Recently, I finished reading a book entitled The House of Paper by Carlos Maria Dominguez. Interesting but odd story in which we never personally meet the man who is the focus of the tale; we only get to know him through other characters. And what a description.

A bibliophile in the extreme, this man loved books. Bought them, collected them, and, unlike other collectors, read them. He was, apparently, very particular about shelving his books. Instead of shelving them by theme and volumes, he complicated things by thinking about the authors themselves and their relationship to each other. So-and-So couldn’t be next to Such-and-Such because they had differing views and the government hated one and loved the other. This One couldn’t be on the same shelf as That One because of the controversy revolving around who wrote what. Who couldn’t be put next to Whoever because they were bitter enemies. Needless to say, his method of categorizing was complicated, time-consuming, and nerve-racking.

Other weird events involving this man are revealed, one of which you can guess by the title. By the end of the book, while I was impressed with the style (which probably reflects its country of origin) and loved some of the quotes regarding book lovers, I really was left to wonder . . . well, what exactly I was supposed to think and take with me. This was all interesting but . . . what?

My dawning came a few days later.

I was listening to my favorite, dry humored DJ on the local classical music station. As news of interest, he mentioned the electronic gadget that holds your entire book library, much like the music players you see people toting around. This new “book keeper” even simulates the pages turning and the “swoosh” sound they make. This gadget is apparently lauded by a few. As I listened to the DJ talk about this gadget, Dominguez’s aforementioned book came to mind.

And I got it.

And it was good.

Because I suddenly understood this bibliophile who surrounded himself with his books. It wasn’t just about owning the books. Books were his life. And he liked it that way. It wasn’t just about them being valuable. That certainly played a part. But also, he simply needed them. Because they made his life.

I’ve heard many interesting and, occasionally, justifiable reasons why people don’t like electronic book keepers. I myself have brought up those reasons, though none of them really fit my real feelings for preferring books. Admittedly, I always felt a bit weird, almost indignant at having to justify why I didn’t want an electronic device for my books. (I wasn’t begrudging them their own reading material.) Maybe some of it was how forceful those who used them were, their own irritation that I didn’t want one. (“But you can have all of your books right here!”) Maybe some of it was also the way they insisted that this would be the way of the future, that books would be a thing of the past, and that I was being old-fashioned. I didn’t care. My response, vocal or not, was along the lines of, “Leave me alone. I’m reading. Let me read my way. And give me my books.”

I’m not the only one. Ray Bradbury wrote a book—and later a play—about an entire society that was so terrified about the physical presence of books that they not only burned the books themselves, they burned the buildings that housed them and removed the people who owned them. Readers related to the woman who refused to leave her home and burned with her books, lighting the match herself. And readers contemplated with Montag who wondered just what were these things that made people behave this way? What did they have in them that was so . . . dangerous? People recall to mind a certain insane dictator who burned books by various authors and those that involved certain themes because he was afraid they would corrupt his Aryan society. On the other hand, people revere certain books, bestowing awards and praise because of the book’s benefit to society and it’s ability to make you think. They cherish those books which they love so much and that they stood in line for hours waiting for the author to sign their name to it, dedicating it to them, the devoted reader. (For the record, your favorite author can’t sign your electronic device.)

We can buy, borrow, inherit and otherwise accumulate as many books as we want. And we love them. And you may want them in a nice, tidy place like an electronic gadget that lets you scroll through all of your titles on one screen. But I don’t. They have to be seen and touched and smelled and gripped in my hands. I have to see my bookshelves over-crowded with inhabitants because there just isn’t enough space EVER to accommodate them all. No matter how much we try to sort and box them. The boxes just find a home in another area of the house and the shelves now have free space! In which we shove more books. And they’re ours. We love them, even those whose stories we haven’t read yet or those we hate (though we might be willing to part with those more freely than others, though only to certain people). We gaze fondly on the shelves and find comfort to know we are surrounded, to know each book’s place (“Patterson? Right over here.”) and to search frantically for one that is suddenly missing. (“Where’s Lowry? She should be here with the others.”) We fill our arms, bags, and, if we’re lucky like El-Seven, our fantastic multi-pocketed coat with our friends because we don’t want to get stuck anywhere without them and, perish the thought, be bored. Waiting rooms have nothing on us.

We snoop around other people’s libraries and see what they own, what they’ve read, what they prominently display and what they try to hide. (“Hey, what do you have over here? You know them, too!? You like books about such-and-such? I had no idea!”) And then, when they recognize a fellow book lover, those fine people stun you by offering the ultimate bibliophilic gift: “Here, I want you to borrow this. You have to read it. You’ll like it.” “You can have this copy. I have another.” “I know these books will find a good home with you.” We catch the excitement of some fellow book lovers when they want to share their books with us. And sense the almost shy hesitation of others when they decide to take a risk and reveal their favorites, realizing we kindred folk, as Anne would call us, won’t make them regret it: “I loved this story. You might like it.”

Understand that I’m an advocate of reading. I love that people read and move on to other material because they enjoyed what they just finished. And, yes, many things “count” as reading. I think about whether it really matters how they read—paper, screen, on tape. But why does it seem people are making me choose between my books and a screen? It seems to be not about reading, but about books. As though they were somehow a messy burden.

As I listened to the DJ and thought about Dominguez’s book, I had a realization. It was simple and clear. I understood the bibliophile and I understood why I hated the electronic book keeper. It was about the books. I simply wanted and needed my books. All of them. I didn’t care how many titles could fit on a device. I didn’t want to carry my entire library in my hand. I wanted to feel them weighing heavily on my back. I wanted to be able to sit at home and see them all, feel them surrounding me, to look at them, pick one up, hold it in my hand, and read it. To choose one and remember my feelings and thoughts I had about it when I read it the first or second or whatever time, to look at the inside covers and see my name in them and be able to tell when I had written that name. To see passages I underlined or otherwise marked. To pick up a used book and see someone else’s name in the cover, to wonder about them and think of the journey the book made before it reached me. To think of the author and wonder if they are happy their book found a home. To smell the scent of pages just off the press or the old scents that still linger on old, worn paper. And have those scents wake memories. (Go ahead and laugh. Others do. But I’ve witnessed young and old pick up a book, open its pages, and smell the new adventure inside.)

I’ve considered for a while how to respond to Frau Magister’s question, “Why do you read?” I even posed the question as a school assignment. It was such a huge question that I had no idea really what to say except, “To live.” But that sounded either far too simple or far too romantic, and I feared being scoffed at. I thought of school where my teachers always had to tell me to put away my book and listen (and I was “told on” at parent-teacher conferences). I thought of my mom once telling me I couldn’t buy another book until I made my bed for a week. (Often forgotten chore.) Turns out she just didn’t want me to buy a certain book as it was to be a gift. But there was an entire bookstore to choose from! I thought of how I got riled up whenever anyone asked me if I really needed or if I’d really read all these books. (Yes, and we’ll get to them.)

Looking at my piles of books and thinking what I have gained from them, I think of a character in Bradbury’s play: “I ate them like salad, books were my sandwich for lunch, my tiffin and dinner and midnight munch. I tore out the pages, ate them with salt, doused them with relish, gnawed on the bindings, turned the chapters with my tongue! . . . Philosophy, art history, politics, social science, the poem, the essay, the grandiose play, you name ’em, I ate ’em.” For the character in the The House of Paper, they were not just books. They were him. Literally his home.

Our home reveals who we are. And we all need a home. Welcome to mine.

Advertisements