Thursday, March 20, 2003

This was published as one of my "Tales" columns in Pittsburgh in 1990 or so.
The only update I can offer: it's gotten worse.

Hooked On Books/ Report From the F.M. Ford Center

"We were reckless, we were headstrong, we were impatient, we were excessive. But goddammit we were right." Abbie Hoffman, In Memoriam.

I am a book drunk. Here at the Ford Maddox Ford Center, I have learned that you never recover--you are only recovering, one tome at a time.

For me it began on the streets of Greensburg, PA when I was young. There were no malls then; hence, no bookstores. (There was no PA either. States had names in those days, and the abbreviation for Pennsylvania was Penna.) There were only the paperback racks of drug stores, five & tens, supermarkets and the cigar store next door to the movie theatre. Among the tawdry and the glitzy covers were the unexpected titles that hooked me--probably even more rare today than then.

I still have some of those very paperbacks that were so important to me. J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories, Franny and Zoey, Catcher in the Rye, and the short stories of John Updike in Pigeon Feathers and The Same Door--particularly the ones about adolescents-- that introduced me to a world of fiction outside that of the Readers Digest Condensed Books at home. From R. V. Cassill's classic work, Writing Fiction, I learned that there was a craft involved in making that kind of paper magic. It also gave me the idea that this was something I could study in college. I found it in a supermarket.

I learned about the first free speech demonstrations of the sixties in a book called Student; I became passionately involved in James Baldwin's volumes of essays on the Afro-American experience; and Michael Harrington's The Other America, which changed a nation's knowledge and attitude about poverty, also changed me. There were many others.

I was going to the public library, too, and sampling Shaw and J.S. Mill along with Richard Heinlein's science fiction and Joe Archibald's sports novels, but buying a book--a contemporary book--made it mine, and made me part of the wider world. These books were all the more precious and powerful because I discovered them on my own.

My habit had to be hidden while I went to Catholic schools: I wasn't supposed to get near anything without an Archbishop's Imprimatur, and the Nihil obstat of the Censor Liborum. (Nevertheless, the first copy I saw of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man appeared surreptitiously from under a nun's habit.) But my bookbuying addiction was officially encouraged by my secular college--though they too tried to channel as well as nurture it.

Then I really went wild out on my own, in Berkeley (Kerouac, Durrell) and Boulder (Burroughs) and Cambridge, Mass. (Henry Miller's Paris of bookstores). I bought books of poetry and books on perception; I would discover an author and buy everything I could find. I bought and traded and sweated with lust for the books still on the shelves. I would reel around the stores in a frenzy. I wanted to read them all. But even more, I wanted to write them all. I wanted to write every book that had ever been written and therefore, all the ones that hadn't. The world I wanted, where I would exist as if I were myself a book, was in those bookstores.

I bought shiny new books, hardbacks from the remainder tables, and used books--which in addition to being cheap sometimes put me in mysterious touch with these intimate strangers, the former owners. Their name and perhaps a faraway place on the title page; a dedication on the flyleaf indicating that this was the favorite book of the giver (who was then betrayed by the receiver, who sold it.) Underlinings could be distracting, but sometimes added their own text to the printed one--a pattern of interests and obsessions. Marginal comments were like a conversation; and on blank pages, scribbled heartfelt notes inspired by the book could be very personal, yet by an unknown person in a remote unknown place, like a message in a bottle.

Later, when I found a form of writing that would get me paid and published, I used my serendipitous bookbuying habits as a form of research. And here's a secret for you--it works. I've discovered at least as much pertinent source material for articles and essays during crazed blitzes at bargain tables as I have by applying more logical criteria at the library card catalogue.

But there is a decidedly dark side to this habit. For soon the pleasure of bookbuying began to overpower the pleasure of reading the books. It became an intellectual niche-market version of a shopping addiction.

