So many things can shorten your life; some things seem to lengthen your life.

So many things can shorten your life; some things seem to lengthen your life.

According to “reliable studies.”

So I was happy to see guest columnist Mark Hopkins recently cite studies that conclude that reading books lengthens your life.  Not reading newspaper columns like this one—but books!  

As little as 30 minutes a day reading a book will give you two more years than your non-reading friends.  

‘Course he didn’t address diet, but maybe readers eat less. I know when I’m reading a good book and snacking on a few crackers, two cheese sticks, and some nuts, I’ll tend to call that lunch and read on.  

Now my question is whether having piles of books, “to be read,” will add even more years.  They are there, I am eager to read them, and some day I may do so! (Perhaps the eagerness is all that’s needed.)

An OBU prof asked me to meet with English majors who regularly gather to discuss and swap books.  He wants me to talk about my life with books—the highs and the lows, like the vows not to accumulate more unread books and then breaking those vows. In short, the Guilt I’m supposed to have.

Perhaps I’ll begin with “My name is Bill Hagen, and I’m a biblioholic.”  

I find unnatural exhilaration in having full shelves, piles that won’t fit on the shelves, books scattered here and there, wherever I might sit and want to read a few pages.  Books everywhere that I trip over, spill coffee on, absent mindedly leave in coat pockets, the back seats of cars, in desk drawers, under the bed...and books in boxes waiting to become their own piles when the existing piles are reduced by reading them and then giving them to friends or to the library or to Bibliotech (my favorite store) to get credit so I can get more books.

The problem is that I also check books out of the library, neglecting my own unread masses. I  belong to two book discussion groups that keep choosing books that I don’t own.  My Kindle has a backlog of titles that sounded interesting when I got them.

Then there’s a certain weekend in early October coming up, a perfectly dreadful time for anyone who has too many books.  There they are, tables and tables covered with cheap books in the Community Rooms of the Shawnee Public Library!  (This year,  Oct. 5-7.)   On tables, under tables, piled at the end of tables—novels, self-help, inspirational, histories, biographies, picture books, children’s books—all selling for 50 cents or a dollar!  

I try to resist. As a member of the book sale committee (confession), I am obliged to help. I try to limit my efforts to loading boxes from storage into a truck and superintending the wonderful high school and OBU students who show up to unload the boxes and put the books on display.

They’re in boxes.  I can’t see their titles. I am safe.

In the past, other members of the Friends organization probably wondered why I rarely showed up for the sales. Inevitably, though, I do show up.  

I tell myself I am simply going to scan the spines so I can help buyers find what they are looking for.  I make a nuisance of myself, as I sidle up to a browser obviously looking for certain titles, alert to help him or her find those titles, or suggest authors we have who have written similarly.  People are so polite. They accept the similar author’s book I hand them. Later I find the book laying face up on the table.

Once again, I have failed to sublimate my own urges by attempting to create them in someone  else.  So I pick up the book, reflecting that I have not read that particular title, that the reasons I recommended it are the very reasons I might want to read it—and I am lost. Other must-reads follow, and I forget my vows to help the browsers.  I start concealing books under other books, while I pretend to consider whether they should join the piles at home.  I am lost.

Can one have too many books?  Yes and No.

Yes, if they are largely unread and serve the same function as fancy wall paper.  I suppose one can still buy books by the yard, or even a false set of spines without books to put in the expensive book shelf,so that one can appear to have a “library.”  Sort of an aristocratic pretense.  

Always liked the judgment of one of the Great Gatsby’s party-goers when he walked into the library room. He praised the collection, but noted that his host hadn’t gone “too far.” The pages were uncut. That in a day when one had to have a knife handy to slice apart pages that been printed on one sheet, folded, gathered and bound without being cut apart.  

Jay Gatsby had admirable taste in ordering the books, but, thankfully, wasn’t “bookish” or so lost in self-importance as to actually read them.

Am I much better, filling my shelves with books I ought to read, but don’t?  My career as an English teacher nurtured  a belief that books could change the world, or, at least, books would faithfully record and analyze events and shifts in human society and nature that did change the world. So shouldn’t I surround myself with those documents of change, so I can dip into them and be informed?  

I realize, it’s an outmoded, pre-internet goal. It’s almost as absurd as Aldous Huxley (author of “Brave New World”) toting a set of of Encyclopedia Britannica with him in his travels.  The real Huxley, by the way, is to be found in his essays, which are about every thing  under the sun and the moon. He aspired to be a sort of Miguel de Montaigne (“inventor” of the essay) or Francis Bacon. So I wish.

Speaking of Bacon, I have always loved his take on reading: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” I can’t tell you how reassuring that was to me in my freshman year of college, falling behind my assigned readings, chafing at the time studying took away from social life, swimming and ping-pong.  Mistakenly, I was trying to chew books that should only be tasted!

I later learned that many students are exclusively tasters, their prize text being one used before in the same course, assiduously highlighted. They would only read the highlights.  I  ran across successful students who deliberately chose profs who pretty much delivered the same lectures year after year, often reducing major ideas to “catch phrases.” Learn the phrases and use them on the exam for the best grade. Since such profs tended to repeat or replace the texts with their own lectures, you might not even need to buy the texts!

Well, I persisted in buying the texts. And once I had highlighted, underlined and made marginal notes in them, they had become part of my life.  I could no more let them go, than a favorite teddy bear. I could not let them go, even if I had no intention of picking them up again.  Others might merely taste highlights and even get better grades, but I would have the books and someday might master them so that should I ever meet one of the successful tasters at a reunion, I could make him or her realize that were we taking the course today, I would be at the top of the class.  As if that would ever happen.

I suppose after confessing my addiction to those English students, I should indicate 12 steps they can take to avoid biblioholism.  

The problem is, I don’t know what they are.  

See you at the library sale!