21 May, 2017
Books are gentle companions. Generally.
I was only just about murdered by books on one occasion.
That was fifteen years ago…
I wasn’t sure what to do with my life. I had no prospects. I had an arts degree.
I started reading a fair bit. More than usual. I read for ten to twelve hours a day. I’m not sure if I was deeply depressed or just really loved short stories.
I read a lot of Hawthorne, Poe. Wodehouse—he’s pretty good.
I bought a couple thousand books. Not all at once. I was only an aspiring writer back then, so I could still afford to buy books.
I still lived at home (I had an arts degree).
When I ran out of shelf space, I filled my closet with books. My dresser. My bed.
You can fit about a hundred books in an upright piano.
One bookcase in particular, the big oak one (I called it Big Oak), was so loaded with books that it swayed away from the wall day and night like a drunken professor of English Literature.
My mother said this three times a week, at least:
“That big oak bookcase is going to tip over one of these days and break every bone in your body. Even your metacarpals.” (My mother was a schoolteacher.)
I’d just shrug. And keep reading. And reading…
I read for three years.
For every book I read, I bought ten. A sound, metric plan.
Things didn’t really get out of hand until books started colonizing other rooms of the house. Crawlspaces. A dormant fireplace.
You can fit about fifty books in a dormant fireplace.
Soon the halls were piled high, like catacombs.
If my parents were unimpressed, they didn’t show it. Not really.
“If you buy another book, I’m going to watch you eat it, page by page.” My father did mention that. Three times a week, at least.
Only when I couldn’t think of anywhere else to put them (there was nowhere else) did I stop buying books. And diverted all my energy, such as it was, into reading them.
I lay down on my bedroom floor (I’d replaced the bed with six filing cabinets crammed with books) and opened up—I can’t remember what book. It doesn’t matter.
Something by Hemingway, maybe.
“You can get an aneurism from reading too much,” my mother remarked, walking by.
“Last week it was meningitis,” I said.
“That too,” I heard her say. My mother is a severe hypochondriac.
I shook my head—and kept reading.
I’d still be reading, I’m sure. In a beautiful institution. If it weren’t for the incident.
Routine is critical to unbalanced people. It becomes a habit.
Every day, I read from nine to two, had a late lunch, then walked for several hours. Mostly out-of-doors.
“What are you up to these days?” some smiling person would always ask me, always in front of the post office.
“Reading books,” I’d always say.
I’d watch the keystone drop out of their smile, and the whole thing collapse. Always.
After my walk, I’d resume reading, on the floor, from six till midnight. Then fall asleep reading. And wake at dawn with a book on my chest, or under it, or neatly shelved between ribs.
That’s just what happened, the one night. With a slight variation.
I don’t remember what I was reading. Something by Jackson, perhaps. Or Welty—she’s pretty good. It doesn’t matter. Not really.
It might’ve been de Maupassant.
I fell asleep reading.
I woke abruptly, in incredible pain. My head was pounding, my nose. I couldn’t move.
I was having an aneurism. I was sure of it. I’m a severe hypochondriac.
I tried crying out but my voice sounded muffled and frail. I pictured a frail man, in some kind of muffle, lying at the bottom of a steep hill, dying.
I’ll be dead any minute, I remember thinking.
A few minutes passed.
A few more.
There was a knock on the door.
“Are you alright?” said a voice. My mother’s.
I mumbled something.
“Could you enunciate?”
(My mother was a schoolteacher.)
“I heard a relatively big bang a while back. Did you?”
“No,” I tried to say. It sounded muffled.
“Did you say ‘help’?”
“No,” I mumbled, a little louder.
“Oh,” said my mother.
“Help,” I tried to say, now.
“Yes—goodnight,” she said.
I heard her walk away.
I must’ve either passed out of fallen asleep because my next memory is of my father lifting something incredibly heavy off of me.
It was Big Oak.
And about four hundred books.
The last book, the opened one lying on my chest, right over my heart, the one I’d presumably been reading… It saved my life. That’s what I tell people, anyway.
I’m not sure what book it was. It doesn’t matter.
Something by Salinger, perhaps.
Whatever it was, my mother picked it up—then dropped down, sobbing. She put her arms around me.
“You should’ve said something,” she said.
When they let me out of the hospital, I packed up all but five hundred books, my favorites, and gave them away. I gave a box of books to anyone I could think of. People always took them with a sigh. I’m not sure if they were depressed or abhorred short stories.
My parents were proud. They were ecstatic. Optimistic, even.
Then I started writing poetry.
I’ve been writing ever since. Not poetry, though, not really. That was a worrisome phase. I write short stories, mostly. That’s a permanent worry. My mother is seventy-five years old but looks a hundred.
I do still read. Sparingly. Writers can’t afford new books. So they make their own.
When telling people about my scrape with death, I’ll point out my crooked nose, by way of corroboration. Then I’ll tell them that if they look closely, they can just barely make out the front cover of The Collected Stories of Ray Bradbury branded into my abdomen. When I lift my shirt, one in three people lean closer.
I think that tells you something about humanity.
I haven’t decided what.