What Books Do

I could sit and read all day. But when something’s bothering me, I can’t focus on books. People would presume – and have suggested – that I throw myself into them as a distraction from the break up. I’ve certainly got enough unread ones to keep myself occupied for a couple of years. Unfortunately, I haven’t found it so easy. Along with my motivation, my concentration has waned significantly. Instead, I’ve been binging on a favourite TV show from which I take great solace (and will elsewhere be writing about).

However, I can happily say that this phase is beginning to pass.haig I have been reading a book with a title which I would never before have given a second glance – Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig. It is fantastic. He has a brilliant way of expressing emotions and experiences which are otherwise inconceivable and alien.

What’s relevant here is what he has to say about books, and what role they played in overcoming his troubles. What’s interesting is that they haven’t necessarily played the same role in my life, but I have a similar relationship to them as he does.

“…I’d always considered myself to be a person who liked books. But there is a difference between liking books and needing them. I needed books. They weren’t a luxury good during that time in my life. They were a Class A addictive substance.”

Truthfully, I’ve felt like this for years now, but I’ve never seen anyone else describe it as an addiction. And for me, it absolutely is. The first thing I do when I get a new non-fiction book is look at endnotes for more interesting-sounding titles. I have a wish list on Amazon with hundreds of books I’ll never buy nor ever read. I’ve got dozens of books in my room which I’ll probably never read.

I love books.

But what do I get out of them? Matt Haig offers a thoughtful perspective:

“There is the idea that you either read to escape or you read to find yourself. I don’t really see the difference. We find ourselves through the process of escaping.”

For me, it is to find myself, in the sense that I meet myself where I want to be – further down the road – or, in this case, at the end of the book. “It is not where we are”, he adds, “but where we want to go”. And that is exactly it: I want to be at a place where I know more about things, and have more fantastic images and beautiful phrases in my head than I did before I picked up a particular book. There are, after all, “books you haven’t read yet which will enrich you”.

Whilst reading is a solitary activity, for me books offer endless reasons to communicate: just a few words on a single page can be a conversation piece. Matt, again:

“One cliché attached to bookish people is that they are lonely, but for me books were my way out of being lonely. If you are the type of person who thinks too much about stuff then there is nothing lonelier in the world than being surrounded by people on a different wavelength.”

It’s true, I can feel quite lonely at times. However, through books we can not only enrich ourselves but also build relationships based on their subject matter. Thus, I may talk to certain people about a novel and to others about a history book. My ex and I discussed everything and, as I mentioned in my first post, picked out books for one another. I bought novels she was passionate about (Catcher in the Rye was bloody great), and she bought non-fiction I recommended, having asked for books on particular topics. I took pride in the fact that she felt she could ask me about a topic and I could usually recommend something. In his last interview, given in 2011, Christopher Hitchens remarked that his erudition “may strike some people as being broad but it’s possibly at the cost of being a bit shallow.” I don’t think that’s the case with me; in all honesty, it is more to do with the comfort taken from someone feeling that they can rely on you, and books just happen to be something I’ve dedicated a lot of time to, so I’ve become well placed to make recommendations.

When I was younger, the time I read the most was on family holidays. This is where, having read everything I had brought with me, I picked up in a touristy shop in the Canary Islands one of the onhemingwayly English-language books on the rotating bookstand: a collection of Elmore Leonard short stories, When the Women Come Out to Dance. This may have been the same holiday I read his western, Hombre, but I can’t remember. Either way, I went on to read a lot of Elmore Leonard. When I went to Florida I got through A Clockwork Orange, Animal Farm, Edgar Allen Poe and The Old Man and
the Sea
– an eclectic mix. When I was in my first year of uni, there was a time when things weren’t going too well. On the train home I would read Ernest Hemingway’s Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises. I loved it. A few months ago when I was on a fiction binge, I re-read it. It’s the only novel I’ve ever read twice. It’s still excellent.

I’m getting the spark back for books which is good, because I feel I’ve been away from them for too long. I could’ve read a lot in two months. And there are so many books I still want to read. I did compile a ‘book bucket list’, but this was something inspired by my ex, so I won’t be turning to it anytime soon. I’ll pick out whatever I feel like, whenever I’m ready. There’s plenty on my bookshelves to choose from. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, by the way, is superb. I will finish the rest of Ian Fleming’s 007 canon, and seriously begin enjoying some Wodehouse. I’ve always wanted to read the Sherlock Holmes stories, too. And I’m looking forward to Herzog, Catch-22,  finally re-reading The Old Man and the Sea – there’s just something about Hemingway’s writing – and getting round to that Bill Hicks biography I’ve been meaning to read for years, as well as The Philosophy of Walking, which has appealed to me for quite a while. Maybe I’ll re-read Hi Fidelity, too; that’s about relationships and music, and I enjoyed it the first time around.

Matt Haig mentions a number of books which helped him, some of which I’ll have to read; such as Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino – apparently “[t]he most beautiful book” – and Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I enjoy running, and it helped Matt, so I am going to get back into it, and I’m curious about this book.

I once compiled a list of books about books which looked interesting and emailed them to my ex. She thought it was really sweet and thoughtful and actually shared the email on Facebook. I don’t want to go back through such an email, but I’ll have to look into similar books out of curiosity. Books, and a shared love of them, were a big part of our relationship; it was always enjoyable to pique each other’s interest with titles and, I think, it was pleasing to us to see the excitement the other would feel when presented with something new. I miss having someone to snuggle up with and talk about favourite books; warm conversation punctuated with kisses and “I love you”. Some books she recommended I never got round to. I was reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but had hit a slump in it, and then the proverbial hit the fan anyway, so I never finished it. She suggested Walden, because the idea of getting away from the world with only each other in a cabin in the middle of nature seemed romantic and appealing. I bought a copy but have yet to read it. I’d like to, but her Walden t-shirt makes doing so feel odd. Ditto Kafka. Matt Haig discusses The Metamorphosis, but again her quirky Metamorphosis t-shirt makes it seem slightly weird. She wore the green Kafka one during our first breakfast – in our favourite café, no less – and I can’t quite separate the books from her yet.

So they are some things I maybe won’t read, at least not for a while. But I’ve enough to keep me going in the meantime. The next book I read will be Manual of the Warrior of Light by Paulo Coelho, which a friend has lent me. I’m looking forward to it.

Books are a reason to stay alive. What have you been reading lately?

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