Confessions of a bookaholic

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It all started innocently enough.  I was having a little promenade on the Promenade here in Santa Monica when I saw the shop window.  At first I tried to ignore it, but resistance was futile.  Slowly, the decidedly straight path my feet were on turned into an arc, like an electron deflected by a magnetic field, as some mysterious force drew me towards the front entrance.  Oh no, not again — I had just promised myself last week that I was going to lay off for a spell.  Go cold turkey.  Force of will.  And I had been doing so well.  But I saw the wares in the shopfront, in all their seductive shapes and colors, and before I could muster up some resistance, my feet had already taken me inside the store and planted me in front of a big pile of the intoxicating merchandise.  And there I was, inexorably drawn into its sphere of influence, touching the stuff that was my downfall, first one item, then another, then another.  I was in its thrall.  I surrendered to the instinct and decided to bask in the visceral pleasure of the moment and to worry about the guilt later.  Always later.  Thirty minutes later, I walked out with three more books I didn’t need.  I hate bookstores.  And love ’em.

My name is Ali.  And I am a bookaholic.

Oh sure, there are euphemisms for it.  Avid reader.  Collector.  Information junkie.  Book connoisseur.  Scholar. Researcher.  And my favorite,
bibliophile, which practically makes a virtue of the condition.  But we all know what it really is: a disease.  An inner urge that cannot be conditioned out.  A hunger for acquiring large collections of symbols inked on slices of dead tree, and perhaps feeding them someday to the ravenous retina, even when that retina is attached to a brain that knows that there is not enough time in the world to even glance at those
slices for a second at a time. 

See, I’m not one of those people who’s hung up on how rare the book is, what condition the binding is in, whether there’s an inscription by the author and all that kind of nonsense.  You can take all your first editions and stick ’em where the sun don’t shine (but you probably do
that already so they won’t dry out or bleach or lose value or whatever — hey, as long as you can still sit down comfortably).I care about the data.  The glyphs between the covers that tickle the cerebral cortex out of its threatened hibernation.  Words, poems, maps, recipes, algorithms, how to, how not to, the way it was, the way it should be, the story, the scoop, the stuff you were afraid to ask about, the irreverence, the blasphemy, the orthodoxy, the keys to the kingdom.    

            Sometimes I
joke that if I could have one superpower, it would be infinite reading
speed.  I could walk into Widener
Library, and zip!  Done.  The entire collection, eight stories deep,
would download to my brain.  Hey, that’s
a great idea.  You Google folks — get on
it already.   

            I remember
the feeling I had that very first time I walked through the stacks of Widener
Library, six stories underground.  There
were all these musty volumes on philology, philosophy, medievalism, and scores
of other obscure and therefore utterly fascinating subjects.  Walking amongst and leafing through them
filled me with exhilaration — the knowledge of the ages, conversations with
the dead, records of human folly and vanity, fields discovered, cultivated and abandoned,
secret knowledge sitting out in the open, all there for me.  And it gave me an equally breathless despair:
the certainty that I would never read all of these books, that if I spent the
rest of my natural existence to the ripe-old age of 95 reading 8 hours a day every
day books that take on the average 6 hours to devour, I would get through about
35,000 of them, and there were six million in that library alone, so one half
of one percent of them is the best I could hope to do, so the Hindus had better
be right about reincarnation, and it had better not be as a cockroach that I’m
coming back either, unless it’s a super speed-reading cockroach. 

There is a
touching faith amongst bookaholics that, given the time constraints of earthly
existence, the mere act of buying a book is a good enough proxy for mental
acquisition of its information content.
If the spine of that book shows on your bookshelf, you’re more than
halfway there.  It’s the intention that
counts, right?  But having read enough of
those books, we know that this isn’t really true, and so are plagued by the two
demons of the professional information hoarder: the limits to acquisition speed
and retention.  If only we could read
fast enough, then we could get through all the books.  And if we could remember everything that we
read, we’d be super-genuises in the league of Wile E. Coyote. 

In order
to solve these problems of book-reading, I have resorted to — you guessed it
— more book-reading.  Which is a little
bit like returning to a hospital to treat the nasty infection you got from
visiting that same hospital.  Or buying box wine to fix that Scotch habit.  (Incidentally,
if you catch something at a hospital, it’s called a nosocomial disease; if you get it from visiting a doctor, it’s
called iatrogenic.  Ain’t medical factoids great?  But I digress.  But I’m good at digressing, so lay off
already.)  First, I went after the whole
speed thing.  If I just doubled my
reading speed, I could theoretically get through 70,000 books — bucking up
against the Widener 1% line.  Traditional
speed reading tells you to scan faster, catch words with your peripheral
vision, take in groups of words instead of single words.  All admirable and eminently practical
advice.  Speed increased somewhat, but
nothing to make my reading electron jump to the next orbital.  I needed something more revolutionary than
that.  Not just an Aston Martin to my
Toyota, but a Learjet.

            So a few
years ago, I stumbled upon what seemed like the solution: Photoreading, a system developed by Paul Scheele.  The claim was that the system would enable me
to read at a page a second.  I could not
have been more thrilled, so I bought that book of the same name with the aim of
deploying the system.  It involves
previewing the book to create a mental outline, then adopting a certain visual
and quasi-meditative mental focus while scanning the book two pages at a time,
one to three seconds per page.  Then you
sleep on it, come back the next day, and magically, mysteriously, all the
information would be in your mental hard drive after a certain ‘activation’
procedure.  Now I had seen the TV
infomercials of that fellow Howard Berg and his 30,000 word per minute
world-record reading speed with 90% comprehension, and also those little
courses in The Learning Annex along the same lines, so I was open to the
possibility that this could work.  I did
get some improvement in my reading speed, although not at the gigahertz
processor speeds the course had promised.
Paul Scheele and company are still in business seven years later (and I
even paid to see him speak a few weeks ago right here in Los Angeles), so he
must be doing something right.  And, full
disclosure: I didn’t follow the system to the letter.  But my quest for Infinite Reading Speed
clearly had to go on.

            On to the
retention problem then.  I remember taking
a class on Japanese culture and history in college, and the only things I can
remember from it are that the Meiji Restoration happened in 1868, and that what
Americans call hara-kiri was actually
called seppuku in Japan (gory details
seem to stick better in the memory).  And
you know what?  I paid a lot for that
class.  I’m still paying for that class, so this whole impermanence of memory
thing was simply not acceptable.  To the
bookstore!  Luckily, Mnemosyne, the Greek
muse of memory, was already on the case and had a whole shelf of books (mmm,
more books) ready for me.  A cursory glance
at said shelf yields that a certain Tony Buzan is the reigning king of
information on learning and memory.  So I
got his book Use Your Perfect Memory,
and you know what?  It rocks.  It gives you all these techniques for applying
your mind’s natural storage abilities to various classes of information,
dramatically improving your long-term retention.  Phone numbers, lists, faces and names, dates,
all become a piece of cake.  General
guidelines for improving retention were also useful.  Emotion adds to the stickiness of
information, so add it in.  Pour on sound,
color and flavor to things to make them more memorable.  Do you know where all the stuff in your bedroom
is?  Of course you do, because the brain
is good at organizing information spatially, so use that feature (described as
the Roman Room system, where you imagine each piece of information sitting in a
certain location in a house).  Stories,
rhyming, outrageousness and music are good mnemonic aids, as are handwriting
information and reviewing notes immediately after taking them down. 

There were
other books, too: SuperLearning,
which partially talked about the Lozanov method of using 60 beats-per-minute
background music and a certain rhythm while reading.  And there are documented claims of people
with photographic (or eidetic) memory, although I’ve never met a person who has
it.  Their existence gives me hope that
some of their mental strategies — like those of patient S. in Luria’s Mind of A Mnemonist — can be duplicated
by those not born with the gift.  If you
know ways of reading faster and retaining more that actually work, drop me a
line — I’m all ears. 

