All Day I Dream About Books: How I Became a Book-Hoarder

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All Day I Dream About Books: How I Became a Book-Hoarder

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

I

n Anton Chekov’s classic short story “The Bet”, a young man in the prime of his life places a very unlikely bet with a millionaire at a party. After a discussion on whether the death penalty is a better option than life imprisonment, which involves long stretches of mind-numbing isolation, the youth tells the millionaire that life imprisonment is a better option. To prove his point that a person can survive in isolation, he agrees to live 15 years in solitary confinement, his only company being all the music and books that money can buy. If he manages to pull it off, he gets two million rubles at the end of it. By the time the 15 years wind down, the millionaire who offered the money falls on hard times and wonders how he is going to fork up the required money. A night before the 15-year time period gets over, the youth, older and wiser, escapes, forsaking the money he was supposed to receive. He leaves behind a letter in which he says that he has learned and experienced everything that he ever wanted to through all the books he read while in isolation and that he no longer has any use for the money. 

To tell you the truth, I have had similar fantasies. I have dreamt of shutting myself off for days and reading with no interruption whatsoever. I have wondered what it would be like to take a year off and read as much as I want to. 

A few years back, I made a bargain with myself that I would buy new clothes only if I discarded a few old ones. I have been somewhat successful in that experiment. Then, Marie Kondo suddenly became the talk of the town and I decided to embrace her philosophy. I parted with a box of cassette tapes that I had painstakingly collected over the years and foolishly got rid of a vintage typewriter that my grandfather owned, decisions I would later come to regret. Then I got over-ambitious and tried the same with books. “No more buying a new book until I complete at least two books that I have left unread,” I said to myself. I then realised the futility of Marie Kondo’s approach when it came to books. Minimalism isn’t always the path to maximum happiness. 

I have dreamt of shutting myself off for days and reading with no interruption whatsoever.

In times of war, people stockpile essentials in case they can’t get out of their homes. I have been stockpiling books for as long as I can remember. There is a reason why I buy more books than I can ever read — I’m afraid I’ll finish all of them and be left empty-handed and lose my sanity. My worst fear in life is not having a book to read, and it has many side-effects. I’ve even installed a small bookshelf in my toilet, which is, by the way, one of the best places to finish a book. 

When I’m halfway through a book, I start thinking about the next book to read. This results in some anxiety. Should it be Janaki Lenin’s My Husband and Other Animals? What about Stephen King’s The Stand, which I bought years back in a secondhand sale? How about re-reading Arthur Hailey’s The Final Diagnosis? I find security in the numerous unread books on my bookshelf. Then I hear about a new book by one of my favorite cricket writers. Now I am very tempted to order that. 

A few years back, I bought my sister a Kindle. When I realised she was hardly using it, I took it back. I thought my book-sourcing problem would finally come to an end, now that I possessed something that could hold thousands of books. No more books lying around everywhere the house, creating a mess. While it is convenient in some ways, I soon realised the Kindle missed something very important: The aroma of a new book! 

Haven’t you ever got high after opening a new book? The possibilities, the hours of living in a parallel universe? A good book is one of the best legal drugs there is. Sending a bibliophile to a bookstore is like sending an alcoholic to a bar. I can’t leave a bookstore without buying something. I can’t spend less than an hour in a bookstore. Even then, I need to be dragged out and threatened with dire consequences. 

I then realised the futility of Marie Kondo’s approach when it came to books. Minimalism isn’t always the path to maximum happiness.

Borrowing books is fun. Lending books is a nerve-wracking exercise. When I lend books, I feel like a librarian waiting for the customer to return the book. Much to my wife’s dismay, I can’t leave home without a book, knowing fully well that the odds of me reading a single page are remote. Books are like a security blanket, keeping me eternally warm. 

Today, technology has put the brakes on life, forget reading. We think we are getting somewhere faster by scrolling, liking, commenting, sharing. But we’re merely running around in circles, unable to account for the lost hours. It’s become normal to go around phubbing the world, checking our phones everywhere, dying slow deaths. But I want to be able to open a book in a mind-numbing client meeting, at a soul-crushing office party, in the midst of a boring conversation, and not be looked at strangely. There is no substitute for the great feeling that a good read gives you.

I always wonder why billionaires need to earn more money. Why can’t they just retire into the sunset and spend everything? I look at my book collection and realise I suffer from the same problem. If I am asked why I need to buy more books when I have 30 unread ones in my bookshelf, I am speechless. 

I now divide my time between three books. One on the way to work, one on the way back, and one just before I crash. 

India isn’t playing in the finals of the cricket World Cup. Bummer. 

Then I get a message that puts a smile on my face. 

There’s a book sale in town this weekend.

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