Sunday, February 1, 2009

I Have to Have That Book!

By Stuart Sharp

I’m sure you’ve run into these six words at some point. I know I have. In my head at least, they make themselves heard on at least a semi-regular basis. They are, as I’m sure you know, about the surest sign there is of a case of book lust.

But what exactly is this book lust stuff? What is it that takes perfectly normal people who might otherwise be going out for walks, or talking to loved ones, or playing golf, and makes them first slaver over cheap paperbacks, and then spend their time indoors devouring them. Is it really doing us any good?

On the face of it, book lust makes no sense. The idea of forming such a sudden and instant attachment to bundle of paper and words just doesn’t seem, well… normal. Of course, that’s not something limited to just books. People lust after all sorts of strange objects, from expensive cars, to pairs of shoes. Usually though, those are what marketing people would think of as “aspirational purchases”, not a few quid’s worth of paperback.

In the same vein, a number of sports people of my acquaintance have formed almost worrying attachments to particular pieces of equipment. Several of the fencers I know, for example, have given their swords names, covering everything from “Brian” through to “Ticklestick”. Cricketers I know spend hours lovingly sanding and taping bats, or fiddling with the arrangement of studs in their boots. But this doesn’t help either. Again, sporting equipment is usually quite expensive, and anyway, this sort of relationship with sporting kit only builds up over time.

With me and books, and I suspect with a lot of other people too, it’s different. There is no build up period. It’s simply a case of knowing that you’re going to read a particular book, because the thought of leaving it on the shelf, not knowing how it ends, is like an itch at the back of the mind. It’s not there to irrational levels, you can ignore it, but really, why would you want to?

The books that spark this feeling will vary between readers, obviously. Just because I absolutely have to read Kim Harrison’s Where Demons Dare means nothing for whether you will like it (though you will, I’m sure). Equally, so will the ways in which these books catch our eye. Sometimes, just occasionally, it’s enough to see a really great cover on the shelf, maybe coupled with a great title. Maybe you’ll flick through a little, or maybe it will be the back cover blurb that catches you. For me, that’s rare. The last book that became an absolute must buy like that for me was probably fantasy epic Kushiel’s Dart, by Jaqueline Carey.

More commonly, a relationship with a book will start on the basis of some prior knowledge. Maybe a friend will recommend something. That is, when you think about it, a little like a blind date, except that you don’t have to worry if you’ve got spinach in your teeth while you’re reading. Closer to something like speed dating is the good old “grab a bunch of books from the library at random” approach. You end up reading a lot of unreadable books that way, of course, but there are usually enough real gems in the mix to make it worthwhile. Without this, I would probably never have read any of Tom Holt’s work. I certainly wouldn’t have been drawn in by the cover art.

From the first unexpectedly good library book, of course, it’s invariably a quest to read everything in the series, or by the same author, or by the author’s best friend Pete. There’s something remarkably voracious about the way the average reader will hoover up every word written by an author the moment one book has given them the bug. In the case of someone like Jim Butcher, this might take some time.

It also suggests that, when it comes to book lust, what we’re lusting after is not the book itself. Obsessing over the other works of a particular author demonstrates that neatly. It’s not the author that we’re obsessing over either, except in a tangential way. Despite the insistence of assorted publishers that they’re selling the author more than the words, it’s the story that we fall a little in love with.

This, of course, is my way of saying that book lust is perfectly acceptable. Lusting after books as physical things is probably a little odd, forming an excessively strong attachment to favourite authors is the sort of thing that the humble restraining order was invented for, but lusting after a well told story? From where I’m standing, that seems like part of what makes us readers in the first place.

We’ve all felt what they can do when they’re well told, making us feel everything from joy to terror, delight to outright disgust. The best can help us see the world in entirely new ways over the course of an afternoon, or force us to question everything we formerly thought. Badly told, of course, they mostly generate annoyance. That is probably why we’re so quick to latch onto those stories that look like they might work, and then onto the series, the author’s other works, their friend…

As that might suggest, there’s still the question of whether all this is really a good thing to consider. Ultimately, I suspect that’s a question of degree, and point of view. I’m sure that the family members who barely see you for a couple of days when the next in your favourite series comes out might occasionally prefer it if you lusted after something else. Them, perhaps. If they happen to be non-readers, they might even suggest alternative hobbies, or possibly some sort of twelve-step program. Anything that gets back some of the shelf space they’ve lost over the years.

But then, compared to so many other things, books aren’t that bad. Books are about the only addictive substance that won’t destroy your brain or body (well, except for eyestrain). They aren’t going to destroy your marriage, assuming you occasionally give in on the shelf space stuff, and they might actually expand your social life if you join a reading group. If we’re going to obsess about something, it might as well be something that’s cheap, that’s probably good for us, and that is never going to do worse than cause us to discuss the Lord of the Rings trilogy in public.

On the whole, it could be a lot worse. It could be golf, for a start.

No comments: