If Books Were Toxic, I’d Be Dead

If Books Were Toxic, I’d Be Dead

Whenever something triggers me to imagine a truly terrible outcome, suddenly in the hospital, somehow in prison, stranded in a foreign environment, my thoughts always coalesce around a desperate fear I would not have enough books, or heaven forbid, any books. Sometimes I imagine there would be at least one book and I would read it over and over. So, in my mind, though I’m freezing on a remote mountaintop after a small plane crash, my first set of concerns is how many times I can read House of Mirth or the Talented Mr. Ripley before the magic no longer works. 

I am addicted to reading. I know I am. There is no public shame because the effects don’t cause problems. Internally, I worry about my supply. It’s the worst feeling to finish the last book of a favorite author knowing I have come to end of the road with that particular escape.

I find reading to be intensely pleasurable. If a favorite book were to go on forever, somehow sustain its structural perfection but never conclude and I could opt to leave my life and read into oblivion, I don’t find that a totally awful thought. And that seems like an awful thought.

Thought reading has given me so much, I am not addicted to the benefits, useful as they may be. I am addicted to the escape. When I am reading, I am not suffering. So simple.

I love to eat and read at the same time. I don’t get to do that too often as I usually eat lunch with my husband and eat dinner with the family. I might do it at breakfast, but I’ve taken to reading off a phone screen, and that’s always subpar, which is good because it’s pretty easy to break away and get back to real life.

I recently had the opportunity to eat lunch alone, my white table bright from a beautiful sunny day, I was having sliced apple with cheese and crackers, another lifelong favorite activity. So yummy! And so easy to clean up. If and when I end up alone, half my calories will come from cheese and crackers. Pair this with a paperback novel and it just can’t get any better. 

I have traveled the world through books. I’ve read authors from many countries, translations from their native language. I learned about all sorts of people and all sorts of activities. I cannot imagine who I would be without this wealth of voyeuristic knowledge. On some level, I have lived many lives, been many people, learned the lessons of others tragic choices, walked the cities and shores of foreign lands. So many small details which have never left me.

Did you know that in Mumbai police ply detainees with candy in order to make them thirsty and them deny them water as form of confessional coercion? (Maximum City – Suketu Mehta)

In the same book is a killer who has slept in a single room with his extended family his whole life is afraid to sleep alone.

Being frightening doesn’t make you less afraid.

This is what I remember.

My husband is also a voracious reader. We rarely swap books, though he usually tells me about what he’s reading. His habits are more eclectic yet cohesive then mine. He is a natural historian and reads widely on a variety of intersecting topics. Marianne Faithful’s steamy autobiography next to a collection of Tennessee Williams short stories next to Merlin Sheldrake’s treatise on fungi. I am lucky to live with someone who always has something interesting to share.

Residing in a transient neighborhood of apartments, we both regularly bring home books orphaned to the sidewalk. I see a pile in the distance and feel dread even as I hustle towards it. Our bookcases overflow with books laying horizontal on top of the ones placed properly. Books line the hallways. We frequently rehome them to friends, Goodwill or the library but still more come in the front door than leave though the back.

We have two bedside tables each. Yes, you read that correctly, our bed is flanked by four tables stacked high with books both read and unread. That was not a conscious choice and I can’t see making it on purpose, but I’ve grown fond of my second bedside book table with its foot-high sloppy stacks. I’ve told myself to clean it up because I like things to be tidy, and yet I am facing, right now, in this very moment, that it is a comfort to me, and I want to keep it. At least if I get sick and have to take to my bed, I know I am all set.

Little Book of Abstracts

I always have a little blank book that I do stuff in, write notes, draw pictures, tape photos.  They tend to be very visual but there are no rules.  I can do anything with them I feel like.  It’s a place to keep track of the now, make art, spend time with myself.  Here is a two minute video I made of one of the books a few years ago.  I give all the books names and this book was called Don’t Speak.

A friend of mine, Mick Kubiak*, also does this.  In addition, she has two specialty books that are only for art and each one has a theme. Trucks was completed some time ago and Circles is currently in process.  Every time I visit her, I ask to look at what she had added in the Circles book.  It is a great pleasure to see this body of work as it is being born, to witness the process, to see how previous drawings influence future drawings, how the drawings change over time, to see new breakthroughs in her technique.   I just adore her art work.  It really inspires me.

When I was in London last year, I bought a 5 1/2 inch square black hardcover blank book from a magical art supply store called L. Cornelissen & Son.  Their shop is on Great Russell Street, close to the British Museum.   At the time of purchase I was already working in a purple leather bound book titled iPhone Dynasty.  It’s named after the 2nd page in the book which is a drawing of an iPhone.  If you are interested in seeing the drawing, I posted it on June 9th, 2014 in my entry Enter the iPhone. Over the course of 2014 I started doing a considerable number of abstracts in iPhone Dynasty such as:


It started to occur to me that I could use the British book in the same way Mick does and make it an abstracts only book.  It would be cool to have an art only book, something I could show people without censorship.  However, I didn’t like the idea of giving up my “freedom”. What if Andy said something funny and I wanted to write it down, where would it go? Olive couldn’t draw in it. I couldn’t just whip something off or do whatever I felt like.  It would have to be “good”. How was that going to be fun?  The imaginary pressure was intense.  I mentally hemmed and hawed.  I didn’t do anything for a while.

Then I ran out of pages in iPhone Dynasty so I made a drawing in the new book. I didn’t like it very much and felt irritated. I made another drawing and liked it a lot.  I felt excited.  I made another and another and another.  I showed Andy and Olive.  Olive loved one of the spreads and insisted I not touch it again. Then Olive did some abstract work, an unprecedented departure from drawing ponies non stop. Andy did some abstract work.  What was going on?  I fixed the bad drawing.  That gave me a new rule. All drawings must be good!  We will work on everything until we like it!

With each addition, my desire to do more grew until I found myself where I am now, thinking that working in this book is the current great pleasure in life.  It reminds me of when I was painting.  It’s very satisfying to be adding to a body of work.  There is a feeling of sublime accomplishment.  It’s not just the output but the quivering harmony of surprise and ownership that one feels when viewing something you made from nothing.  How did I do that?  I really don’t know and yet I really did do it.

It’s a benign addiction.  What marvelous thing might I make next?  Of course this delight is intermingled more or less continuously with disgust.  How will I ever make THAT work?  Why did I make the background puke pink?  Did I just draw a hole through the paper?!!  That edge of disgust and delight is fascinating terrain. In my experience, that is where originality comes from.  I am not saying I am all that original but as an artist, I have to know how to get ideas.  I have to be good at it. This is where I sharpen my knife.

In the future, I am going to post photos from the drawings in this book and talk about them.  So stay tuned if that’s your bag.

Thank you to Mick for the inspiration.  Nothing gives others permission more than your own actions.


*Mick Kubiak is a talented therapist, writer and musician.  You can visit her blog at: http://badmommyla.blogspot.com