So this quest, too, continues.  Recently I read an article about how sleep is
essential to the consolidation of memory.
I never thought of my incredible napping powers as a deliberate
technique, so that’s fantastic news.  In
the meantime, I went through my shelves and came up with this partial list of
books-in-progress (if it’s on the shelf, that means, I’ve touched it, so it’s
in progress, okay?  Okay).  A way to think about it is that each one is
its own relationship.  There are the
“marriage material” books that have been sitting patiently on the
shelf while a couple of more glamorous books (well, alright, dozens of them)
have jumped the queue and gotten read before them (“But they’re long forgotten,
honey, and you’re still around — shouldn’t that count for
something?”).   You know these books
are good for you, but they may not be all that fun to get through.  Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People goes in that category,
which I picked up again yesterday (to find that the airport receipt within was
from February 1997 — nice).  There are
the “fling” books.  This is
usually light reading that captures your attention quickly, gets read quickly,
and you part ways, hallelujah and amen, good times, no hard feelings.  Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons falls in that bin.  Then there are the “project” books
— books that require so much deliberate effort that you almost have to alter
your lifestyle to get through them.  Goedel, Escher, Bach by Hofstadter and
Dennett is one of those for me, as well as Ulysses
and Finnegan’s Wake if I ever get
around to them.  And let us now praise
the “midnight lover” (also referred to as the booty call in street parlance).
These are books that you can go to for a quickie every once in a while,
since they have self-contained modules that are good for a temporary
pleasure.  Mind Hacks by Stafford and Webb, a book about tricks you can play
on your own brain, is one of these, as is The
48 Laws of Power
by Greene and Elffers.
Funny thing is how some booty call books have a tendency to
insinuate themselves into your life for the long-term.  The Tao
Te Ching
and Kahlil Gibran’s The
Prophet
, volumes that I revisit often and quite possibly my two favorite
books of all time, both started out that way.

    But enough about the taxonomy of cellulose
girlfriends.  Here’s a partial list of
them books on the conveyor belt: The
Power of Focus, Nonzero, My Secret Garden, Cracking the Millionaire Code, The
Elegant Universe, The Science of Mind, Stretching Scientifically, Monsters and
Magical Sticks (or There’s No Such Thing as Hypnosis), Word Freak, The Way and
Its Power, The Essential Tao, Secrets of the Online Marketing Superstars,
Diamond, The Monkey in the Mirror, Mind Hacks, Telling Lies, Freedom from the
Known, To the Actor: On the Technique of Acting, The Enlightened Sex Manual, Bringing Down the House,
Infinite Life, Guns Germs and Steel, Maximum Achievement, Kundalini Tantra,
Getting Everything You Can Out of All You’ve Got, The Age of Spiritual
Machines, My Life
(Bill Clinton), Poker for Advanced Players, Conversations
with God Book I, Living the Science of Mind, Autobiography of a Yogi, The Four
Noble Truths, How to Be More Interesting, Getting to Yes, The Innovator’s
Dilemma, Good to Great, Top-Grading, The Corrections, The World’s Most
Dangerous Places, Collected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, The Hitchhiker’s Guide
to the Galaxy (trilogy), A Man in Full, Secrets of Voice-Over Success, Never
(Jorie
Graham), Until I Find You, A Short
History of Myth, The Franklin Affair, Promises Betrayed, The Mysterious Flame
of Queen Loana
(Eco), and Status
Anxiety
by Alain de Botton, which I bought on Friday from Barnes and Noble
and intend to read tonight, because it just looked so tasty on the shelf that
day.  I promise it won’t happen again, o
my patient and beloved 52+ books-in-waiting (one for each week of the coming
year), until it happens again, at least.
That would be when The Meaning of Tingo, and Other Remarkable Words from Around the World
arrives from Amazon.co.uk (it doesn’t come out here till March).
For now, I must be off.  I have some expensive memories to
consolidate.

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