There are seventeen books now arranged in two vertical piles on my floor. I must read them now. Every morning, I shift these books to my bag and my pockets, as pivotal as keys and wallet. There are books for interviews, books for review, and books I must read to remain more or less au courant. It’s a lot of information to digest. And I’ve responded to this by reading at every spare moment. Reading as I walk, reading while I’m on the subway, reading well after the rest of the city has gone to bed. Reading between phone calls. Reading before and after meeting friends for drinks. Reading even when the words whirl into a Gaussian blur or I can’t parse a sentence.
I wonder if I read too much, and why I feel compelled to have a book on me at all times. I’m not anti-social, although I like to spend long periods alone. I must have books — the way that others crave cashews or chew nails. I sometimes panic when I run out of books to read and I am in the middle of nowhere with time to kill. On long trips, I pack more books than I can possibly finish. I contemplate strange scenarios where I’m stuck in an elevator or locked in a building and there’s the small possibility that humanity will fail me. The books are trustworthy friends. And unless I get mugged by a pugilistic bibliophile, the books won’t leave me anytime soon. I wonder if this is a horrible conceit on my part or if this makes me a misanthrope. I wonder if all this is insalubrious. I wonder if this is an addiction.
When not reading on the bus, I observe my fellow commuters. A good 80% of them stare into space: some lost in happy reveries, others with wan mugs fixed on time passing them by. Clearly, I’m in a minority. It’s not that I can’t dream or think or get lost. But I prefer to do these things on my own time. I respond poorly to people interrupting me when I’m lost in a dream, but I’m very interested in people. In public, I feel that the courteous thing to do is to pay attention. I don’t like ignoring others.
This is probably why I feel comfortable getting lost in another person’s vision of the universe, or why I can shift from observing the real world to getting immersed in a book with greater ease. Do the books galvanize me into being social? Perhaps. I used to be very shy, but I’ve learned to disguise my diffidence. Information, foreign perspectives, and things I know nothing about or that I am wrong about are of great comfort. The books put my own neuroses into perspective when stacked against something horrible like the Tutsi massacre. This regular experiential clash grants me succor in social environments and it allows me to listen.
I wonder if this is why people always ask me for directions or seem to think that I’m the guy with all the answers. I wonder if this is why people have the tendency to open up to me. Is it the books or my temperament? Are the books a crutch? Are they holding me back? How do others get along so well without them? I simply can’t.
Books are such a strange thing to have as the center of your life. It seems strange to rely upon them so intensely. But I am, after all, a strange person. And if it hadn’t been books, it would have been something else.
Because of all this, I try to encourage any nervous kid hiding behind a book that reading is okay, that there is nothing wrong with being a book lover, and that books, in their own strange way, are often a vital and unexpected starting point for life itself.