All Booked Up

ESSAY

July 18, 1993|By Dave Wieczorek

They're everywhere in our house. The place is infested. Behind doors, under dirty laundry, in corners, on top of cabinets, hidden by piles of newspapers. We've lived in five houses and too many apartments to remember, and each time we've moved to a new address, they've come long for the ride.

Not cockroaches.

Books.

Big books, small books, thin ones, fat ones. Dirty books, serious books, dumb ones and fun ones. I can't live without them.

Yes, I am a book junkie, a bibliophile whose addiction borders on sickness. Doctors say that while I might some day learn to control my habit, I will always be a recovering bookaholic.

Our bookshelves began to overflow long ago. At various times they've listed like a sailor on Saturday night. If Theodore H. White had written one more volume of "The Making of a President," a thousand years of history would have come crashing down like the Berlin Wall.

Now, being a bibliomaniac isn't all bad. I have a friend who's a chocoholic. He needs a Hershey's bar to get his blood pumping before his first cup of coffee in the morning. At least books don't rot your teeth, though they've been known to corrupt malleable minds.

In the span of just a few days, hours even, I can travel from the serene marshlands of South Carolina to hot, tension-filled South Africa. From a quiet marina where water slaps gently under the hull of a houseboat, to a lovers' boudoir where sex sizzles.

William K. Cunningham must understand how I feel. He's a business executive from Midland, Mich., who a while back vowed to read 1,000 books over a two-year period. He finished a year ahead of schedule.

Thc true bibliomaniac not only reads books, he collects them, in absurdly unreadable numbers. I have no will power. Walking into a library arouses an irrepressible urge. Why leave with one book when I can gather up an armful?

More than once I've wandered the aisles of a library and been overcome by an inexplicable desire to read some of the classics. First "Anna Karenina" (which I've never been able to pronounce correctly) and then "Wuthering Heights" pleaded with me from their shelves: "Take me, take me."

And so I did. Three weeks later I returned them to the library, not having slogged through a single page of Leo Tolstoy or Emily Bronte, the mood for classics having deserted me as quickly as the urge to free-fall from an airplane at 3,000 feet.

That's the way it often is with books. That's one of the reasons a true bibliophile keeps scores of unread volumes scattered about the house. They're like bottles of wine kept for every occasion. When the mood for romance or history or mystery strikes, the right story is there to quench your literary thirst.

And then there are those books you can't ever bring yourself to read. Instead, you hope to absorb them through osmosis. "The Memoirs of Richard Nixon" is one such brick of boredom. It was given to me several Christmases ago. I have yet to marshal the courage to read 1,090 pages of Tricky Dick's hand-wringing.

While most of the time a book junkie is a nuisance only to himself, he can turn pusher. And that's when relationships become strained. I won't hesitate to buy a book for a friend that I think he should read, or tell a friend, "You've just got to read 'Outerbridge Reach,' Robert Stone's latest novel. Of course, the friend finds Mr. Stone as intellectually appetizing as reheated Danielle Steel. The next time he sees me approaching with a book tucked under my arm he makes a detour to the men's room.

Most recently, I pushed a book on my wife.

"You have got to read Pat Conroy's 'Prince of Tides,' " I said. "It's one of the best books I've ever read." Based on past

recommendations, she was skeptical. But she loved "Prince of Tides." And my reputation was safe, at least until the next recommendation.

Books like that keep you coming back for more. When a story is so engrossing you can't put it down, the laundry piles up, appointments get canceled, the phone goes unanswered, and your eyes burn from lack of sleep. I've read books in airports, on buses, in doctors' offices and Laundromats, sitting by a river and floating on a raft. I've read books while bumping down a dark highway in a car traveling at 70 miles per hour. Abe Lincoln had nothing on me, except one thing. He read by candlelight and got elected president of the United States; I read by flashlight and got spectacles.

This happily contagious malady has already infected another member of the family -- my daughter Jennifer, age 10. In just a few short years she's stockpiled enough books to supply the neighborhood kids at least through eighth-grade commencement.

Fortunately, my obsession hasn't deprived the family of any of life's essentials -- yet. We've had some close calls. I've gone to buy shoes to replace the ones with holes in the soles and come back with E. L. Doctorow's "Billy Bathgate." One week we'll be short of cash to pay bills, yet I'll drive to my favorite book supplier and come home with an Irwin Shaw short-story collection.

Despite the obvious diagnosis, I don't view my condition as hopeless. I've seen people with worse cases recover and lead productive lives. No doubt a Bookaholics Anonymous would speed my recovery. Maybe I'll run down to the bookstore and see what they have on the subject.

DAVE WIECZOREK is assistant editor of the Fort Lauderdal Sun-Sentinel's Sunshine magazine.

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