The other day I finished the writer Christopher Hitchens‘s last essay collection to be published before his death: Arguably (2011). Rather than providing a vast and rather inadequate biography of the man, I will simply say that he had been a journalist, bibliophile, scholar, speaker and, one might say, a societal firebrand. When he died from cancer he was editor and regular contributor to three venerable publications: Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, and Slate. You can go to these publications to read proper biographies and many of his essays, reviews and journalism, as I urge you to do.
Or for a taste of the man and his ideas you can watch this clip from an interview with Charlie Rose:
I burned through the 700-plus pages of Hitchens’s collection, astonished all along by the man’s wealth of knowledge on literature, culture, religion, and geopolitics as well as with his absolute mastery of the English language. His thoughts and arguments on religion, just war, and his unswerving idealism on matters of free speech and the rights of women struck me throughout and, in many ways, informed and adjusted my own thinking on these matters. Hitchens has been made relatively famous for God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2009), his screed against religion and a must-have for any atheist that wants to argue their position in the most intelligent and logical manner. Indeed, many of his essays in the book I read do prove that religion, in most of its forms, tends towards tyranny and subjugation (particularly for women).
Yet this is only an example of a trend that was forming as I read; the slow realization stemming in part from my own weak efforts at being a writer, that I had little in common with Hitch (as his friends called him). He was just too well-read, too eloquent, too informed, too intelligent, too perfect a writer. Being an avid reader and writer for many years now (almost half my life, dear God!), I have rarely met with many writers where I hit the imaginative wall barring any emulation–where I know for a consummate fact that I will never, in my wettest dreams, be able to write like them. Thomas Pynchon is one of these writers. Faulkner, Shakespeare, Woolf, Dostoevsky and many others also grace this “Never-ever-can-I” list. And as I read Hitchens, I was prepared to add another to the list.
These writers tend to enter a rank of textual divinity somewhere between seraphim and cherubim. Most are dead, placing them solidly within their own text; we can never know them and everything we have about them and their personalities are weak and inaccurate conjectures. And those that are alive, like Pynchon, tend to reveal as much of their persons as the dead ones. They cease to be humans and become “authors”–something separate from the drudgery of our everyday. After all, can anyone truly imagine Dostoevsky taking a nice healthy dump? Maybe. Either way, these writers do enter some zone of the Unapproachable through the function of their genius. Hitchens, as I read along, bedazzled, was soon climbing the ladder that way. However, when I came to his last essay in the collection–a brief page and a half–it saved him from embodying the divinity he so hated.
The essay, “Prisoner of Shelves,” first published by City Journal in 2008 (accessible here), describes the affliction which both Hitchens and I hold in common. That everlasting habit (or addiction) of collecting and accumulating books–Bibliomania. When I enter a bookstore I am damned to invariably come out with at least 3 new books, or sometimes old ones that I’ve lent out and don’t have the patience to wait for or the guff to demand back immediately. And lending has, as the years wear by, become an ever-fading practice, as Hitchens notes: you never get the fucking things back. And of course, you need them back.
I’ve found myself at times staring at my shelves and wondering: “What in the hell do I need with a book cataloging the taboo practices of the Mbya-Yuqui tribes in Bolivia for?” A treacherous and silky voice answers back, as Hitchens confirms: “you never know.” I guess in some radically semi-schizophrenic way, this is 100% true. Suppose someday I find myself wanting to write about taboo or the last few “uncivilized” peoples on the planet, the book would then be very useful. But still…
Currently I have–let me count–46 books which I have not read, and the number continues to grow. This number does not take into account the unread books in the hundreds that lie in storage at a friend’s house in New York. Parting with those boxes of books was, to put it mildly, difficult. Yet, as Hitchens sort of hints at, there is not a whole lot of guilt that accompanies this addiction. Yes it can be sad looking at the stack of books you still haven’t gotten to, and yes, they tend to get in the way and take up much room. But, as every bibliomaniac knows, most of the time when you stare at the stacks, you smile. Yes, it’s probably similar to the twisted and slightly malign smile that contorts the heroin addict as they stare at their bundles of smack, but they’re books; books are good for you aren’t they?
Perhaps William S. Burroughs had it right in some ways. There’s little difference between a junk addict and an author: they both suffer from diseases of a type and both illnesses are as cerebral as they are physical. And are the delusions and addled thoughts of the heroin user anymore fantastic or dangerous as those of a person who reads too much? After all, governments and churches have hanged, imprisoned and tortured people for both.But maybe this is all hyperbole (another symptom of bibliomania).
One time, when I was a very young man and had quite fewer books than I have now, I remember staring at my shelves and thinking: “Damn, that’s a lot of dead trees.” For those of you out there that think collecting books is a harmless and eco-friendly pursuit, I am here to inform you, it is not. Yes, you may retort that one can now get all the books–thousands, millions–one wants digitally. But a true bibliomaniac is not satisfied scrolling through a long list of icons. It doesn’t hold the same fervor and satisfaction as staring at book-lined walls that could withstand a nuclear blast. Ask any writer who has just finished a large novel. They’d much rather see the completed manuscript slapped down on a table before them than be presented with a small thumb-drive by their publisher. It’s more fulfilling seeing the physical specimen before you. To use a weak metaphor, writing and books are almost like children–you want to see them, touch them. Imagine being presented with a digital version of your newborn on an iPad. I think the special moment would be a bit tarnished…
Besides the environmental and addict-guilt of the biblimaniac, there are worse storm clouds that they can sense on the horizon. An old professor pointed this out to me before. It isn’t so much that you will never be able to read all the books out there, you won’t even be able to own them all. Being a proper capitalist American, it shook my soul: what do you mean I can’t buy them all! Indeed, it is not only mathematically but humanly impossible for one to own all books in existence. Even the richest man could never do it. Partially because the damn things just keep coming. But also because many remain unknown, unacknowledged, invisible.
This fact, annoying as it is, does not hinder the book addict. It doesn’t even equate into the urge. We still enter into a bookstore and come out overladen. We still collect more than our reading-speed can consume. We still stack them as if we were guarding them against the apocalypse. To quote Fitzgerald in a wholly different context: “So we beat on, boats against the current…”
If Hitchens is any example for us book people, then the end of this obsession isn’t so bad. If my obsessive reading and writing leads me anywhere close to the knowledge and mastery of the language that he possessed, well I’d count it a damn fine addiction. But it’s still an addiction, a selfish endeavor. I blanch when I think of the poor soul who will have to deal with all the books after I’m gone. Hell of a legacy; sort of like a twisted form of Bleak House. Speaking of which, I need to buy that…