The wonderful, exquisitely weird Edward Gorey once addressed the clutter in his house by noting, “I can’t go out without buying a book.”
Perhaps the only thing he and I have in common. Alas.
For the last two months, I have been working on a piece about a subversive chef who has provocative ideas about local food economies, farming as stewardship, and the relationship between climate change and how we eat. I’ve spent hours hanging out with him and other food people and could write the story based on those conversations. But I seized on the assignment as an excuse to buy four books. It would have been five, but I already owned Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
In October, my wife and I will venture to Churchill, Manitoba, to watch and photograph polar bears. The tour company sent a suggested reading list. I bought every book on it. Maybe I skipped one; I don’t remember.
When we travel, I always look for independent booksellers and keep a mental list of landmarks. Bookmarks. Booklandmarks. McNally Jackson in New York. Tattered Cover in Denver. Eliot Bay Books in Seattle and Powell’s to the south in Portland. Sundial Books in Chincoteague, Scuppernong in Greensboro, Labyrinth Books in Princeton. Baltimore? The Ivy. Washington? Politics and Prose or Kramerbooks, depending on the day. Lenox, Massachusetts? The Bookstore, “Serving the Community Since Last Tuesday.” I almost always buy a book or two when I’m in any of them, justifying my purchases as support for indie shops against Amazonian hegemony.
Sometimes I accumulate books with more purpose. Or more purposeful excuses. I own a couple of translations of Homer and have shelved with them seven more Homer-related works. Barry Unsworth, Christopher Logue, Alberto Manguel, M.I. Finley, Simone Weil. Two more lurk on my iPad. I harbor the woozy notion of someday writing an essay on books that orbit The Iliad and The Odyssey. When the time comes, I shall be ready. For a similar reason, I've been collecting works on walking. I have five unread novels by David Mitchell, witness to my intention to read all his work in chronological order. (He keeps writing them, so you see the pitfall there.) The inventory of books on quantum physics is a sign of another future project. That one might be a novel. A really nerdy novel. Or I might end up just knowing an odd assortment of things about string theory.
I have books I bought 25 years ago that I haven’t read yet. New York Review Books sent me five volumes last week—they just had a big sale—and I haven’t gotten to those, either. At least twice I’ve bought books, only to come home and find that I already owned them. I hope this happens to other people.
You’ve heard of those bracelets that say WWJD? At troublesome moments, you are supposed to look at them and hear an inner voice counsel, What would Jesus do? I should have one engraved WWEGD. What would Edward Gorey do?
I’ve bought books ever since I was a teenager, but I used to be better about not buying new ones until I’d read all those I had on hand. When I was in my early 20s, I brought a date home. She looked at the books stacked everywhere in my apartment and asked, “Have you read all of those?” I said, “Most of them.” She said, “You must be smarter than you look.” I stopped seeing her.
The only thing to conclude here is I just love buying books. I never buy anything that I don’t intend to read, and now that I’m a pensioner and man-of-leisure, I’m starting to work down some of my back stock. But if I stopped buying today, I’d be years reading all that I’ve accumulated. That’s okay. I might be sentenced to five years of house arrest someday; if it happens, I’m ready.
Next week, I travel to visit kin in Cambridge, Ohio. I have sworn not to return with any new books. Not one. You may doubt my resolve, but I don’t. I can do this.
It will help that Cambridge doesn’t have a bookshop.