Artillery Row

All Booked Up

Is there a cure for bibliomania?

At the turn of the millennium, when a computer glitch threatened to destroy civilisation, I spent the majority of my days in bookshops, browsing for paperbacks. I lived in Oxford at the time, which, on reflection, was a bit like a sex addict renting a bachelor pad in the red-light district. Temptation lurked on and around every corner. If Blackwell’s on Broad Street wasn’t corrupting my soul with mouldy, overpriced Penguin Classics, then some antiquarian back alley seller was displaying a spread-open Colette in its steamed-up window.

Late afternoon on Christmas Eve, I ducked out of the wintry air into the welcome warmth of the city’s branch of Waterstone’s. Inside, the store was bright and festive, heaving with last-minute shoppers. The smell of hot chocolate and toasted marshmallows wafted downstairs from the café. Tasteful garlands and tinsel had been draped and pinned around, while seasonal music piped from hidden speakers. It felt like I’d stepped into a scene from a Meg Ryan movie.

Perspiring under my trench coat and scarf, I loitered like a pervert around the display tables, removing my gloves to lustily finger the 3-for-2 piles. My wandering eye had fixed upon a chunky tome about Stalin’s terrors. I thought it might make a good gift for my girlfriend; something she could read while wearing the misshapen, reduced-for-clearance woolly sweater from Gap I’d already wrapped in newspaper and placed under our wonky, needle-shedding tree.

Opposite me, manhandling one book after another, then tossing each of them back down in disgust, was a guy in a glossy leather jacket that looked like it had been carefully laid in the middle of the road and driven over by a steamroller. He wore a gold chain on the outside of his maroon turtleneck, like a New Jersey mobster, and his hair was cut so close to his head, I briefly mistook him for bald. He was accompanied by his friend, an almost identical looking man who kept checking a chunky, loose-fitting wristwatch, then tutting.

“What’s the matter with you, you prat?” the guy said.

The prat gave no response, so the guy reached for a literary novella written by a young woman with whom I happened to be acquainted in real life. Lifting the book to his face, he peered at the overwrought back-cover blurb for what seemed like an age. Meanwhile, the prat continued to check the time, and continued to tut loudly every time he’d checked it.

Something good was evidently brewing. I rummaged through my coat pockets, searching for a notepad and pencil.

“Jesus!” the guy said. He flung the literary novella back down, grabbing a Paulo Coelho so roughly with his meaty hands that it rolled into a tube. His irritation was mounting, and I was determined to enjoy every second of it. My reaction to the literary novella, which I’d read several months earlier, had been much the same—if less adroitly expressed.

He shoved the Coelho towards the prat’s face. “What about this one?”

The prat smacked the book away, as if it was a moth who’d mistaken his cologne for the scent of a mate. “How should I bloody know?” he said, loud enough to attract attention. “It’s all crap, isn’t it? Just pick something. This place is doing my nut in.”

The guy’s brain appeared to be overheating and he blew out some heavy air. “She said she wants a book, didn’t she?”

This was clearly a rhetorical question, as the prat turned away to gaze around the store. His mouth hung open, like he was a baby waiting to be spoon-fed by his mother. “Give me strength,” he said, slowly shaking his head.

“What now?” asked the guy in the leather jacket. He stared with misgiving at the Coelho, gnawing his lip.

“Well,” the prat continued, “you know what I mean.”

I didn’t, so I was delighted when he spread his arms like an angel, indicating everything around us: the alphabetically-arranged shelves, the neatly-stacked display tables, the eye-catching promotional displays. “Books,” he scoffed, “what’s the point?”

I remember at the time thinking this was the single best thing I had ever heard. Certain I’d struck gold, I feverishly scribbled the words into my notepad, double underlining the quote in thick lead and drawing a giant star alongside it. In the decades since, I have related the anecdote countless times, always on the lookout for the perfect segue. “There’s no accounting for taste,” someone will say, and I’ll clear my throat, taking my cue.

