Tracing my finger along the shelf of my library, I stopped upon a recently purchased volume which grabbed my attention – an old Teubner edition of Arrian’s Anabasis of Alexander, which I had found at the bookstore for the inconceivably low price of three dollars. I drew it from the shelf, and in doing so revealed the face of a demon, whose glowing eyes transfixed me and branded my soul with a dread terror I will never forget. Its gaze possessed something more than the power of an ordinary dream, for I awoke with the sleep paralysis which used to afflict me so often in former days. Anyone who has experienced sleep paralysis knows the horror of waking from the visions of a nightmare to a terror even worse – the inability to move. Worse still, my eyes when I woke up were fixed on that terrible spot – the shelf from which I had drawn Arrian in my dream.
My thoughts as I lay there entirely deprived of the faculty of motion tended exactly where you might expect: to the conclusion that the book was haunted. Indeed, I convinced myself that the entire collection of books which I had purchased along with the Arrian must be haunted. Here, I should note that all of these books were acquired at rock-bottom prices at a Half Price Books store in Austin which had clearly received boxfuls of a classics professor’s old stash. Apparently unsure of their real market value, a regular trove of Teubners, OCT’s, and even assorted editions with commentaries from the 19th and early 20th century were effectively being given away at three to five dollars each. Naturally enough, I assumed that this vast treasury was only sitting there because this old classicist (the absence of bookplates or inscriptions left their identity unknown) had died, given that surely no living person who had accumulated such a store would willingly part with it in life. Now that I had my hands on so many of the books, I was the object of the dead classicist’s malicious envy, and would somehow be dragged to the grave myself by the influence of infernal operations which the living cannot understand. I resolved that night to get rid of the books.
Rational and sober reflection belong very much to the sunlit, prosaic boredom of the daytime. After so rashly resolving to abandon the books the night before, I decided to hazard my body (and for all that, who knows? – perhaps my soul) in holding on to the books for one more night. No further apparitions ever haunted that ethereal library of dreams, and so the fresh accession of scholarly treasures was to remain. But so, too, was the horror which that night had aroused in the depths of my soul.
There is no dearth of paeans to the book – the book as object, the book as experience, the book as a bulwark against barbarism and the decay of civilization. Books as books are alternatively objects of pure pleasure and escapism or the instruments of the most serious and scientific engagement with the world. Books lie at the heart of the world’s three major monotheistic religions; books feature in some paradoxical way as one of the chief activities for pleasure at the beach; and books are converted into instruments of torture to sap the love of learning out of children in school. Readers love books, and writers love books, and so it is perhaps not accidental that writers often write books about books. I confess that I will read any of these that come in my way. Generally, they wax lyrical in the most overblown and effusive strains about the book and the act of reading as somehow the most gratifying and essential part of human experience. It is all bullshit of course, but it is bullshit which has been so thoroughly filtered, so refined, so polished and carefully curated in the hands of other literary obsessives that I cannot help but hang on to every word of it.
Yet for all that I read there about childhood experiences with books, the thrill of libraries, or how wonderful it was to read to Borges, I don’t recall many authors discussing the centrality of books in their dreams. When I was a child, I would dream about toys which I hoped to get, and still vividly remember wishing for a voice-modifying tape recorder marketed as one of Macaulay Culkin’s tools from the Home Alone movies. As an adolescent, I would of course dream all the time about romance and sex. The ideal dreamscape consists of the attainment of desires which are simultaneously the deepest-rooted and the most unattainable. And so, it is odd enough that as an adult, I dream – I mean, really dream – about books.
My recurring bibliofantasy runs something like this: I walk into a bookstore (it varies between smaller local shops and large chains like Barnes and Noble) and stumble upon a section of thousands of Greek and Latin classics, usually Loebs, stacked from floor to ceiling. I begin to grab the books with a ravenous and not quite gentlemanly frenzy. Among the volumes are authors of whom I have never even heard. (Of course, even seasoned classicists are surely unfamiliar with a long list of minor authors, but here my mind is just inventing names which must appear vaguely Greek and legitimate enough to pass muster in the vague haze of a dream.) Invariably, at some point in the dream, it occurs to me that I am in a dream because it all seems too good to be true, and yet I suppress that doubt and plough on ahead in the warm embrace of my bibliomania. At some point I wake up, and of course, it hurts – it feels like a real loss.
But why should this appear to be such a fantasy? San Antonio is not a city famous for literacy, and so it is rare enough to find a decent book store well-stocked with works in English; even a touch of classicism here is a fantasy too far. Yet I could easily purchase any work I want online, or search through something like the TLG. What is lacking is the experience of the physical book combined with the utter serendipity of stumbling upon it in the store. Surely enough, people may find true love on matchmaking apps, but how many people could get invested in that as a narrative? All of the romance of life lies in chance and accident, and the ease of ordering up some rare volume from the other side of the world, while convenient, is surely lacking in the quality which will send a shiver down your spine and set the heart a-flutter.
Whenever I visit a new city, the most important tourist destination is the bookstore. Most recently, I was surprised to find that the bookstores of Venice far surpass those of Florence. Perhaps my expectations of finding a full multi-volume collection of all of Petrarch’s Latin works in every bookstore in Florence was wholly unreasonable, the product of those dreams.
My library now consists of thousands of books, and nothing could reasonably induce me to part with any of it. Books are the only things to which I am attached, and I would sooner go without a computer and internet access than part with the volumes I’ve collected over the past seventeen years or so. It was around that time when I began reading in earnest, seventeen years ago, that I first fell in love. Though she and I were friends for some years and came several times to the brink of a full-blown confession of our feelings, it was a romance which was never to be. To this day, I still have dreams about the fulfillment of the romance that never was, and which would now be utterly impossible. Yet, it is perhaps only in the ethereal world of dreams that one can experience a love whose month is ever May. In a curious inversion of Anselm’s argument, its perfection lies in its unreality. Sometimes I wake from the fantasy world in which thousands of lost classics loom over me, waiting to be read, and regret that it was all a dream – nothing but a dream. But as the song reminds us, so is life.