The Problem With Books

 I’m on my way to having full blown tsundoku. Haruki Murakami, in What I talk About when I Talk About Running, explains the Japanese slang: You have piles of unread books around the house but keep buying more. He doesn’t apologize for his piles and has a vinyl “problem” as well — whole wings of his house are floor to ceiling record shelves. Murakami is right: You’ll always have more books than you can read, more records than you can spin in a weekend. 

Piles are relative though. Karl Knausgaard reports he has 10,000 plus books in My Struggle and hasn’t read most of them. Why even brag of my tiny collection next to Knausgaard’s library? Even my humble collection has power though. To own a Murakami novel is to own his words, his stories, and his time. I can pretend to be the author when I read their books. Even if years go by between readings of Infinite Jest, or The Sound and The Fury so what? I own them. Dave and Will wait for me, not you. 

My wife, Nicole, bought me a library stamp for my thirty-fourth birthday. It reads “From the library of Arthur Alexander Basler…” encircling “AAB”. I brand my books in hopes they will return from loan to a friend or colleague. I brand them to say, “I approve!” I brand them to say, “This was mine.” after I am gone and someone is leafing through my old books. 

My interest here isn’t so much the object but the desire to collect. What does collecting say about the collector? What does the collector say to the world with their collection: “This is me!” “These are my loves!” “I’m cool.” Or, “Share with me.” Nicole collects vinyl and band memorabilia and a lot of octopus kitsch (poster, mugs, chandeliers…). My brother collects cellphone apps and nice shoes. My mom collected cow prints and kitchenware. Maybe she was channeling her Wisconsin past? I grew up collecting baseball cards in the early 90’s. Mostly Topps, Upperdeck, and Fleer. Before that, Matchbox cars (always out of the package—amateur stuff here), plastic army men in various martial poses, comic books. All these were warm-ups for Magic the Gathering (MTG). There have been times when I lived MTG seven days a week. It was my religion — pure fire for me. I can still recall my first starter box of MTG cards. My mom drove me to Logan’s Lair, and there I purchased a starter deck of Ice Age. The game and comic shop was a dump, an aluminum and cinderblock affair, but it was the spring from which my decades long collecting fever would flourish. 

Various collections over the years: 

  • GI Joe action figures and various attack vehicles, gear.

  • Coins

  • Rocks (mostly Arizona and South Carolina)

  • Bonsai Trees

  • Star Wars themed anything

  • Nintendo, Sega, and PlayStation games

  • Moleskin journals

  • X-Men cards, comics, board games, posters

  • POGS 

  • Bible Verses

  • Toyota Corollas x3

I’ve spent thousands of dollars collecting stuff over twenty-five years, or you could say wasted thousands, or it’s collecting that has kept me sane all these years. Is my need to collect and have “special items” an American affliction or just a modern one? I’m pretty sure the masses of culture didn’t collect things until the post-World War II era. You need disposable income and credit cards to collect like we do today. Nicole, informs me that there were cabinets of curiosities – Colonial era shrines to the natural world or trinkets. The cabinets offered a place to meditate and focus. These quaint nooks anticipated the mass marketed collector spirit.  

Various Personal Collections Continued: 

  • Stories about my stepfather

  • Marbles

  • K9 Border Patrol dog trading cards 

  • A pathetic vinyl collection 

  • Unfinished creative projects

  • Fears (Dogs, father figures, flying)

Things I have NEVER collected: 

  • Hello Kitty anything

  • Nicholas Cage merch

  • VHS copies of Jesus Christ Superstar

  • Air Jordans

  • Original Art

  • Vintage Cars

  • Tattoos

  • Pepsi products (Seriously, gross.)

Things I would collect if money/space/time were non-factors:

  • Planets (Nicole wonders why I don’t collect galaxies…I think planets are more personal.)

  • Sports Cars

  • Castles

  • Every Magic the Gathering card ever, foil x4

  • Rideable dinosaurs

  • Chocolate milkshake machines

  • Galaga arcade machines

What would a complete library look like? How much space would I need? At what point would I go, that’s enough books? There is always the NEXT author, the next book you haven’t read: the international author, the just translated author, the author you missed from the 1950’s (I’m looking at you Wallace Stegner). The sections of the bookstore display the NEW AUTHOR. The Top 10 of the month. Used book stores (be still my heart) usually keep a “These Just Got Sold to Us” section. There is always a reason to drop in and look for a new book. 

All this talk of collecting and you might imagine I am sitting on a mountain of dusty books. I doubt I have more than a few hundred books. My daughter has more kids books (if you include the cloth chew-on books). I recently segregated my bookshelf at work by read/unread titles. The read are winning by 2-1 margin. I guess it’s time to hit up a bookstore. I’ll be in San Francisco next week. Nicole informs me that the Green Apple is worth checking out. We shall see. 

My first of two times to New York City got me to The Strand bookstore. Glorious books up and down the floors. The rare collections at the top was pure book display for my lusty heart, but my wallet was lacking. I returned to The Strand a few years later and the luster had worn off. Maybe I was just starry eyed my first time to Manhattan. 

