You know life is pretty good when you have a stack of really, really good books next to your bed and you’ve been having too much fun to read them. That’s usually a sign of happiness for me anyways. That stack is a sweet reflection of my life at the moment.
Another signal involves a trip to The Lost Book Shop in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Billions of sheets of inked and oiled paper are bound together, to live for the rest of their days to preserve the thoughts of creative, intelligent, risky minds. They’re bound between faded covers. They stand side by side, or are simply stacked on wooden shelves and on the stairs leading to the upper floor because there is no more space to contain them. And the shelves etch-a-sketch for ages, cramping in the smell of books enjoyed once upon a time. They hold the scents of must and time, memories and hands. They once rested on someone’s bed, within someone’s dirty fingers, on the floor of a subway train. They’re torn and dog-eared. They are books waiting to be taken home and opened up, inhaled, leafed through, savoured. Some are as thick as triple layer cake and others are like blades of grass. Worn and creased, peeling paper marring their titles. Proust, Nietzsche, Thích Nhất Hạnh, and the The Lonely Planet are accorded equal attention on this shop’s street display shelf. The one I never notice until I’m on my way out, probably because I’m fast to enter but I meander my way out; visiting that shop seems indulgent.
I never really know what I’m searching for in there. I stand in front of the stacks and pay homage to all the books I’ll never read. The authors I’ve never heard of, classic literature, philosophy. What I would give to know those secrets about life hiding in their pages, about all the things I’ll never understand. I spy Steinbeck and remember East of Eden, a book I read years ago in my old life and detested, though I fought with myself to like it. I read it through, cover to cover, forcing it upon myself like a mother feeds her intolerant child broccoli. Not finishing a book was akin to not flossing my teeth ever or eating McDonald’s in public, it was a character flaw. I never not finished a book, it would be giving up.
But I look at all these stacks around me and simultaneously marvel at the incredible volume of books just here in this one shop and feel overwhelmed by the shortage of time available in one life to read each one. It’s almost unfair. This thought actually overcame my rational self one day at a massive chain book shop in Singapore some months ago. I’d just discovered a book of poems, by a contemporary author, Lang Liev, who writes sweet, simple poems about romantic love, and about sadness. One such title is Love and Other Misfortunes. I leafed through the pages and started to cry. Suddenly, I wanted to read every single book in that shop, even the ones about home improvement. I sat down on the carpeted floor in front of one of the shelves and allowed myself to read one of her books cover to cover. When such a moment presents itself I usually find it wise to sit with it. It’s a bit like life. You want to do it all but you kind of have to choose, so choose wisely and enjoy.
Several years ago between the cramped towers of books in some other used bookstore somewhere in the world I met Khaled Hosseini and fell in love with words. His stories of tragedy, cultural adversity, and redemption were heartbreaking, not only because of the events but because of the words he used to describe human emotion. The exquisite power of words and their synergy is visceral for me. So I stepped away from the simple carbs of the Jodi Picoults and Nicholas Sparks to enjoy a different kind of tragedy, a more complex, poetic one. I discovered The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy and wanted to somehow gather up and embrace every wounded soul in this world. Her words were edgy and blatant within brilliantly crafted phrases. Heart wrenching.
And then life started making sense when I found Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet. I gulped it down in one go with a joint and a ginger tea next to the Mekong River in Southern Laos on New Year’s Eve 2015. I finally found some answers in this tiny little nugget of wisdom. A few months later I savoured Love in The Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez like a steak paired with a good whiskey. But I had to earn the benefits I later reaped from this one. I heard parts of it, through the lips of a long-forgotten lover; he read pages of it to me as I drifted to sleep.
One of my favourite books not so easily found on the dusty old shelves of many a used book shop is The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. It’s a children’s book with an adult poignancy, as many children’s books have. But this one reveals a truth, among many, about unconditional love. That there are givers and takers everywhere, it’s the natural and necessary balance in the universe.
My most recent literary indulgence was by Regena Thomashauer. It’s titled Pussy: A Reclamation. And no it’s not about cats. It is a guide to owning your feminine sexuality. How to harness its energy and distribute it to all areas of your life. How to be a really fucking strong, self-aware woman.
And my library keeps getting better. Ayn Rand entered my life recently. The Fountainhead appeared in the stacks of my former favourite used bookstore, The Great Escape, in Toronto. It had a deliciously thick spine and a cover design that gave no indication of what story existed inside. So I took a chance and plowed my way through paragraphs longer than a showgirl’s lashes, sentences chock full of decadent words I had to pick through slowly, acquaint myself with. Her characters were boldly representative of the personal human condition, the contradictions and dichotomies that exist within all of us, as they exist within society. The lazy, the immoral, the weak, the deceitful, the selfish, the rational, the beautiful and disgusting beings that we are, collectively and individually. A challenge to to the disapproval that surrounds the idea of selfishness. That’s what I got out of it anyways. She’s brilliant. Shortly after I finished The Fountainhead I found another of her books, The Art of NonFiction, a writer’s guide. Gold. She might reveal secrets. It now joins the growing stack that adorns my bedside better than any beautiful young man. The problem is, which one should I read tonight if I really want them all at once?
So I recalled these favourite books and discovered that they all involve some sort of suffering, because they are about love in some form. But what I loved most about them is that I found something of myself in every one of them and added something to myself with every one of them. They made me realize that I don’t have to read all the books in the world, that I don’t even have to finish the one I’ve started if it doesn’t invite me to. There are a few really good ones out there, enough to last a lifetime.
They’re symbolic too. They reflect how healthy I am, how mentally stable and secure I feel at a given time in my life. When I can gently allow a stack of books to stand at my bedside, unread, for several months and anticipate their goodness until I finally manage to sit my ass down and read them is a sign of mental health, acceptance, patience with life and respect for time. And the choices I make about the books I read signals how I wish to influence myself at that time, what I think my brain needs to chew on for a while. Who am I if I not all the books I’ve ever read, and wish to read?
“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” – Oscar Wilde