My addiction began on March 22, 1958. I was seven years old. It was less than five months prior to my daddy’s death.
This Sunday had begun like any other until I heard my mother’s sobs interrupting our peaceful morning in Great Neck, Long Island. My parents were in the den. The windows, lit with the morning sun illuminated my mother’s hair to a deep, golden auburn. She was awash in tears and sorrow, bent over the newspaper. My father put his arms around my mother and gathered her into his arms.
I ran down the den steps to my parents, hugged my mothers knees. “Mommy, mommy, what’s wrong? Why are you crying?”
She pushed me aside, “Not now, Janie.” I ran up the steps from the room and hid under the dining room table, watching the drama unfold. I searched for clues to whatever could make my mother grieve so deeply. The Sunday New York Times was spread across the library table, as it was every Sunday morning. My mother’s voice was muffled in my father’s chest, as he gently stroked her back.
“It can’t be true. They were so much in love. How is it possible he could die so suddenly?” Mommy mournfully asked Daddy.
“No predicting a plane crash, sweetheart,” was Daddy’s reply. Still hidden beneath the dining room table I watched as my parents made their way to the living room, arms around one another. I snuck into the den to examine what had brought such pain to my mother. The front page of the New York Times was open, huge letters in black crashing across the page. Like a thunderbolt, the letters on the page came together to form words: “Mike Todd DEAD.” Just like that, the letters registered in my brain. My life-long addiction began: I could read!
Over the course of the day I learned of the tragedy. Mike Todd had been killed in his private plane, “The Liz”, which had crashed. I knew my mother adored Elizabeth Taylor and felt her marriage to Mike Todd was a storybook romance made in heaven. My mother emulated Elizabeth Taylor with the same deep, red lipstick and the same adoration for my father as the famous movie star held for her film-producer husband.
On that day my addiction began. I picked out the words on the NY Times pages. Previously indecipherable letters formed into words I could understand. Words were powerful, they were everywhere, all you had to do was learn to read and use them. My addiction embedded itself into my soul that day, 65 years ago, and has remained there ever since.
Winnie the Pooh was the first book I read which further fueled my disease. Then Tom Sawyer tiptoed into my heart. I became Becky, longing for another kiss, lost with Tom in a cave.
Through the years my addiction only grew worse. By the time I was twelve I read through the summer at the top of our stairs in Wyckoff, New Jersey. The attic fan above ruffled the pages of Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and Gone With the Wind. My mother and sister grew disgusted with my swooning about the house, looking for Heathcliff, becoming vaporous with a deadly cough and imagined pneumonia. My mother finally had enough when I developed a strong Southern accent and replied to my mother when she asked why I had not taken out the garbage, “Frankly, Mother, I don’t give a damn.”
I learned to scurry into my room to read from that day forward. Best to hide my addiction from prying eyes. Over the years things only grew worse. Books became my drug of choice. Then my disease worsened dramatically. I fell in love with a fellow bibliophile. This was ugly. With our combined book collections, bookshelves went from bad to horrendous. There was no cure, or so I thought.
This New Year’s Eve my beloved and I had a serious discussion regarding our shared addiction. In the past we had tried everything: avoiding garage sales where boxes of beautiful, unread books lurked. We stayed away from the annual Antiquarian Book Show and Sale at the Coliseum in St. Pete. We averted our eyes from the dreaded library book sale rooms. Barnes and Noble was out of the question, yet I disobeyed my own rules by sneaking there or into other independent bookstores just to “test” my strength. Amazon became my downfall, but I could usually hide my purchases. When the dreaded box of books arrived if Tim was home I managed to create a subterfuge and race into my office, hiding my forbidden pleasures under the couch.
Part of my twelve step program was to recognize that we had enough books on our library shelves to last us a lifetime of reading. But, I heroically reasoned to myself when the latest book lists came out or a fellow addicted friend recommended a book, “I haven’t read that, yet. Maybe I should just take a peek on Amazon.”