The story never fails to amuse my bookish, university-educated friends, who guffaw as one, then congratulate me on perfectly illustrating the unenlightened imbecility of the grubby, ignorant hordes—especially the men. It’s common knowledge that 99% of men (or something in that region: the exact figures don’t matter) haven’t read a single book since leaving school, without any qualifications. After he’d finished denouncing books for their universal pointlessness, the reason for the prat’s constant watch-checking and tutting in the Oxford branch of Waterstone’s became clear, as he inevitably made mention of “the pub”. I confess that sometimes, when I’m entertaining people with the story, I embellish it a little, saying that the men were going to the pub to “play darts”. Frankly, it all depends on the audience—and how much I’ve had to drink.

Only now do I grasp the essential truth of the penetrating insight I overheard that fateful day in 1999. Books: what’s the point? I’ve laughed at this question so many times over the past twenty years, but if I was ever forced to answer it, I’m certain I couldn’t come up with anything even half-credible.

As a gullible young man, I fell for the big lie that books are improving. “Reading develops the mind,” my parents told me when I begged for a TV in my bedroom. My teachers seconded the motion, as did one hundred per cent of the world’s self-serving authors. “Reading makes you smarter,” they all said. “Reading gives you endless knowledge and reduces stress. Reading makes you human”.

“What about people who can’t read?” I asked, thinking of all the illiterates in my year group at school. “Don’t they have human rights, too?”

My mother snorted with laughter, as if I’d told a dirty joke. “Oh, that’s precious!” she said, wiping her eyes, and I raced upstairs to bury my nose in the first book I could find.

To be fair, I’d no idea back then what the passage of time does to the brain; that knowledge is never accrued, only forgotten. As an adult, I’ve trudged my way through the entire oeuvres of a good number of literary giants, and not only do I remember bugger all about what I read in any of those books, I’ve entirely forgotten that I read the vast majority of those books at all. Worse, when people ask my opinion about one of their renowned authors, I frown bewilderedly and say, “Who?”, their very existence having somehow been completely blotted from my mind. In my lowest moments, I even add, “Oh, I’ve never heard of him/her. I’ll have to give him/her a try. Which book of his/hers would you recommend I start with?” Only when I’m several chapters into one of these titles does a muffled bell ring somewhere at the back of my broken brain. Hang on, I think, didn’t I read something a bit like this once before? Then I accuse Dostoyevsky of plagiarism.

I suppose the upside of forgetting I’ve read entire cases of books is that I’m less intimidated by the literary canon than I should be. Much like a composer of commercial jingles who cleanses his workspace of Bach and Beethoven, I know I’ve nothing good to gain from the presence of other people’s far superior work. My personal library is currently being stored in my parents’ garage in Hertfordshire. I live in South America and every single day I give thanks that my thousands of books are boxed and hermetically sealed half a world away, where they can’t cast their daunting shadows over me. Even now, the modest bookshelf in my Buenos Aires apartment looms behind me like… oh, I don’t know—Faust’s Devil? I mean, seriously, who am I to write, when Truman Capote is within arm’s reach, cackling at me? What kind of line is this, compared to anything Pablo Neruda knocked out? And why did I even bother getting out of bed this morning, when Shakespeare penned thirty-seven plays and Daniel Kahneman divided his brain into thirty-eight readable chapters?

Bibliophiles are massive losers—why can’t we just admit that?

One advantage of living in Argentina is that, despite its highbrow capital city boasting more bookshops per capita than any other place in the world, it’s hard to come by English-language books; and when you do, they’re often wildly expensive. There’s no Amazon here, either—although, like the hopeless addict I am, I kept my UK account, which means I continue to download the wretched things like they’re going out of fashion. There are currently 544 unread books on my Kindle, to which I mindlessly add ever more titles. A further 227 e-books sit idly on my laptop, waiting to be opened. And don’t even get me started on commercial fiction. I know of no worse feeling than finishing a novel, only to discover that there are sixty-nine further books in the thrilling, rollercoaster of a series that I “ABSOLUTELY MUST READ! And if you liked this one, you’ll just love the author’s other bestselling series, featuring EVEN ZANIER characters on all sorts of trademark misadventures! Start Book One—of eighty-nine—NOW!”

It’s a conspiracy. Every piece of worthless advice I ever hear tells me I must, “Read, read, read.” I can’t even try to listen to music on YouTube without entrepreneurs, life coaches and other snake oil salesmen popping up on shouty adverts, posing alongside other people’s Lamborghinis and Learjets, asking me to guess how many books the world’s top fifty “Super Achievers” read each year. (It’s fifty-two, conveniently.) “The more you learn, the more you earn!” these morons confidently claim. As if reading books makes you a billionaire.

