Here’s a simple request from a friend who stops by the house and peeks into my study room at the chaotic piles of books lying on the carpet beneath my desk, or from a few eager readers who pick up a few names of writers in an engaging conversation over a glass of wine.
It should be a harmless request, by any measure of a friendship. For after all, don’t friends exchange gifts, help each other out with money, chores and often times go to the ridiculous length of covering up our minor embarrassments?
But these are not just books, but Walter Benjamin’s Baudelaire, Aragon’s Paris Peasant, Gombrowicz’s Diaries! Even those bent out of shape by mounting pressure of newly acquired books, each and everyone of them has been selected and picked with triumphant cheers out of neglected shelves in a bookstore somewhere in the world or in a second-hand bookstore somewhere in the city, or from an outdated list of an online bookstore. How am I to say yes? With the resignation, but an anxious heart, that these same books might not find their way back to my dust gathering pile? Or with the boundless joy of the first person passing around great masterpieces to another? And how am I to say no? One look at those eagerly awaiting eyes of the borrower is enough to make me feel repulsed with shame. After a lengthy pause, my answer is the now rehearsed refrain, “No, but I’ll buy them for you.” Which is certainly a quizzical answer to a harmless request, but the most I could do under the circumstances, and in consequence of which, naturally, I have to order those books.
This sense of commitment, bothersome in most instances, arises nonetheless from a strong conviction that this writer friend should read these books; they are good for them. And if out of lack of the means or resources to procure them, now that they’ve found them in my collection and I don’t do anything about it, I’m the selfish fool to deprive them of the opportunity. It’s enough of a burden on my conscience to goad me endlessly to get those books right away.
I couldn’t put a finger on this troublesome bug until recently when I picked up a new issue of the New Yorker. It happened when I was in my teens in a North Sumatera city. A renowned Chinese American author, Maxine Hong-Kingston, was invited to talk in a small American library, and I had the opportunity to show her my writing and talked to her about writing and books. She told me to find some good writings in New Yorker. I had never heard of this magazine before. The American librarian who happened to overhear our conversation told me she subscribed to the magazine and would lend some to me. Weeks later when I still didn’t receive the magazines, I made bold to visit the librarian in her office. In a rather begrudged tone, she told me she hadn’t finished reading them yet. Embarrassed, I beat a retreat. I didn’t hear from her again until months later when I received a dozen old issues of the New Yorker. In a pithy note, she apologized for the delay and told me I could have them because she was moving back to the States.
I can only assume now that it must have been hard for her to part with those prized magazines she had enjoyed so much, but now that she had to leave town the magazines must have been a cumbersome addition to all the freight that needed to be shipped out. I was in a sense the fortunate inheritor of a pile disposed of more for pragmatic reasons than largesse of an altruistic soul.
I naturally don’t blame this librarian for her need to cling on to her magazines for as long as possible, but I certainly don’t share her ‘charitable’ spirit. I would like to believe that my obsession to get hold of books in my possession for my friends who dearly want to read them hails from a different source. It is, I believe, from understanding the urgent need of another reader for fabulously good reads.
Over the years, I have had as much joy in receiving and giving out books, but very rarely I’ve invited them to my home and to my library. I would still occasionally urge them to get a book or books, or order for them, but let me be the first to tell you this: this business of sharing good reads is really a tiresome habit.
A version of this article was published by The Jakarta Globe, January 2009