Susan Hill, an English writer, has recently published a book - Howard's End is on the Landing - which chronicles her year of reading and re-reading the books she already owns and (the most heroic of feats) not buying any new books.
What kind of a position does a writer find herself in when she writes a book about not buying books? I hope to find out soon. I’ve just bought it.
I buy a lot of books. I buy more books than I can read. I also buy more pens and lipsticks than I will ever need. I already own more of the latter than I can use in a lifetime, but that doesn’t stop me. What’s more, I’ve already found the perfect one of each, the perfect bold blue-black gel pen that glides effortlessly over every writing surface, the perfect shade of matte red lipstick that does not bleed, flake or dry out. I keep looking and buying just in case there’s something better out there to discover and love.
This is not a matter of infidelity, you understand; it’s simply a matter of enthusiasm. I can always gleefully make the purchase and say, “At least it’s not shoes!” With books, there is no sense of finding the perfect one and stopping.
The purchase of one book frequently leads to the purchase of more. And more and more. I discover A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk, and I want to read everything that she has ever written. The Globe and Mail declares Freddy the Pig to be a lost classic, and I rush off to order it for the kids. (Their library cards are well -used, and we go through dozens of library books a week, but I only end up paying fines for my overdue piles of books from the library.)
My husband once made the mistake of telling me he’d like a book about maps for Christmas. I’ve now bought him about two dozen. I try to sate the book-buying urge by putting books on a wish list. List-making is a vicarious form of shopping, I try to tell myself, and I have several lists on the go. I usually forget or ignore them when I go into a bookstore, though.
One day this summer, I actually took the trouble to print off my wish list and took it to the bookstore. My three beloved boys were someone else’s responsibility for the morning, and I had a clear stretch of time to indulge myself. I found Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road wedged tightly between two other volumes in the literary criticism section. It is a collection of letters exchanged over 20 years (1949-1969) between the author, a book-lover in New York, and booksellers in London who have what she can’t get at home. The letters evolve from transactions of mere commerce to animated and personal exchanges, filled with wit and emotion.
Helene buys a lot of books in those 20 years. In the age before Amazon and Paypal, she sends off lists of her “most pressing items” with the rough amount due in dollar bills. It’s a slim little book. This was a rather flimsy paperback edition printed on inferior paper. I opened it anyway. I had run some errands before heading to the bookstore, and my bags (no pens, no lipsticks) were strewn on the floor and blocking the empty aisle. Soon, I was too.
I sat propped against the shelves, splay-legged, and gobbled it up, cover-to-cover. As I approached the end of the book, fat tears began rolling down my cheeks. There were great acts of generosity, which always make me mist up, and tragedy had struck, but it was more than that. I wept for joy that there was such a story to be told. I wept because there was such love for books in the world. I wept for a self that could never lay claim to being that big a book lover, for a self who sometimes wants to possess more than read. I also wept for joy that I was alone, unburdened of the responsibility of motherhood for a few hours, and I had a pocket of time to myself. I wept to feel so grateful for the solitude.
I fell in love with and did not buy the book. I wanted an edition that would be a testament to how precious that reading experience was. The hunt is on for a good first edition.