Saturday, 14 October 2017
There Are Too Many Books
I love bookshops. New and secondhand, specialist and generalised. Walking into a bookshop is like walking into church for me, the sacred space where literature in all its forms is revered. Yet they can also be overwhelming and spiritually enervating. The initial euphoria I experience upon entering these cathedrals of the written word can turn to a kind of cultural vertigo, a dizzying sense of freefall as the spines rear up in my vision and spin around me, all these titles and pages, all these words and sentences, all this information, narrative, wisdom, drama, poetry and personality, the stuff of life rendered in black and white symbols and printed paper pages, all these possible stories bound up and calling out to the questing reader who is, at that very moment, looking for just one book, the right book,the book that will speak to them, that will fill some need, some blank space in their existence. And the mantra arises in my overloaded brain: too many books, too little time; too many books, too little time. I want to read them all but I never will. I will barely scratch the surface. And worse, the writer's curse, I have the mad temerity to want to add to their number.
Why write another book when there are already more great books in existence than any human being could possibly consume in one lifetime?
“There are too many books,” I once said to Ian McCulloch, the singer of Echo & The Bunnymen, a dryly amusing fellow, when we were discussing this very subject.
“That would be a good title,” said McCulloch. “I'm going to write that book. And leave all the pages blank.”
So why write another book? I can't speak for all writers, and I can't speak for all readers, I can only speak for this one, although I suspect there are fundamental truths we share. Because all writers began as readers and found some act of deep communion in the written word. Books shaped us on a profound level. But not all readers become writers. For some of us, for whatever private reasons of our secret autobiographies, spilling our own words onto blank pages became the essential medium to reckon with our inner world, to release and express our most private self, whether to salve psychic wounds or declare unique existence. And so it begins. We may find ourselves grappling with an inchoate narrative whilst a shadowy cast of characters assemble in the nooks and crannies of our subconscious, knocking on the inside of the skull until it is disturbing every waking moment, and (behind our blank expressions and glazed eyes) we surrender to the task of constructing vast imaginary edifices of mental architecture to house this quarrelsome infestation, this story that all but demands to be released onto the page.
Or what? Or nothing. It will fade like a waking dream. Of no importance to anyone but the writer who failed to grasp it, or perhaps chose to forsake it, to let it slip away, like so many other dreams before. If you ever worry, like me, that there are too many books, just think of the multitude that have never been nursed into existence. The library of unwritten books must have shelves stretching to infinity, groaning under the ghostly weight of working titles. There's more than a few of mine in there. Most stories remain untold. And for very good reason.
Its a lot of work writing a book. A lot of time and effort, crafting and shaping, getting those symbols down on the page that might make sense of the pictures and emotions coursing through your being. This one took me ten years, on and off. And I am not even sure if it is finished yet.
But the wonderful thing is it doesn't feel like work. It feels more like play, a joyful act of creation, self-hypnosis, meditation, a spell you are casting over yourself, piercing through to a reality that can feel more substantial - in its act of coming into being - than the external space your physical body occupies. It is a dream, manifesting. It is a book.
Every book's first reader is its writer. And, if you are lucky, it might even be the book that you were looking for all along, amongst all those other titles in the ever expanding canon of mankind's conversation with itself.
There are too many books, of course there are. But that doesn't mean all the books have been written, far from it. There is always room for just one more. And then, perhaps, another.
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