With a few exceptions, I don’t like to spend money very much. I tend to feel like I’m losing more than I’m gaining, regardless of how much I want or need my purchases. But those exceptions are considerable: I love to buy books and I love to buy music.
When I buy a book or recording, I have a curious feeling: that instead of subtracting from my wealth, I have added to it—that what I have acquired is worth some unspecified amount more than I had to pay for it. I’m sure this feeling lights up the same part of my brain as does the experience of finding money in the street. And I also have a peculiar kind of elevation, a righteous feeling as though I’m clearly doing the right thing. Especially if I buy a book or some music instead of buying something to eat or wear, the feeling I get is one of romantic self-denial, like in “A Moveable Feast.” I feel as though I’m gaining books, instead of losing money.
I think I inherited this from my parents, who never bought a television but instead began building our family’s library as soon as they married. Now it lines the walls of the basement, spans the length of the kitchen, fills bookcases in three bedrooms, and piles up on coffee tables and in baskets in the living room. They seem to think of the printed word as an almost unqualified good, sometimes collecting two or three copies of the greatest classics (they have three different translations of The Brothers Karamazov and two full sets of The Lord of the Rings, for example). I grew up literally surrounded by books, and for a long time I thought that everyone in the world lived similarly. I remember the first time I stayed at a friend’s house for the night. In their living room was a shelf of books, perhaps four feet long. On it were several picture books and some popular juvenile fiction, some religious self-help books, and some cookbooks. No Dickens, no Dostoevsky, no Homer. I didn’t think much of this until my friend and I were waiting for her father to come back with a rented movie for us to watch, and I was getting bored. I started looking around for something interesting to read, without success. My gaze was drawn, with creeping horror, toward the small shelf of uninteresting books. These were the only books in the house.
I recall a distinct catching in my throat. For a second, I felt as though I had been locked into a vault or left behind on an island. I was trapped in an almost bookless world, for a whole night.
My friend’s dad arrived shortly thereafter, with “A Little Princess” and “Anne of Green Gables” on VHS, and I was fine. We watched movies, baked cookies, and drank root beer floats. But that initial scare is what I remember most. I remember books being like air and food and water to me. And that’s why I keep collecting them even when I can’t afford them.