Then there are the Williamsburg, NY book sellers. Glorious Fourth of July vendors lining the streets of hipster paradise. Novels hawked on plywood tables. Oddly, I remember these vendors, but didn’t stop to buy any books. I was with my brother on a weekend exploration of Manhattan and I guess we were on the way to somewhere more important? A coffee shop? I was heartened to see so many New Yorkers reading in-the-flesh paper books. Public transportation may just save the book. Maybe self-driving cars will give rebirth to the paper book. The suburban legions will have hands and eyes free to read an Op-ed page of a newspaper or dust off their old bookshelf piles. I can dream.

I may not have first editions or signed copies of FAMOUS AUTHOR, but I do have extra copies of some of my favorite authors. The long titled, yet slim How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid is one of my favorite giveaways. I like to spread the Hamid gospel. I leave them in bedside tables next to the Gideon’s Bible when I travel. But I don’t own 20 copies or crates of Hamid and I haven’t stalked out his autograph – yet. 

My earliest memory of book shopping isn’t at a store, but at school. Now that I think of it, Scholastic was playing dirty. They would pop their color catalogs into our soft young hands. Just take it home and pick out a nice book. The first one is free – OK it wasn’t actually. But what are you parents going to say? No to books? Of course not. The book fair would occupy your library for a week and then, finally, your class got to shuffle into the book circus and pick up your selected book order. I probably got an Arthur the Ant Eater or Hardy Boys #88 “The Incident at Spooky Place.” 

What is the grown-up book buying experience? How do we decide: this is the book. Book lists? Editors Picks? Ouija? Whatever cool author my brother sends my way? The Amazon effect: People who bought this also got… and then you are clicking and adding books left and right. 

You can’t overfill a digital cart. 

They know what you bought last summer. So many digital cookies betraying you, reminding you that you did look at that book last time. The twinge of guilt is weaker and weaker when I buy books online. I love the brick and mortar concerns but their selection is often limited. 

My favorite brick and mortar bookstores are the local one-offs. They might have a couple of employees on hand or just one, the lone sentinel guarding the door and register. Your Blue Bicycle Books in Charleston or Acapella Books in Atlanta offer New, Used, Rare books and a comfortable chair. Years later, you discover their bookmark tucked in the back of an unfinished book. You’re reminded of the vacation or past lover who went to the bookstore with you. You both had to duck a little at the entrance, the ceilings too low but the rooms were full of book love.  

Little Free Libraries are quite the rage around Atlanta. You’re bound to see some soggy copies of Janet Evanovich or Chicken Soup for the “X” Soul. I once rescued a copy of Infinite Jest from a botanical garden Little Library. I just couldn’t leave Dave there to get soggy. I’ll stop from time to time on my bike and check out the Little Libraries in my area. It’s mostly a miss, or kids books. Perhaps I should bike around at night and sneak in some quality authors to the Dan Brown giveaways. 

I read about Sotheby’s book auctions, but I’m not a millionaire, so I have no idea what these auctions actually feel like. Apparently it’s quiet and “intense.”

Hypothetically, we could sell each other books — friend to friend — but social protocol is against it. Loaning or gifting is the norm. It’s better to use an auction house than doing direct sales. Giving someone a book says: “I like you.” or “You are smart and see the world like I do.” Or, “I want you to think I am cool.” 

Friends don’t sell friends books. 

Stealing books is ill advised, but I suppose one way to build up a collection as you leave a library or store. Thankfully, I have never had the option of using a prison library. Do cruise ships have libraries? I don’t care. Airplanes should have a lending library or least audiobooks. Airport terminals usually have in-and-out book stalls. I like to browse new titles before I hop in a metal tube of death. I saw a book basket at the Delta Sky Members lounge in Tampa but it had 1990’s Oprah fitness books. I think someone dropped them there as a joke.    

It’s a different feeling getting books on loan. Checking out books is like dating. I want to sample lots of books and see which one is right to bring home to Sunday family dinner. Returning stacks of half read books to the library is a norm. I wasn’t really ready to commit to them. On loan audiobooks are great for the commute around Atlanta but are too ephemeral for my collector heart. I usually buy the paper copies if I love the audiobook; I may never read the book again. But I want to pick up my books, smell them, stack them, press my stamp upon their inner folds, and look at their glorious red, purple, and yellow spines. I want to keep my books close. Hard and soft backs. Graphic novels and novellas. Fiction and Non-. Perhaps I am the last of the paper generation. My daughter will probably do her school reading by tablet light; her university library will be on her smart phone. I don’t think this wrong. But the smell of a book is amazing — ink and glue and pulp pressed together. 

My intensive WIKI research has confirmed that sea otters collect and use a stone as tool/keepsake to open shelled food. They store their stone under a skin flap, always close at hand. I have neither swam with dolphins nor sea otters, but I like to imagine they are purists when it comes to their stone choice. They might take their time when selecting their secret stone. Only the stone with the right texture and deep Pacific blue will do. The sea otter reminds us that collecting is pure, holy, and right. Don’t apologize for your Captain Picard miniatures collection, your signed baseball hallway, or your Corvette poster wing (the east half of the estate). Any creature who collects is OK with me — people included. I’ll keep an eye out for sea otters on our trip to Cali next week. We should all be so choosey when selecting books and secret stones.