The book is the only material object that a leftist liberal does not have to consider as an actual object. Diamonds, gold, furs, TV’s, bric-a-brac, lamps, furniture, houses, cars: all these are material possessions, and as such are loathed and rejected by the enlightened and overly educated. But books, well…. To cut through the artifice, books are an intellectual’s genitalia.
Wait a minute, . . .
And yes, ladies, I believe that metaphor applies to both genders.
Are we talking about size, or quantity? I’m confused.
We want shelves and shelves of books. Old books. New books! Books by classic authors upon whom civilizations are founded. Books by current popular authors upon whom actual enjoyment is expounded. Large books full of images of far off lands and fabulous art. Large books full of endless words and scenes which we point at and say, like a quarterback points to a recently deflowered cheerleader, “I read that. I read the shit out of that, and I made that book call me daddy!”
So maybe you mean that, for leftist liberals, books are like sexual conquests? (Oh, dear. What will the Bishop say?)
We casually host parties in the rooms our books are stored and hope passionately, yet silently, that attention will be paid to them. The couch is worn and torn, the curtains are grey and moth-eaten, the silverware is thrift store and the fork does not match the spoon. But my Mark Twain is flawless, and I have a first edition of the complete letters and speeches of Oliver Cromwell as edited by Thomas Carlyle. Please, do not trip on my intellectual penis.
In this instance, I’ll grant you the analogy.
But I got divorced once. And I had to cull my books. I had to leaf through my ego and decide what was important enough to keep and what I would offer to the Osiris of values: the used bookstore. Buddha smiled as I took $14 for two boxes of self worth. He grinned as I took $17 for one box of pride. Then I smiled as I refused $10 for two boxes of memories. I remember the moment still, at the resale window, “I can offer you ten dollars.” And realizing, no, and Hell no! These were worth more than that, much more! That amount was an insult to my life, my passion, my good taste! No sir, and good bye! But I would have taken thirty dollars.
My heart breaks.
Now the question of books as objects, as objects of value rises again. Now I am a Buddhist, and now I am mixing my books into the books of my wife. We’ve been married a year (two years if you count the civil ceremony) and been together for three years and only now are we mixing our books. We have done things to each other that defy description and will remain undescribed, you jealous bastards, but until now, the covers of our books have never touched each other with any intimate intent.
(You know how insufferable newlyweds are. Particularly we mid-aged ones. Bear with us.)
And now they must mingle, in full literary and literal congress. Now the most intimate things she owns will touch the most intimate things I own. Although we have been man and wife for a while now, I discovered a new form of intimacy staring down from our bookshelves. It’s not just that her things will touch my things, her ideas will be touching my ideas. It’s that the things touching will be the only truly intimate things we own—and I will repeat that, as I think italics are cheap—intimate things that we own. I have been intimate with these things, these books. I have held them, observed them, been faithful to them for them sum total of their existence. As their Dharma is to be read, I have fulfilled their dharma.
It’s true. This man has the most passionate relationship with his books. Some are one-night stands. Others are long-term, comfortable affairs, appearing on a regular basis on the back of the toilet. Still others are like the high school sweetheart, or the chivalrous knight’s far-off lady: read and pondered at key moments because they changed his life.
I have left coffee and tikka masala stains on some pages and have underlined and highlighted sentences of others; intense caring and happy carelessness have marked them.
(You should see how he has devoured Will and Ariel Durant’s 11-volume The Story of Civilization: as my prayerbook says, he has “read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested” them. And typed up his margin notes and favorite quotes.)
They have not betrayed me as others have, or as I have betrayed others. They are precious to me, free of sin, free of wordly corruption. But they are still things, objects, lifeless chunks of stuff. And Buddha says I should not be attached to such things. But here is my rationalization . . . no, I will be brave. Here is my reason that books—the unculled books, the surviving tomes—are not a violation of the Dharma of the Buddha. They are my rosary. Each book a bead. Letters from the Earth by Mark Twain is the first book in which I underlined passages. It was the start of me as a thinking, judging person. Then, P.G. Wodehouse as a primer for humour. Hunter S. Thompson for passion, The Durants for discipline, Shakespeare for poetry, Brautigan for beauty, Batman for perseverance, Kurt Busiek’s Astro City for subimity, Will Eisner for heroism among the grime of life. Each book is a bead in the rosary, and as it stands on my shelf, I pray through each tome I’ve read by simply looking at the spine. I refresh and remind my soul of the giants who have come before me and bathe in those silent past hours of exultation, quiet communion with people I have never met who wrote words my soul will never forget. So. If I can have a Buddha statue to aid my meditation, then I can have Lizard Music by Daniel M. Pinkwater as an aid to my mental struggle. These are objects. But so am I. If they pass from this earth, as I know they will, as I will, I will not be lessened Attachment? Am I attached? To Mark Twain? To P.G. Wodehouse. To Shakespeare. To Willian and Ariel Durant, to Richard Brautigan, to Hunter S. Thompson? To Alan More? To Kurt Busiek? You bet your ass I am. And Buddha’s okay with that. Because they’re not things, they’re me. And I am more than the sum of my library.