It all came to a head January 1, 2023. “We’ve got to start getting rid of books. We sneeze constantly. Our bed is literally in the middle of a library, and that's only one room. It doesn’t include all the other rooms in our home.” Tim judiciously informed me.
“Sneezing isn’t from books, it’s from oak pollen,” I valiantly offered. “Besides, I can’t get rid of my books. I just can’t.” My beloved gave me his sternest look. Yes, you can. We can do this together. Be strong.”
I scoffed. “ You can’t make me give away my books. I won’t do it.”
“Janie. You can do this. I’ll help you get through it. We couldn’t read all the books in this house if we lived to be 100! Besides, you’ve read many of them. We could just give those away, or sell them.”
“Sell them to buy new books?” My hopeful rejoinder did not impress Tim.
“NO. That’s not what I meant. Just the books you’ve read…”
“But they’re like old friends. Besides, someday our grandchildren will be thrilled to have these wonderful books we both love.”
He tapped his foot, then gently cradled me in his arms. “It’s okay, sweetheart. I promise. I’ll help you get through this. Together, we can make a difference. We’ll start with my art books in the guest room.”
I brightened. That was easy. None of my books were in the guest room. I gloated as he attempted to clear the shelves. Who’s crying now? I thought maliciously.
Finally, we entered our bedroom. I froze, mid-sneeze. We faced our monster head on. Our bed was surrounded by bookcases. There were stacks of books under my desk which had glass doors showing off more books, and my journals. At least he couldn’t make me get rid of my own words, I gleefully thought.
With cruelty I never would have imagined my husband could possess, he began pulling all my books off the shelves and threw them on our bed. “Start cataloging. Those you’ll give away or sell, those you can’t bear to part with, then place them into subject matter.”
“I hate you,” I muttered under my breath. After an hour he returned. I had amassed one pile of five books, and the rest of the bed was heaped in piles according to subject matter.
“See, you’re doing great! Look at all these books you can get rid of!” He began placing the enormous pile of books into empty liquor boxes.
“STOP! What are you doing? Those are the books I’m keeping!” I pointed to the five
books on the corner of the bed. “Those are the ones I can part with.”
Tim threw yet another pile of books onto the bed.
“It’s cocktail time. Well after five.” I stomped off to the living room and held my ground as I waited for him to make me a Jim Beam over ice. “Tomorrows another day,” I said brightly as I swirled the ice in my cocktail, thinking of a scene from Bonfire of The Vanities. Where was that book?
Over the course of the next week we valiantly worked through our shared addiction. We slowly progressed, following my motto: “Will I live long enough to read this book I’ve had for forty years?” Those words became the measure of my success.
I’m happy to say I am cured. I’ve completed my twelve-step program, which translated means: “Keep twelve books, give away twelve.” I smugly whispered the other part of my twelve step program, “hide twelve books under the bed, the couch or in my office closet.” Whatever works for recovering addicts, was bound to work for me.
On the eighth day of cleaning I am happy to report I have not purchased any new books. I avert my eyes from the full boxes of books on the living room couch, awaiting departure to our favorite book buyer. If I manage to spy a title of a book which I am tempted to remove from the boxes I race into our clean bedroom, where I no longer sneeze.
Today I spent an hour in my office, admiring the view of my (relatively) clean
desk, the surface which I have not seen for three years. I proudly peruse the titles on my dust-free bookshelves. I snicker over the books I’ve hidden under the couch. I meditate on my couch, envisioning fresh books dancing in my head, titles I can now purchase with so much cleared out space.
In the bedroom I pridefully notice the books on my bedside bookcase I am currently reading: The Killer Across the Table, Inventing The It Girl, Women's Voices from the Oregon Trail and A Walk in the Woods. More books are piled on top of my enormous leather-bound, handmade paper journal, whose pages will take me years to fill, hidden in my bedside bookcase.
So, my dear fellow addicted bibliophiles, there is hope for you, too. Just remember my admonishment: “For every book you give away you’re making room on your shelf for one more.”
Today, clean shelves. Tomorrow, the library sale room; next week, Amazon or ABE. The world is my bookcase.