I didn’t want to do it at first. Of course, I don’t actually remember this but both of my parents have told me this story on separate occasions. I simply didn’t want to read. Told them, I would have none of it. No surprise, really, as this behavior was to reproduce itself again and again. I imagine I saw my older brother and sister reading and simply said, if they are doing it, I won’t. At some point, say the older gen, they sat me down and told me I simply had to learn to read. It appears life hinged on it. Did I want to be some sort of hobo or something? Actually, that did kind of appeal to me back then. This kind of psychological gamesmanship often failed where my behavior was concerned. Later I was told if I didn’t start behaving, I would be given away to the gypsies. I was older then, perhaps 10 or 11, but old enough to know that, having seen Sophia Loren playing a gypsy girl, a potential existed there that I could enjoy.
But that has nothing to do with the matter at hand. I don’t remember the original issue, but I do remember the outcome. I did learn to read and one of the first books I read was the dictionary. Sure, I didn’t understand what most of the words meant, but still I was bound and determined to make it through. If I had to do something my older siblings were doing (they both took Spanish so I took French), then I was sure as hell going to try to do it better. This is what took me to pick up Atlas Shrugged when I was about 12ish. I haven’t revisited Rand since and have never looked back.
I was a great reader but not really a reader of great things. I can remember my granddad (mother’s side) would occasionally give me books when they would come or when we would go out to Kansas to visit. They were mostly things he had read as a kid and this was how I got exposed to Burroughs (not that other fella, but the important one), Edgar Rice, Lovecraft, Wells, Walter Scott, all those oldsters. As a teenage boy, I read what most of that sort of animal reads, fantasy and science fiction. In my twenties, I began to branch out.
The book that split the trunk into many different branches was Colin Wilson’s The Outsider. No, this is not the movie with tosser actor, whats his name. Wilson’s book was a combination of literature, philosophy, psychology and society. I believe it to be one of the most important books written in the latter half of the 20th century. Of course it didn’t help that Wilson turned out to be the very best ally of his own worst enemies.
That was the book that got the ball rolling. I had become a Reader, not just someone who reads. In part it was because of how Wilson had written his first book, sleeping rough in London (calls of the hobo), spending his days in the reading room of the British Museum (now called the British Library). If he gleaned everything he talked about in The Outsider out of literature, fiction, then this was the stuff I needed to start reading.
Of course, once the hound gets the scent there is no stopping him. Likewise the trail never does run a straight line. There was more branching. History, philosophy, anthropology and fiction, fiction, fiction.
To keep this post from being interminably long, jump ahead twenty years. I returned to university at College of Charleston for a degree in English Literature. Wanting to be a writer but knowing I didn’t know enough to write the things I wanted was the reason for going back (if that’s the sentence I want). Also, by this time, I knew that I react very well to institutions and direction. It keeps me focused on what I need to pay attention to, rather than getting sidetracked by very interesting, but ultimately, divertissements.
This was also the time when the interweb was really starting to swing. I found my pusher: the book clearing house website Alibris.com. I had left the land of just reading far behind. I had been hooked by the book.
When I started at C of C, I decided I would also start at the beginning of the Western Literary Tradition, which is why the language I took was Ancient Greek. I started with the Greeks and have been slowly making my way through century after century. I certainly didn’t read everything from every time. As much as I would like to, who has the time? Another thing happened about this time that marks my entry into the land of bibliophilia. I was no longer happy with just reading the book. Libraries, once my haunt (indeed, as a child during the summer, I would motor through multiple books every week, returning to the library with one stack to bring home another), now only instilled envy and jealousy in me. I had to own the book. Now came the age of the bookshelf.
This is the constant struggle with an owning reader (my term for someone who has to own the books he reads), the battle between having enough shelf space for the books at hand. On the other hand, when one finds himself shelf-rich as it were, a great yearning dawns for the need to fill them up. I decided that just buying a book wasn’t good enough. Why have the paperback if I could get the hard back instead for a few dollars more. And if it were only a couple of more greenbacks, why not get the fine copy instead of the very good?
Recently, I have taken that last step into bibliomania. I have started buying books on books. I don’t mean literary criticism, I have continued reading that long after I left C of C. What I mean is simply that, books about books by those who have built libraries and those who have built collections. Having gained a new bit of knowledge, I started going back through my tomes. It turns out I do in fact have quite a few first editions (the only thing important to collectors). I don’t have any hidden gems that would make a splash on Antiques Roadshow, but I do have the authors and books I like.
Does it bother me that I keep heading down a path that has no exits? Not at all. Does it bother me that one day, every wall in my flat will have some sort of shelf with books stacked on it? Not at all. What does bother me is where I will find all the time to read them.