Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Grand Experiment

“He jumped. He jumped and I couldn’t stop him,” my wife said frantically to the ambulance driver, “He was out of his mind.  My God, he was out of mind.”
            I was strapped down in an ambulance, unconscious and injured badly, paramedic hovering, as it bounced and sped to the hospital.
            But I’m getting ahead of myself.  It had all started off a month earlier so serenely, so innocently, so risk free.  And I must credit no one but yours truly with the idea: an idea that manifested itself over thirty days into a dangerous, terror-filled biblio-ride with unforeseen consequences. 
            My twenty-five years of book collecting needed to be recognized, at least personally.  Twenty-five years of intense hunting and booking, a most enjoyable hobby ridden hard and found exhilarating time and time again.  But how to celebrate?  Perhaps I should consider a private catalogue, an exhibition of highlights, a sentimental essay?  Then it came to me while perusing a glossy travel magazine at the dentist’s office. How about taking a month-long vacation from book collecting instead? 
            I felt a break from the constant stream of email want matches and Ebay temptations might be a good thing.  Could I for even a short time control the habit?  No long-term cure for my madness was considered or desired.  However, the challenge to prove that I was not a slave to my biblio-urges seemed reasonable and healthy:  more time with the spouse, more money in the bank, more time to actually read.   All laudable goals I naively thought to myself.
            The first day of my book collecting vacation was a breeze.  I sipped a margarita as I sat under our gazebo in the backyard.  The birds sang and the sun glowed warmly, bringing a sheen to my pale skin.  I noticed the tranquil beauty of the landscaped surroundings manicured diligently by my wife.  The smell of nature was in the air.  I felt liberated.  Over the next couple of hours, I re-read with delight some of Edgar Allan Poe’s best stories.  Except for a brief break to handle my real estate business, I did not look at my phone or any emails.
            That night my wife noticed I was unusually attentive as I sat next to her watching home shows.  We discussed the pros and cons of countertop selection, accessories, and whether it really was a good idea to tear out that wall and expand the master bath.
            “Aren’t you going to search on Ebay?” she said after an hour or so.
            I briefly explained my vacation to her.  At first she thought I was kidding.  Then, she took to the idea with fervor.  My new free time could be filled with lots of projects.  Soon she had created a list for me, one of the priorities being to dust my bookshelves.
            My mild but uncontrollable tremors started on the third day.  Only handling a book seemed to quiet them.   I instinctively began to read my email want matches and had to stop myself.   Dare I delete them before looking at them?   I turned the idea over and over in my mind, caught between strict adherence to my self-imposed sabbatical and a nagging little voice that chastised me for such a plan.  The little voice in my head even called me names that were vulgar and unpleasant.  It was the first of many biblio-demons to torment me.   I began to perspire.  My trembling hand moved away from the delete key.  Then a flash of inspiration that could only be conjured by a true bookman under duress—I decided to save all the unread book want matches in a separate file to be read when my month of abstinence was up.
 “Genius!” I proclaimed, pounding my fist on the armrest of the couch.  Our rotund, slumbering twenty pound cat launched skyward in alarm.  It would get worse for him.
  I will not bore you with my many attempts at distraction over the next couple of weeks. Two examples will suffice.   I began an exercise program and for the first thirty minutes all went well.  But even as I threw weights around in the gym and sprinted on the treadmill, I couldn’t get the thought of books out of my mind.  I was sure great finds were popping up and I was missing them and some undeserving bastard was taking possession of my books and I ran faster and faster on the treadmill until my lungs nearly collapsed and one of the gym instructors had to intervene.    I stumbled outside into gathering clouds and a spat of rain.  The drive home was painful—as was the next few days—and I did not go back.
           I tried reverse psychology.  I immersed myself in my existing books in an attempt to catalog a substantial backlog of purchases piled high in the game room.    Oh, but there were some juicy ones that had slipped my mind and I relived their acquisition as if time had been reversed and I was returned to the moment of initial discovery.  Hours flew by.  I examined and described and referenced—and yes, even smelled the books.  Intoxicating.   Then I crossed a blurry line, reading too much and felt afire to search for other books, to possess them, to hunt and stalk and. . . .
The next thing I recall was my wife pulling the car up next to me as I stood out in the street near our home.  She had been running errands.  It was decidedly overcast and becoming chilly.  I shivered and I felt something heavy pulling at the leash in my hand.  It was making sounds that our dog did not make. 
“What in the hell are you doing, honey?  Are you nuts?” my wife said.
A glance down revealed our blob of a cat, his hair raised like a furry peacock, writhing and squirming as he tried to free himself from the leash.   I hoped that our walk hadn’t been a long one. 
This last transgression was difficult to explain and raised concerns with my spouse.  I blamed it all on the self-imposed ceasing of book buying.  She suggested rather sensibly that I stop the experiment.  No, no, I told her resolutely, I was going to make it a full month, damn the Book Gods, only ten more days to go, and I would do it, reach my goal, prove to myself that I was in control.
She shrugged, told me to get it together, and she kept me so busy with work and home stuff the next few days that all seemed well.
Then the night sweats began.  I could not sleep and wandered the house.  I heard voices, hundreds of voices, mixed and jumbled, murmuring from the overflowing bookshelves.  One disturbing exclamation I recall clearly: it came from the third shelf, second bookcase in the office, where I had every title by a favorite author save one.  The voice pierced me quick—“I am incomplete!  Complete me!”  I knew what was missing, yes I knew:  a rare little pamphlet issued by an obscure press.   I’d had a chance at one long ago but the price was high and I hesitated and I had been bearing penance ever since. 
“What if a copy has just become available?” I thought, feeling distraught and a bit wild.  “Would it hurt to just take a quick look?”
I hunched over the computer, the search page on the screen pulling me in like a black hole.  I typed away deliriously on the keys.  I felt a jolt of energy.   I eagerly devoured every online resource in search of the pamphlet, but alas, nothing new.  I sighed, and the silence was broken by the rolling of thunder and the flash of lightning through the window.  Rain downpoured and splashed heavily, the strong winds of the storm bent the trees. 
A murmur within the house intermingled with the sounds outside.  The voices from the bookshelves returned, at first just a few, but soon my head was cacophony of authors, some hounding me personally for more friends, some talking among themselves about me—all insistent and demanding.
“Only two more days,” I pleaded, “I’m almost there.”
But the sounds abated not and I tried relief by hiding in the half bath—one of the only spots with no books in the house—and consumed three bottles of a strong stout that I particularly favored.
The next thing I recall is standing in my boxers atop our huge mahogany bookcase in the living room, a step stool balanced precariously on an adjoining table.  Handcrafted in the late 19th-century, the mighty bookcase  was eight feet tall and almost as wide, ornately carved, with beautiful glass front shelves soaring skyward.  Our living room ceiling stretched two stories high and the bookcase was a centerpiece.  My impulse purchase of it years earlier had cost me an enormous sum of money as well as a long run of chastity from my normally accommodating wife.
I tottered and swayed, “Just a couple days more!”  I yelled at the books.  Louder and louder the chorus grew.  The voice of famous bookman A.S.W. Rosenbach rose above the rest and drilled deeper into my mind, questioning my very sanity at a month-long respite from the most glorious of hobbies.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I said beginning to sob, reeling from the onslaught.
My wife heard the commotion and came into the room.  Fingered lightning reflected in the glass bookcase doors, the rain and thunder incessant.
“What are you doing up there?” she asked in a restrained panic.
The thought of my long-suffering wife staring up at me as I shouted at the books and flailed wildly causes me a tinge of regret and remorse when I recall it.  However, why didn’t she stop me earlier from such a wayward path and make me go back to buying books?  It seems a tad selfish on her part.
The sounds of her urging me to get down mingle in my recollections with the insistent berating of the damnable books and my pleas for forgiveness.   Whether I consciously jumped as my wife claims or fell remain debatable.  The last thing I recall was my face heading for a retro 1960s chair that I had never cared for and which I found out later I smashed to smithereens.

