My bookshelf is like a mountain top cairn. For those non-climbers amongst you, a cairn is a collection of rocks piled high at a summit. Neither glacial heft nor volcanic belch has brought them there. Instead it is the pockets of climbers. The tradition is to pick up a rock from the bottom of the mountain, carry it to the top, before placing it on the cairn.
When I look at my bookshelf I have the same feeling as a climber clutching his rock: each book is a marker, a sign of hours invested and mental endeavour, a paperbacked conquest, a hardbacked companion. My shelves speak of years hiking through the literary summits.
All of which is a roundabout and overly romanticised justification for why, when I read, I never, ever borrow books. I must own them. Like a low-rent Charles Foster Kane, a character who thought why merely visit a zoo or opera house when he could build his own, I have to possess what I conquer. If I read something, I don’t want to give it back. I’ve defeated that sucker. It’s mine now.
In many ways this makes me a terrible reader. Beyond the slightly creepy clingy impulse, it means I never use libraries. I love the idea of libraries and what they do in communities, and will fight tooth and nail to keep them open, but they are redundant in my literary big game hunt. I mean, why build a relationship with a book, tame it, only then to hand it back to a librarian? They will just release it back into the wild. And you will be left alone. If I had to go through the emotional equivalent of the end of Born Free every time I finish a book, I’d be an emotional wreck.
It is also why I’m still resisting e-books. There is no marker on my shelf once I’ve finished reading something on a Kindle. No rock on the cairn. Just a digital smudge.
Therefore, I buy. If you’ll forgive me paraphrasing property advice anxious parents give their kids, it really is better to own rather than borrow. In my house, books are physical reminders of times, places and people. They are as evocative as photos of family and friends on the fridge door. Why hide that in a computer?
And so, I will continue to buy and to read. Book by book, stone by stone I will build my cairns.