something of the traditional mores? An object that has been in existence for years and so carefully wrought? Would the Book of Kells have been so meticulously laboured over if it was to be displayed on a Kindle? Would you rather read Shakespeare on a clinical Times New Roman font screen or a hand-printed vellum edition where the ink has bled into the page, accentuating the heartfelt sentiment of his lovelorn sonnets and making every line resonant with longing? A book is for life, for adorning shelves as it does your mind, a beautiful bundle of art; a Kindle is for a plane ride or a pocket, a bland mechanical package. Tough choice.

And finally I know I qualify for bibliophile status because I see books as friends. As my collection grows I rarely part with old books to make room for the new.  It's like giving away a friend the betrayal is so tangible. I love to be surrounded by books, read and unread ones. They're like insulation I suppose. Against a callous, indifferent world, an empty surrounding. Books beg to differ you see. Books say: everything matters. There are narratives everywhere and everyone is a story unfolding. They fill life with a bustling significance. Books in a home are a must. Who needs wallpaper or carpet even for that matter when you can line every bare space with them? A sanctum of knowledge at your fingertips. Portals to other worlds at every step. 

Other characteristics of a bibliophile: I get very excited when conversation turns to books. I get over-excited at the mere mention of books in general. I religiously read book reviews. I'm addicted to Goodreads. I have an ever-expanding Pinterest board on reading, some of the pins I've shared with you here (Books & Reading if you're interested.) I love quoting from books regularly. I love chattering with people who read. I feel a soul connection to people who share the same favourite books as me. I love sharing and swapping books with fellow readers. I love recommending books. I see a new rave-reviewed book release as an event, a visit to the bookstore as an adventure and Amazon as a wish-granting genie. I find people reading in public to be one of the most attractive, rebellious, eloquent sights ever. I dream of owning a bookstore. I dream of owning more books. Of a home library with levels and ladders. Oh and of course, of one day writing a book, or a few, the way I suppose some people dream of getting married. Yeah, that would be a nice happy ever after. 


How about you? Any dear bibliophiles care to share your hysteria? Please do! 

Stay tuned for more book blogs, especially now that we are in the season of reading. 


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