I began to wake in the hospital room, my mind foggy, my senses discombobulated, and a terror burst through me as I saw what I thought were huge vultures filling the room, preening and milling about, waiting patiently for my demise.  Then, my eyes cleared and I was relieved that it was only a group of my book collector friends come to visit me.
One colleague from San Antonio I could see talking with my wife in the corner.  He had what appeared to be empty book bags folded up under his arm.  As my eyes narrowed for a closer look he noticed I’d awoken and hastily thrust the bags out of sight.
“He’s alive!” someone shouted quite theatrically.
My wife was momentarily all tenderness and I was glad for it.  She kissed me and gently stroked my bandaged head.
“How long have I been out?”
“Two days,” she said, “You were unconscious and they didn’t know how bad your head had been hurt so they thought they better keep you sedated, run tests, and we thought you might not snap out of it and. . . . “
She was interrupted by an impatient bookman. 
“That was one screwball idea you had.” 
I mumbled an incoherent response.
The other bookmen gathered round and expressed relief at my aliveness.  Then, they all began to tell me stories of recent finds for their collections along with the latest book gossip.
This heartened me at first but I began to tire and grow irritated.  A nurse interposed.   They must let me rest she insisted.
“Before we leave we wanted to give you something to read.  A gift from us.”
 I felt genuine warmth toward my comrades and imagined a fine action adventure tale or work of history to distract me from my fragile state of mind.
It seemed a sly smile among all when the book was placed in my hands:  Nicholas Basbanes’ A Gentle Madness. 
“Nevermore!” I yelled at them, some sensor being ripped from my body during my ejaculation, the alarm sounding on the monitor, the nurse bearing down and growling at them. 
And with that the unchastened bookmen beat a hasty retreat, leaving me to brood, to recharge, and soon ponder my next acquisition . . .  for my “vacation” was now over!


  1. Man you got it bad! Us readers of this here blog probably all have a bit of "The Gentle Madness", but yours ain't to gentle. It really stank seeing you laid up, and honestly, I didn't think you were going to pull through. Now you're back, I'll confess, I too had my boxes ready. I really am glad you pulled through though, and don't fret too much - better the hospital than the asylum.

    1. I really appreciate your concern. I know you had only the best of intentions with those book boxes. I'm sure my wife would have helped pack. The hospital food was bad but now I'm back eatin' barbecue and getting ready to do my Ebay searches. Someday it may reach the point that we'll need to share a storage unit.

  2. San Antonio colleagueOctober 18, 2014 at 1:50 PM

    Oral contracts are enforceable in Texas. Good thing I reached a deal with Nicole before you woke up!

    1. Dear San Antonio colleague, I have no idea what you mean. This was a fictional piece and any resemblance to a real person, alive or dead, is purely coincidental. However, I will be monitoring any future correspondence between you and Nicole very closely.