Mental Libraries

NPR ran a piece yesterday morning on literacy in Afghanistan and the general lack of books. Libraries (like everywhere else) have no heat or electricity, and can open for only a few hours each morning. Most of the books not burned by the Taliban have been locked away. What’s left are dreary volumes on 1960s American and Russian foreign policy, remnants of a long-ended propaganda war. Many ‘permitted’ books have been destroyed for paper to wrap food. Only 30% of the population is literate now. Jackie Lydon interviewed a hopeful 18 year old who explained that since the libraries were open only during working hours, no one could go, but that the booksellers in the stalls outside would now rent books for a few pennies a time. Shades of the traveling libraries of 19th century England.

I never stint on books. I buy and read them greedily, and I like to own rather than borrow because my bookshelves are a physical map of mental furniture. Growing up, I used to annoy my father by never using bookmarks. Instead, I left books open and face down, breaking the cheap spines. I also used to eat my books, literally—a childhood tic I’ve never known anyone else to have. My Enid Blytons were published on cheap, woody paper that yellowed as you read it. I used to tear a strip or several off the bottom of each page—margins only, never print—and dissolve it on my tongue, like communion wafer. This was oddly comforting. I grew out of it as I grew into trade paperbacks. The higher quality paper did not melt as satisfyingly as pulp.

Naturally, this weird habit also drove my father mad.
—You don’t look after your books! Jesus, why do you eat them?
His own were treasured; each paperback inscribed with his beautiful signature. When he was eight or nine, the schoolmaster walked the few miles up to my grandparents’ cottage in Roscommon.
—John is very bright. He must have books.
Dutifully, my granny went to town and bought him two books. He gulped them down in an afternoon, which convinced her they were a waste of money. He never got books of his own again until he was old enough to buy them.

Is this story true? I don’t know. My mother told me when I was twenty. It made me ashamed of my disregard for the college English books thrown around my bedroom, covered in coffee stains and spilled make-up. Perhaps it’s why the NPR story touched me more than accounts of far worse privations.

I ran my fingers across my shelves when I got home last night, reacquainting with my old friends and enemies (Eggers, this means you). This generation of my books has straight, unbroken spines and uneaten pages. And each is carefully inscribed with my signature. I wish everyone were as lucky as I am.