On The Inimitable, Exhausting Wonder Of Physical Books
It was just over half a decade ago that I realised that life would be a lot easier if the amount of physical stuff I owned was reduced to its bare minimum. Some context: I have lived in London almost my entire life; I came of age in it during the 21st century; and London in the 21st century is not a spot in space-time in which you can just walk up to an estate agent, doff your flatcap and say, ”scuse me, guv, I think I’d like to purchase that there modestly priced abode if you so please.’
There are no modestly priced abodes. Finding a place to live is hell. You wanna buy something? You better hope you’re a sheikh, an oligarch, or a member of the landed aristocracy. You wanna rent? Similar deal, but we might be able to squeeze you in somewhere without that. You will have to fight the other twelve hundred applicants to the death for it first, but, hey, that’s a pretty sweet deal, right?
Oh, and most likely we will indirectly kick you out after a year by raising the rent by a ludicrous, seemingly arbitrary amount. Alright? Alright.
I was aware of this harsh wasteland of plenty that is the London housing market even before I properly launched myself into living on my own. I knew I would have to think pragmatically. Moving house is one of those special trials delivered to us directly from the dimension of infinite torment, and — barring any surprising sheikh sponsorship — I, as a renter, would be undertaking it often. The less physical stuff weighing me down, the better.
I had never been anything that could be classed as a hoarder. Sure, I had stuff, but not to any ridiculous degree. Nevertheless, I told myself I would have to be ruthless. Whatever small emotional relief I would derive from saving something would be more than offset by the pain of the pulsing rage-vein in my temple set off by having to load up more shit every moving day. There would be no room for sentimentality here. Anything too numerous and/or cumbersome would have to go. Magazines — gone; comic books — gone; DVDs — gone. Even my beloved CDs with their lush, detailed booklets would have to go. Those at least could be reduced to a few compact wallets — the plastic cases having taken up most of the space — but still, that one hurt. I had spent years building up the collection, meticulously ordering the cases and gazing at the resulting collage with love on innumerable occasions — but the edict had been passed, and it would have to go.
Even as my scorched earth policy gathered pace and claimed what felt like must have been its most resilient victim, there remained the shadow of a yet unconquered peak. The final frontier: books. I was looking to minimize space, to reduce the mass total of owned things. Guitars and a bicycle took up space and weighed a lot, but they could not be gotten rid of. CDs, it seemed at first, couldn’t either, but in the end they yielded. The library would have to go the same way. There was no other choice. Pragmatism demanded it.
As it turned out, pragmatism never stood a fucking chance.
Since that first big move I have had to shift everything I own about five times, lugging it around this huge city by whatever means available. I have cursed every single physical entity I own. Every single item reacting to the Earth’s gravitational pull has been subjected to my rage. Every moving day I age a week, because no matter how much stuff you shed, come moving day you always realize: there is still too. much. stuff! You notice you have too many clothes. You gawp at the ridiculous amount of paraphernalia and you stare balefully at the too-numerous articles of memory, laden down with emotion and — even worse — actual weight. ‘Surely some of this shit can just burn?’ you think.
And it can, and it does.
Except those damn books. No matter how hard I try each time to slay the beast, to cross the threshold, I just can’t. To me the books are everything, and they cannot be jettisoned.
I don’t know which book it was that I first loved, and I don’t need to know. I adore each and every single one I own as much as I love the totality of the concept itself. In an ironic turn of affairs, whereas for the most of my life I had decried the importance of material goods, I now find myself in an age where the owned and the physical is evanescing faster and faster into the borrowed and the digital, and I feel the burning need to have.
My books embody this feeling better than anything else. I stare at them sometimes. I stop as I’m walking past and I find my eyes lazily drifting across their worn spines, either reading the faded titles and names of the authors, or just taking in the impressionistic haze of colors and shapes. At times my gaze might alight on a specific book and I’ll slide it out of its resting place, tipping it out, top end first. Its weight becomes a reassuring fact in my hand. It never ceases to amaze me how the grounded solidity of a book — its pure, simple, physical being — coexists so perfectly with the intangible portal contained inside. Has there ever been a better union? Your fingers grasp the cover and turn the pages, and your mind rides the tempest of ideas and stories that howls furiously within.
Only a fool would deny the utility and the convenience of electronic books but, to me, real, physical books have an inimitable magic to them. It’s a magic that’s bound up inextricably with their form, and it’s something that cannot be replicated digitally. They seem to me more than the sum of the words and concepts contained within the text. Each one is an individual, a character in and of itself. Should you choose to take it on holiday, you are committing to it. The decision has a physical consequence. It will weigh something in your bag. A bigger book will weigh more. Such a simple physical fact takes on symbolic significance. In my younger days I would be loathe to see a book damaged in any way. I would read it carefully so as not to crease the spine too much; accidental page folds or stained covers would be a cause for alarm. Now I welcome any and all blemishes. Like humans, books carry the marks of their history on them. Some have been with me for decades, and they have aged accordingly. Their outward appearance tells almost as much of a story as the narratives they bear inside. Each one hums with a different frequency of experience. Together, a good bookshelf can produce a symphony. I guess I’ve decided that that’s more than worth an extra few grey hairs come moving day.
I don’t have quite as much time these days for voracious reading as I used to; and while that fiend Pragmatism might see that as a cause for celebration, it doesn’t stop me from buying three, four books during each visit to Foyles in central London. I will keep moving house, but I will not stop buying books. As it happens, Foyles, that storied bookshop, also has a sign in it. It is the first thing you see upon entering, directly in front of you, just above head height. It says: ‘Welcome, book lover. You are among friends.’ To me that’s always had a dual meaning. It’s referring to both the people, as well as the books that they’re browsing.
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