Is there a better way to spend a free Friday than foraging amongst tables of retired books at the Christchurch City Libraries yearly sale? Clearly the lengthening queue of assorted Cantabrian’s I encountered recently would suggest, there is not. Gathered well before the nine o’clock opening and in expectation of a bumper crop this year, we came equipped with all manner of conveyances for the harvest; wheeled suitcases, the large canvas hold-all, backpacks of varying sizes and the modest reusable shopping bag. We were, I fancied – wages and location aside – the bibliophilic equivalent of the seasonal picker. As it was we stood, an occasional pleasantry exchanged with a nearby queuer, in otherwise muted anticipation in the foyer of the Christchurch City Council’s Pioneer Recreation & Sport’s Centre, home to the sale for roughly the past ten years. Sans Lycra we appeared incongruous beneath signage offering directions to Aerobics, the Den and Dance Studio and Fitness Centre; the juxtaposition of the corporeal and the cerebral.
Shortly we would be hurrying towards the Stadium; two thousand, one hundred and fifty square metres of sprung wooden floor and configured for three basketball courts, three netball courts, six volleyball courts and twelve badminton courts. While logic said space was the reason for this rather odd choice of venue – we used to be cheek by jowl in the Stringleman Room at the Christchurch Convention Centre – immobile amid activity I could not ignore the nagging feeling that perhaps a vigorous workout would be better for me and immediately regretted having let my gym membership lapse. Such is the persisting unease between bodies and books; a preference for action over contemplation
Although I grew up in a home where books were valued and reading encouraged, the rider it seemed, was context; tucked-up-in-bed-with-a-book, legitimate at night-time, morphed into lolling-about-with-a-book past certain daylight hours. My mother would look disapprovingly at any bedridden, book-holding child past nine o’clock on a Saturday morning, you needed to be up and ‘doing’ and reading was certainly not considered ‘doing’. Evidently other mothers experienced similar despair if their offspring favoured sedentary rather than active pursuits. An avid reader throughout childhood and adolescence, New Zealand writer Kate de Goldi says her mother’s preferred phrase to describe her book induced indolence was, “the laziness drips of her”. And, author Brigid Brophy, in a 1974 essay written for Bookmarks: Writers on their Reading, remembers her mother demanding, she “stop reading books and get out into the fresh air”. Now, oddly enough, given the almost umbilical connection many children – mine included – have with their electronic devices, books are enjoying new status as an eminently favourable childhood pursuit, “the young should be immersed in a culture of the sentence, not the screen”, espouses Pulitzer prize winning author Michael Dirda in, Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life.
So perhaps it’s just my age; at fifty-three could this be my Montaigne moment? Because even Michel Montaigne – probably about fifty-three – when he wrote of books, and the companionship they afforded him, as the third and “much more certain” kind of relationship, more so than friendship and love, also worried about their detrimental effects on the body saying:
Books exercise the mind, but the body, whose interests I have never neglected either, remains meanwhile inactive, and grows heavy and dull. I know of no excess that does me more harm, or that I should avoid more strictly in these my declining years.
(Montaigne Essays Book Three: On Three Kinds of Relationships)
Of course my twenty-first century angst was perhaps less pressing than Montaigne’s, he died six years later in 1592, although not from inactivity secondary to reading, but from a peritonsillar abscess. Improved life expectancy aside I remained uneasy, surely I was at even greater risk given the ease of acquisition – thanks to the e-reader I needn’t leave the comfort of my bed – and the proliferation of books since Montaigne’s time. But an abundance of books can overwhelm and ironically I’m just as likely to suffer from reading paralysis or, conversely, worried about ever catching up, wolf them down without pause to savour their taste; the goal in this instance, as reading guru Robertson Davies wrote in, A Voice from the Attic: Essays on the Art of Reading, is wanting “not to read a book”, but “to have read it –no matter how.” If I succumb to the latter, the effect of this hurried approach to reading is likely two-fold, not only will my body become “heavy and dull”, but worryingly, so too will my mind.
“Goody, it’s open”, announced someone nearer the front of the queue and suddenly – thoughts interrupted – I joined the dash towards the stadium doors. Past the complimentary plastic library bags for the ill-prepared, and a few roving Friends of the Library volunteers, admiring the results of their labour, we scattered, drawn to tables laden with our preferred diet of books: Fiction & Literature, Travel, History, Sport, Art and, for the undecided, ‘Something for Everyone’. As always I began with ‘Fiction & Literature’, the books atop the table stacked three deep and still plenty of cartons lying in wait below.
Across the table I spied, Peter Carey’s Parrot & Olivier in America, and stretched over to claim it. Grasping the hardback copy I felt its heft in my hand, its absence from the row hardly noticeable, there were so many books. Odd as it may seem, this venue reminded me that just as the reading of a physical book is a uniquely bodily experience, so too is their acquisition; walking and stretching and crouching and grasping and lugging.
Here at least, physical books were very much alive and no shortage of readers willing to forsake the effortless, in favour of ferreting, presumably hankering for the feel of paper rather than polycarbonate between their fingers. So maybe I could relax, confident that active acquisition would offset any perils associated with later inactivity. Still, I would need to choose carefully, because what “our embarrassment of books” should show us, says Gabriel Zaid (translated by Natasha Wimmer) in So Many Books, is to accept how little we will ever know, “and maybe the measure of our reading should therefore be, not the number of books we’ve read, but the state in which they leave us.”