While planning for my trip to the US last month, I assumed I would do a lot of shopping. I have been on enough international trips to know that suitcases seem to mysteriously shrink on your way back just as your possessions seem to expand. Therefore my suitcases contained mostly gifts for friends and family with minimal personal items. I was all set to accumulate lots of new stuff.
Do you know what I returned with?
I went to many strip malls, premium outlets and stores specializing in exclusive merchandise. Besides buying a pair of sunglasses from the ubiquitous Sunglass Hut franchise, I did not buy anything noteworthy, except for this pile of books.
I can never have enough books
From a quick glance and impulse purchase of Ann Patchett’s latest book of essays, “These Precious Days” at the independent store, Pegasus Books in Berkeley to the leisurely three hours I spent at Barnes and Noble in Austin, Texas (including an hour sipping cappuccino and munching a chocolate-chip muffin at the in-store Starbucks) where I bought the companion journal to Michelle Obama’s Becoming along with The Calling by Rha Goddess whose book was mentioned in another audiobook that I was listening to, my pile of books kept growing with each city that I visited.
Was it because I don’t have enough books at home? Can’t be because I was seriously considering investing in more bookshelves even before the trip.
Was it because I don’t have access to books in Singapore? Definitely not, because the Singapore library system has a fabulous and ever-growing collection.
Was it because I had not read these books? No. I bought books that I had previously owned and enjoyed. I remember giving away my dog-eared copy of Eat Pray Love to someone who needed it much more than I did. Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach, a book that should be savored by reading one chapter for each day of the year, had found a new home when I moved to Singapore. When I saw bargain prices on these much-loved books at Pennywise Books in San Diego, of course I bought them.
And of course, I added a 2022 planner and a book about writing, because who doesn’t need such indulgences?
What to do about my anti-library
Do you know that there is a term called ‘anti-library’? It sounds counter-intuitive and also a bit dangerous but simply means a private collection of unread books. Although the term caught the fancy of readers through the mention of it by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book The Black Swan, it originated from the huge collection (almost 30,000 books) of Italian writer Umberto Eco. Having a vast collection of unread books is both aspirational as well as humbling because it is a constant reminder of all that you still don’t know.
Like most book buyers (and hoarders), I suffer from ‘tsundoku’ (the Japanese term for accumulating a pile of books but not reading them) and as a result have a huge anti-library that grows each year. The number of books I acquire exceeds my ability to read. Some years I think I should not buy any more books until I make a dent in the books I own.
Yet 2022 has begun with this heavy pile of books that had to be scattered across various suitcases in order to spread out their weight. I could easily resolve to not BUY more books but I went one step further and swore to not borrow any more books from the library until I read the ones I had bought so eagerly.
Not surprisingly, within two weeks of arriving in Singapore, I made my way to my favorite local library to get a few books, just the ones I needed to write about a topic of interest. Obviously, these books were not to be found in my antilibrary.
Now the borrowed books are on my bedside table which means I have to find a suitable place for my new acquisitions. Have I not learned anything in all my years of reading, I wonder?
Knowledge vs self-awareness
The answer to that question is not to be found in any book. It is an exercise in self-awareness. The most important lesson that stares at me from the top of the pile of books is the knowledge that despite all the adjustments and adaptation that is part of life, there are certain tendencies that don’t change.
Regardless of my resolutions, lack of space or good sense, I will always be drawn towards the written word. People collect magnets, shot glasses and other souvenirs from their travels. I have done so too. But now I seem to be more interested in those things that are not just valuable by virtue of my possessing them but serve as reminders of what I enjoy.
At The Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles, a dimly lit vast warehouse with thousands of books arranged in an open hall downstairs and in quirky rooms, including a book tunnel upstairs, I found a memoir, The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap. about a couple who opened a bookstore in a tiny town. Amongst other biographies of celebrities, highly-acclaimed novels and random bestsellers, I felt compelled to pick this one.
The joy of a book lies not just in reading it but also in the story behind it’s purchase. There’s pleasure in browsing through stacks of books, whether it is in a bookstore or a library and finding the treasure of a book that may not be famous but calls out to you. Perhaps there’s a message hidden in it somewhere.
What better way to find it than to read!