Some who study addictions believe that the addict gets hooked on the act and ritual of acquiring the drug as much as on the drug itself. Add to that the sympathetic-magic syndrome common to all shopping addictions: somewhere in our stubborn idiot hearts we really believe that the clothes we buy will make us beautiful; that following our favorite band will make us musicians and stars. Book addicts like me believe that the act of buying books will make us wise. The register receipt entitles us to the knowledge contained in those pages. All we need do is rub the cover to make it appear in the sky of our mind.

Those of us who are also in some form of the knowledge game may buy books to protect us against the insecurity of not knowing everything we think we should know. Surrounded in our studies by books we never read, we are guarded by the authority of authorial giants. This is especially true for we who worry deeply that our education has been inadequate, and we will soon be found out. As playwright Tom Stoppard said, "My self-tutoring has always lagged behind what I was writing. All my time is spent concealing what I don't know." It is in these moments that our walls of books become our only shelter.

For writers specifically, but for others as well whose true self is private or only partly attached to everyday identity, the authors in these book provides us with a kind of mystical family: mothers and fathers to the person we believe ourselves to really be; brothers and sisters who understand and accept us; friends who inspire and entertain us.

Of course, that's how some people feel about booze and pills. There is the same problem of delusion, of unhealthy detachment from everyday reality, as well as the setting of standards that reality can't possibly match. The level of discourse available in some books (not to mention the experiences in those fantasy worlds with page numbers) is either rare or completely unobtainable in ordinary life. That only feeds the hunger; we slink off to the bookstore for another hit.

For example, because of something that was troubling me (which was, as usual, myself) I bought on the same day books by psychologist Karen Horney, mythologist Joseph Campbell, and essayist Tillie Olsen--and thereby set up a very high level three-way conversation on my current obsessions. But of course, no such high can be sustained this side of the Himalayas. After a short time, my TVed eyes can't concentrate; I long for the sound of voices, the twinkle of an eye batting back at me.

Like other addictions, book-buying mania partly compensates for gaps in our lives, for unhappiness, for unfulfilled needs and desires. But for me there is a special paradox in the latest phase of my addiction: buying books has become an obsessive--and sometimes even sadly conscious compensation for the time I don't have to read the books I am out busily buying.

When I'm frustrated at the end of the day or the week, too tired and distracted to concentrate, and yet yearning for the pure reading/writing experience, I express my desire by buying a new supply of bright new covers (or even old ones with the distinguished wrinkles). I can kid myself that this frenzy of bookbuying is an expression of hope. Hope that I can escape into a novelist's world without being nagged by guilt over escaping my responsibilities in this one, or hope that this time I can devote attention to a book continuous enough so I haven't forgotten its shape or even its beginning by the time I have plowed through it, bit by bit, a few minutes before sleep each night.

But what is really scary about this stage of addiction is the loss of that hope. It used to be that I'd at least make an effort to read some of the books I just bought before buying others. But now a Saturday doesn't seem complete without the obtaining of a new tome or two. It's gotten so bad that just looking at the books I've bought makes me anxious. I wouldn't think of opening one, because there are so many others I can't open, too.

Yet when I look at the titles and subjects of the books I buy, they are as revealing as dreams. I am like someone who can't sleep, who buys packages of the dreams he would be having if he did sleep.

Let's face it: one reason we like to hear addicts confess is that they were probably more interesting as drunks than as sober citizens. So let me entertain you for a moment with the kind of discovery that's let me rationalize my book buying addiction: one of the rewards that keep me coming back for more, these small moments that alter my state, that allow me to recapture my own mind from those whose gross and subtle demands relentlessly drawing me into other agendas, reshaping my reality until I have lost my way, and am truly drugged and confused.

This is my most recent favorite, not only for its power, but because it is the result of so much crazed and serendipitous bookbuying. I found it in a book I had no reason to buy, would not have bought except that it caught my eye on a half-price shelf: the bright pink paperback memoirs of choreographer Agnes DeMille. It is something that Martha Graham told her, told me, tells you:

"There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open."

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