The cement floor is dirty and, because it’s a weird spring in Chicago and it’s been raining, there are droplets of water tracking the path of folded umbrellas around the room. I see all of this but I’m sitting on the ground anyway because in front of me is a stack of memoirs and political philosophy texts. It’s the basement — home to biography and comic books — of a used-book store in Wicker Park. It’s probably a Saturday, probably early evening, and I’m probably clutching a book, wishing I could eat it. Literally, to open my mouth and tear a chunk, chewing the tough, inky paper hard. Alright, probably not literally, but close enough. I do want to devour all these books.
One of my bookshelves sags. Another bookshelf teeters. The books that don’t fit on the shelves are in my closet, where normal people might keep sweaters. Buying (and reading) books for me is more than a habit; it’s an almost financially ruinous compulsion. But I like to think that it keeps me sane; at least, I don’t want to know what my life would be without books.
If you meet me, you might think I’m anxious and slow to focus (you’d be correct). You might notice how I chew my fingernails when I’m nervous and how I continuously turn over any object near at hand when I’m bored. You might think I don’t have the attention span for books. Look, a tiny child running through the library! Outside the window is a park and spring’s greenest grass and this spaniel mutt with a little brown on the ears and, ho! overhead the rotors of a helicopter cut the air as the sound of its motor splinters the manufactured stillness of a library.
But books, my dears, books are a soundproof room and half a Xanax and a chair, a comfortable chair that’s not too soft. To someone who doesn’t understand books like we do, books are a fine story, maybe an afternoon escape, a nice place to visit but nowhere that they’d want to live (I stole this image from a book, but I don’t remember which). But you and I know differently. I’ve seen you on the Halsted bus, the UP-North Metra, on a blanket in Humboldt Park indifferent to the smells of barbeque and the hum of families, you the book sniffers, the book gropers, you are reading and you look so heartbreakingly perfect that for a moment I’m in love with you.
Of ideas embalmed in books, Joyce wrote in Ulysses, “They are still. Once quick in the brains of men. Still: but an itch of death is in them, to tell me in my ear a maudlin tale, urge me to wreak their will.” The vitality, the urgency, of reading books is hard to comprehend for an uninterested observer. Except maybe a neuroscientist who’s got your head in an fMRI, and there your brain explodes in colors on her screen and she knows that reading isn’t the humble, passive activity it looks to be.
Many of the books I read now aren’t novels, although several novels have, excuse my hyperbole, radically changed my life. It started normally enough, in Mrs. Gail Derrow’s 11th grade English class; she assigned us Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; most of us didn’t know enough to groan. Have you ever read words on a page and wondered through what sorcery the author was able to reach into your psyche, take all the messy thoughts you had previously believed were unique to yourself, and then to lay them casually on the paper? At 15, it seemed like a miracle.
Joyce has, I think, in Portrait written one of the greatest YA novels of the 20th century. “It wounded him to think that he would never be but a shy guest at the feast of the world’s culture,” Stephen Dedalus thinks, as he’s turning the pages of Horace, struggling with the Latin, summing up nearly all of our insecurities. And where Joyce was the beginning of a new kind of reading, the sort that energizes, more than a hundred books have followed, some enraging, a few enlightening, fewer still life-changing.
There’s a little bit of intellectualism in my reading, of course. But if intellectualism — or even feigned intellectualism — were my only aim, there are better things to read than books. Like, maybe book reviews, or Wikipedia articles, learning just enough to sound learned. But books are long and take time to read and few people want to talk about books as they deserve to be talked about. What makes us continue to hunger for these books, salivating as we touch the spines, meandering down rows of paper and cardboard and ink?
I don’t understand the world, nor my place in it. Books hold answers. So maybe if I read a little bit more — just another book on string theory or economic development — perhaps there, on page 230, in the second paragraph, there’ll be the missing piece. This theory is admittedly crazy and hardly meant literally. But the only way to disprove it is to read everything; if after I’ve scaled and rappelled down the entire edifice of human knowledge, a unified theory of hearts and minds and the physical world remains elusive, only then will I admit defeat. But for now, I read so that I don’t die: As long as there’s a book to finish, I feel immortal.