I don’t buy it. I bet billionaires don’t read at all. Not only because they don’t have the time, but because every big reader I know is broke. Without exception, books have overloaded their minds, and their lives are in total disarray. When they’re not consumed by tortuous examinations of Socialist Realism in the shallower subsections of the Baltic Canal between late October 1933 and early March 1934, they’re deconstructing turgid translations of 9th Century Glagolitic poetry from the White Carpathian territories of Great Moravia. On weekends, for light relief, they dip into obscure anthologies of critically-acclaimed feminist speculative fiction championing unsung writers born in the shadow of the Chappal Waddi in the Mambilla Plateau. What should have been their office hours are spent haggling with elderly volunteers in Oxfam bookshops over worthless, dogeared volumes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s early letters or needlessly exhaustive histories of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 in the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin. They own vast stacks of surplus, dust-magnet books, but they never own art, or cars, or houses. Bibliophiles are massive losers—why can’t we just admit that? There’s a clear correlation between reading and underachievement. There’s a reason homeless vagabonds line their coat pockets with paperbacks and newspapers. Our children must be warned, before it happens to them.

Reading is even less helpful to writers. If you write, you are incurably influenced by whatever garbage you happen to be reading at the time. For example, if I’m reading Hemingway, I finish this sentence here. Whereas, in the rare, transcending moments that I am reading, say, Henry James, I find, to my eternal chagrin, that I write—if, indeed, “write” is the morpheme, or mot juste, for which I rightly delve—in my lasting endeavours—my contention, if you will, against the ordained—in a spirit of refined demonstration, or braggadocio, as the case may be, that… Where was I?

Then, of course, there’s the snobbery associated with reading. “Read a book!” command the enlightened few, should you dare disagree with them on any trendy subject. It’s ridiculous, but if you read—or, better still, opine pretentiously about what you read—the chattering classes will clamber to pressgang you into their fanatical ranks. Nobody cares if you write anything, so long as you describe the latest high-status books as “vital,” “necessary,” “required,” or “essential”. Trust me, you can get away for years with pretending that you are “working on something big that I’d rather not talk about for fear of jinxing it” while freely enjoying all the wine and canapes you can stomach. But suggest you don’t read, and people quickly get suspicious.

Wherever I go, people ask me, “What are you reading at the moment?” or “What have you read lately?” And I’m embarrassed to answer, because I’m always rereading something I’ve read a hundred times before, but whose plot, characters and title I’ve completely forgotten. “Still?” they say, with raised eyebrows. And I’m forced to make out like I’m writing a biography of the author, or that I’m a celebrated Doctor of Letters whose pedantic monomania is, in fact, a badge of honour. “Oh, how marvellous!” they always say. The saps.

If they knew how I really felt, they’d denounce me as a philistine, the same way I did those prophetic gentlemen in Waterstone’s on Christmas Eve, 1999. Six months ago, at a party in a sophisticated part of town, I was snooping around the host’s bookshelves, when a woman crept up behind me, clutching a glass of honey-coloured Chardonnay. “You know what Borges said, don’t you?” she purred, causing me to canon towards the ceiling fan in fright.

“Who?”

“Borges,” she repeated, frowning concernedly as I refreshed her glass. “Jorge Luis Borges. Argentina’s greatest writer.”

“Oh, him,” I said.

Her eyes strayed towards the books. “He said that Paradise will be a kind of library.”

I nodded in a knowing sort of way. “Quiet?”

“Full of books.”

“Right. Of course.”

“He used to lick them,” she went on. “Borges, I mean.”

“Libraries?”

“Books.”

“Ah! Yes. Entiendo. Don’t mind me.” I pulled a dopey face to make out like I was paralytically drunk. “Because…?”

She shrugged, sipping her wine. “Because he was blind, I suppose. Because he desired them so much, that he wanted to taste them.”

There was an awkward silence. “Perhaps if he’d known where they’d been,” I said at length, “he would have thought twice.”

“What on earth does that mean?” she asked, dropping her smile.

“I’m not sure,” I admitted. “It was just something to say.”

She reversed out of the room, glaring suspiciously at me, and not for the first time in my life, I wished I was back home, curled-up with a good beer and an improving sports contest on the TV.

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