Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015


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This is how I feel in bookstores, sometimes. The sheer volume of books, their physical sameness, all those spirits and lives sunk into unending shelves of ignored words... I get dismayed, I feel hopeless, I wonder what the hell I'm doing with my life.

But if you're ever feeling down about books, there's no one better to turn to than Borges. In the first of his 1967 Norton Lectures at Harvard, "The Riddle of Poetry," he speaks about the book as object versus the book as artwork:

A book is a physical object in a world of physical objects. It is a set of dead symbols. And then the right reader comes along, and the words—or rather the poetry behind the words, for the words themselves are mere symbols—spring to life, and we have a resurrection of the word.

So each of those books that appears so ignored, really, only needs one human being to ignite its potential, to breathe life into it, to rescue it from the dead heap of remainderdom. That's encouraging, especially to writers who feels confronted with their irrelevance every time they step into a Chapters/Indigo "lifestyle store," or whatever Ms. Reisman is calling them now.

Another thing I struggle with sometimes is the notion that, as someone who writes books, what I'm producing is essentially a commodity. I find this hard to square with the likely silly, fanciful idealism with which I think of books -- that is, vehicles for "resurrection of the word," which excite the uncommodifiable space of the imagination. But Borges also delights in the simple act of buying books, and finds the pleasure of it so extreme that it trumps rational thought.

Sometimes, looking at the many books I have at home, I feel I shall die before I come to the end of them, yet I cannot resist the temptation of buying new books. Whenever I walk into a bookstore and find a book on one of my hobbies—for example, Old English or Old Norse poetry—I say to myself, "What a pity I can’t buy that book, for I already have a copy at home."

We should all be more like Mr. Borges, obviously, in many ways. And there's an obvious masochism at play when I let bookstores make me feel bad. It's the writer-side of me taking over -- that is, the anxious, competitive and narcissistic side. But to enjoy a bookstore for what it is (or should be, yoga mats and $20 tin water bottles aside), is to give over to the reader in me. And as a reader I am hungry and eager, and a voracious shopper -- a consumer of books, sure -- but more on that in another post.