Sunday, May 28, 2006

BOOKS: An Obsession

I’ve had a lifelong passion for books. The sheer intensity of this passion was confirmed yesterday, when I decided to clean my room. Within an hour, six bookcases worth of hardcover and paperback titles of varying sizes and subjects were strewn all over the floor and across my bed in what looked like the aftermath of a particularly intellectual battle. There wasn’t much room to maneuver and I hadn’t even touched the boxes of books stowed away under my bed or the mountains of titles in my closet. I couldn’t help but feel ridiculously happy while standing amidst this abundance of literature. This diverse collection was all mine, the result of an enduring obsession with the written word.

I was an introspective and thoughtful child. My mom tells me I was so quiet that she’d feel compelled to check up on me several times during the day to reassure herself that I was still at home. She’d find me sitting in the corner playing teacher to a make believe classroom full of students or serving invisible tea and biscuits in my plastic tea set to imaginary guests. I can’t remember whether or not books meant something to me this early in my life; perhaps my rich imagination, the byproduct of a somewhat lonely childhood, predisposed me to more literary pursuits.

I was hooked on books by the time I started school. I saved my allowance money for weekly trips to the bookstore, emerging with dozens (I’m not kidding) of books, which I’d start reading during the car ride home. I finished books, hundreds and hundreds of pages, in a single sitting. I often read all night, hiding out in the bathtub. When amma rapped at the door, demanding that I go to sleep before I read myself sick or blind or, Allah forbid, both, I used to groan unconvincingly telling her that my stomach hurt and that I’d return to bed as soon as I felt better. Amma would have to carry along with her whatever I happened to be reading when she took me to the park; I’d make sure to sneak in lovely minutes with the book as I sat astride on my forgotten bicycle.

I didn’t believe in borrowing books because I fell in love with them too easily and would often end up wanting to keep them. In the third grade I failed to return biographies about Pope John Paul II, Gloria Steinem and Jane Goodall that I’d borrowed from the library for a book report. In my defense, the books were exceptionally written and superior to anything I’d read up until that point in my life and, I ended up donating them back to the library with several bags full of titles from my childhood.

I devoured books. I lived and breathed them. I read book after book after book, until putting one aside to engage in real life matters felt strange and took a period of adjustment. The handful of times I played hooky from school was to finish reading a book that I couldn’t dream of putting down. When I didn’t have a book to read, I’d pull a title from my dad or my brother’s collections. What it was didn’t matter much, as long as I got my fix. I read until I ended up bespectacled, without many friends who I couldn’t conjure up at a moment’s notice, and somewhat socially awkward.

But I didn’t (and, frankly, still don’t) care. Not fitting in with the other kids was a small price to pay for living a life rich in imagination. The characters from my books were a lot more interesting than my classmates, anyway.

I still read like a maniac, though mostly for work. I desperately try to make time to read for pleasure and would do anything for a book that can recreate that feeling of reading as a child, when falling into and losing myself in the spaces between letters and words, the lines between sentences and paragraphs was a daily occurrence. When I find these books, life gets put on hold: phone calls and emails are not returned, plans with friends are canceled, meals become an inconvenience. Everything else becomes peripheral to the book.

So, now, as I slowly restore order to my room, the task of returning the books to their shelves is a daunting one, but one that I undertake with delight. These books aren’t just objects that occupy my home for the sake of appearance (and occupy my home they do. I counted over 100 books that I’ve scattered throughout the living room alone). They are integral to the person I am.


terra shield said...

Yeah, I believe you. I'd rather deprive myself of sleep than to keep a book unfinished...

R. Arlington, Jr. said...

I'm in the process of sending several boxes of them home this week. Sell them, some would say and those same some would be unfeeling bastards.

SabilaK said...

During my sophomore year in college, I sold my copy of Boccaccio's The Decameron back to the campus bookstore. I regretted it as soon as the few measly dollars replaced one of the great works of the Western canon in my hand. I felt horrible. I haven't sold a book since.

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