By Kim Haas
It’s a mystery to my family, friends, strangers and even myself at times how I can bring myself to buy even one more book. See, I recently made the mistake of documenting my book collection. I listed every single book and its author in a notebook categorized by genre. The totals currently look something like this:
Short stories: 129
I should probably add that these are only the books that I have not read yet, not the sum total of all my books. I believe one of my daughters attempted to count them all for a math project one time but gave up once she reached a thousand.
The numbers stun most people. Even my writer friends. I feel forced to rush in with a disclaimer such as “Well, it’s taken me a good seventeen years of hard-core book buying to accumulate such a collection.” The non-writer and non-reader friends are just stumped. At a complete loss as to how to respond. Should they be impressed? Appalled? Looking for a support group for book addicts?
I must admit, I knew the number would be high. Why else would I even be inclined to catalog them? I’d be at the cash register, buying a couple more books and think, “I really have no business buying even one more book. I probably have over two hundred at home waiting to be read.” If I actually uttered these words out loud, my friend or the clerk would laugh with me, certain that I was exaggerating. Two hundred books. She’s kidding. She’s a writer. It’s hyperbole, not reality.
After the disclaimer, I then feel a need to apologize. To whom? For what? For not spending that money on the worldwide crisis of the moment. For not putting it into an IRA or at the very least into our daughters’ college fund. How selfish am I that I continue to buy books when I already own close to four hundred? There is a library ten minutes from my house where I can read the books for free. Nada. Zip. And they don’t require shelf space within my house.
But I’m a writer. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. Writers need to read. We learn by reading how those before us have done it. Since I did not take the traditional MFA route, reading is how I teach myself. But even before I deemed myself a writer, I was a reader. I have been ever since I learned how with Dick and Jane and Dr. Seuss before moving onto Judy Blume and Agatha Christie. All of my report cards are filled with accolades on my reading habit. My mother claims I constantly had my nose in a book. I brought one with me everywhere- on car trips, vacations and even family functions. I still do.
Let’s not forget that there is such a thing as good writer karma. I want people to buy my books when they are published. I figure over the last couple of decades I have accrued some serious good writer karma points through my book-buying habit.
Then there’s the company of books. I love being surrounded by my books. And they are my books. They reflect who I’ve been, who I am and who I’d like to be at any given time. I have two full bookcases in my office. Two more in the family room. One in our bedroom. Books are lined on the shelf in my clothes closet, piled under the bed, next to the couch and the fireplace.
The piles are usually fairly good indicators of my current frame of mind. If I’m blocked in any aspect of the creative process you’ll find books by Anne Lamott, Natalie Goldberg, or Julia Cameron. If I am struggling with life issues you might find books on your life purpose or the shadow. Or I may be struggling to learn a specific aspect of the writing craft so you’ll find stories and books I’ve already read. Books by Ron Carlson, Jean Thompson, Mary Clyde, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff. This reflects my frantic search to learn how they did that? And how can I do it in my own writing?
Which brings up the issue of re-reading books….
People, and by people I mean non-writers, don’t usually understand my need to own the books. Why own unless you plan on reading it again and people don’t read a book more than once, do they? Well, yes. They do. I do. Many many times. Which also causes a momentary flicker of guilt because why am I re-reading a book when I have so many piled up, back logged, waiting for their turn to be read?
It used to be a mystery to me, this compulsion to buy books. I am aware that at times it is used as procrastination, a way to avoid my own writing and creative process. But mostly it nurtures my creativity. When I walk into a bookstore, or when I browse through the books surrounding me at home, my fingertips grazing the spines, all of my cells kind of sigh and sink into this haze of contentment. No mystery there. Bottom line? Books make me happy.