There are 11 hardback books from the library stacked up beside my bed. On top is Alice Munroe’s Runaway, followed by Emily Raboteau’s The Professor’s Daughter, and Ballad of the Whiskey Robber by Julian Rubenstein. I’ve barely dipped into most of them and I already have to return a batch.
I think I have book addiction. It’s an affliction that affects incorrigible readers, people whose antennae are always tuned to the book of the moment. Its symptoms are recognizable:
1. An inability to pass by a bookstore without peeking in, just for a second.
2. A lust for the books that were just highly praised in the San Francisco Chronicle or New York Times.
3. Membership in more than one library system.
4. A working knowledge of the lives and works of favorite authors.
5. More books in the house than you can read.
I can’t say for sure when my addiction started. I have always loved to read. When I attended an all-girls school in San Francisco, I had a terrible reputation. It was the kind of place where the students wore green plaid uniforms and addressed their teachers respectfully. I had the bad habit of talking too much – and too bluntly -- like the time I put my hand on my third grade teacher’s curving belly and asked if there was a baby inside. I was frequently sent to the principal’s office. (The school officially asked me to leave after seventh grade.) But when I went to the school library my reputation didn’t matter. Miss Fletcher, the librarian, was always happy to see me and always took time to help me find new books.
The summer after my father died, the summer I was 16, my mother and stepfather moved into an apartment right across the street from the Marina public library on Chestnut Street in San Francisco. I visited there almost every day, and took my discoveries back home, where I would grab a bag of dried apricots from the cupboard, and park myself on a sunny balcony to read. Hours would pass when I didn't think about my father, 45, dying of a heart attack on the ski slopes.
I started to write down the names of books I read starting in 1995. That year I had a six-month maternity leave from the San Jose Mercury News and in between feedings I managed to read 43 books. The next year I read 25. Then 41. Then 38. My average has hovered close to 40 ever since.
I have membership in five library systems – Berkeley, Oakland, Alameda County, the University of California at Berkeley, and the Mechanics Library, a 150-year old private library in San Francisco. I work the systems, too, when looking for my book of the moment. If it’s not in the Berkeley library, I have other places from which I can request it. And of course, there’s my favorite bookstore, the one that rents out the bestsellers.
Why do I do this? There is no possible way I can actually read all the books I acquire. Still, I want them near me, available if the mood hits, if time unexpectedly stretches before me. I do most of my reading at night, before I fall asleep or when I wake up at 3 in the morning. (Last night I spent more than an hour reading Ian McEwan’s new novel, Saturday.)
Can I stop? Do I want to stop? Am I hurting anyone? Never mind. I’ll think about it later – after I figure out where I am going to get a copy of the book reviewed on the cover of yesterday’s New York Times, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, by Judith Warner.