If you are an avid reader, then you know that one of your greatest fears is losing your books. Or having your books destroyed. Or having your books in the wrong hands such as your crawling niece pulling it off the table and pouring porridge on it. My God, this must be the worst experience of a book lover! The other worst experience would be someone accidentally dropping our books in some back-water. There are times I lend out my books and I cannot sleep properly until I have them back. I know this may sound absurd and not so grown up but there are certain books on my shelf I simply do not lend out and the reason is simple: I love these books so much and despite buying and reading some of them when I was 16, the thought of taking them out of the house makes my heart skip a bit.
Well, I owe this piece to people who have very close friends or family who are readers and who always seem to choose their books over a hangout or books over a dress when there is an offer. Most importantly, this is for my friends who have, at one point or another, angrily told me that I have a relationship with my books.
a) For some ardent readers, there is little difference between a loved one and a loved book
This does not mean that ardent book readers do not appreciate human relationships. What happens is that for this group of people, books are very magical with the ability for the characters they read about to actually spring into life. In extreme cases, these breed actually walk around town comparing their friends to a character or event they read about. There are times when something very interesting happens in my real life and I just sit back and imagine how that event would come out if it was written by Alice Munro.
What this translates into is that for some ardent readers, it is actually possible for them to feel the events and the characters that they encounter in books. That is why it might be difficult to understand the fascination your avid-reader friend has with her books. The characters you read in the book she gave you are not just characters, they are people she knows and she will meet them one day.
b) Sentences and phrases are not just words to them
I have several notebooks that accompany me for when I settle down to read. There are lines which I read and I just cannot move on from them so easily. You have to stop and pose, put these lines down and then think deeply about them. Sometimes we try to imagine what would have been going on in the mind of the writer and because of this, they tend to be constantly looking for things, for truths that others cannot see; for connections to things whose importance your regular eye will not see. I mean, does it matter what Hama Tuma was thinking about when he wrote, “How many are there who can slaughter hundreds if not thousands and still be pampered as democrats?” in his short story, Ethiopia’s Homeless Prime Minister apart from the socio-political issues he is trying to address in the story? Who cares whether “pampered” is deeper and more sarcastic than “mollycoddles” in this context or what made the writer say, “Slaughtered” instead of simply “kill”? Well, for an ardent reader, words are not just words. They evoke emotions and sentimental thoughts.
c) True, they could be dating some of these characters
I would not have come out with this if I did not hear a fan of Americanah, Chimamanda Adichie’s forth novel asking Chimamanda for Obinze’s phone number during a conversation she had. I will tell you a little: Obinze is the main male character in the book and has been presented as the ultimate lover; the kind of man who abandons his wife for the woman he loves even when this woman betrayed him by cutting communication with him and dating other men.
So here is my story. Two of my role models are actually book characters. Sometimes I make choices and I imagine what they would say about the choices that I have made or whether they would laugh at something I find funny. So this could be the reason why there are books that cannot leave my bookshelf because once in a while, I need to ‘consult’. I know someone whose best friend is a book character. It could be madness, I know but it will tell you why your friend’s relationship with her books is something that needs an info-docu on.
So now you know, if she keeps calling you every morning to ask about her book which you borrowed, do not be offended.
d) We have seen so many versions of the story you are narrating
Yes, we have encountered what you are talking about in so many varied shapes and form and we might not necessarily gasp at the story you are telling us about how your uncle’s four wives relate based on why each thinks she was married into that home because we have probably read that story in The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin.
It is true that we totally understand your story and because we have analysed this story before, we are however interested in a more critical look at the story of your uncle and we might get bored if all you want is idle talk. I sometimes think that ardent readers have a lot in common with historians because they both are exposed to vast realities and like historians who have seen civilizations come and go, ardent readers have also seen wars, peace, love and other life’s complications come and go. So perhaps there is nothing particularly new under the sun for your crazy reader-friend.
e) The sight of books just makes us feel good
There are so many physical objects that look good. I am told girls and pearls are inseparable, then of course there are other good things such as a sterling silver jug that is just aesthetically irresistible to look at. There are good dresses and good shoes that make people go breathless… for book lovers, getting to the bookshop and landing on our favourite aisle (read: aisle with our favourite authors) is a breathtaking experience. So yes, if you enter a supermarket with your book loving friend and her face becomes bright as she runs towards the book side, please continue sampling what you like, you will meet at the supermarket counter.