I’m trying to kick my book habit

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One of the last books I read in 2020 was Gabor Maté’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. This is a wonderful combination of a memoir of working with some of the most deprived addicts in Vancouver, a study of the neuroscience behind addiction, and a plea for a more enlightened treatment of addicts. It is a book both harrowing and hopeful.

The book addresses not only addictions to substances but also behavioural addictions. And it is with reference to that latter that Maté can bring his own experience to the party. He shares the effects of his own addiction on his life and family. Compared to the crack addict with life-threatening illnesses as result of the drugs, Maté’s labelling of his compulsion to buy classical music CDs an addiction can seem at first both frivolous and bordering on the insulting. Maté himself is unwilling at first to call it an addiction but as he works with the addicts at his clinic over the years and comes to understand the motives, the outcomes, and the patterns of addiction, he is able to apply the label with less and less embarrassment and more and more justification.

I recognised this addiction of Maté’s for two reasons. First, my late father-in-law had exactly the same compulsion — both for vinyl and CDs. John stretched his compulsion to cover jazz as well as classical music but the pattern was the same. I remember when I was based in Singapore and our first child was born. John and my mother-in-law flew over for an extended visit. John would spend hours flicking through the boxes of CDs in the many outlets selling cheap music in the shopping centres of central Singapore. He was in his element. I understand now that what he was doing was not giving him as much pleasure as I assumed it was.

And the second reason? Well, that’s my own compulsion. For me it is books. I spend too much money on them — by buying more than I can ever read — and I hide away from my family in books. Reading — and the physical comfort of books — has been a haven for me since I was a young boy. An only child, left alone much of the time and without the recourse to TV or computer (we’re talking many many years ago) I discovered books.

Now, I understand addiction. Scratch that. I have experience of addiction. I’m not sure I can say I fully understand any addiction, even my own. I am a recovering substance addict and it was only on reading about Maté’s CD buying that I was able to confront the other addiction in my life. Maté’s book also uncovered some of the reasons for both my addictions and that has been helpful.

Four years ago, I documented on Medium a purge of books — instigated by my wife — that saw me dump about 1000 volumes on local charity shops. I suddenly had space on my shelves. Unfortunately, that space triggered some need and I started filling the shelves again. So, four years on, it’s as though the purge never happened. I’m not planning another mass dumping of books: the charity shops are all closed at the moment, anyway, thanks to the latest lock-down. But, armed with my new understanding, I am taking a more ‘mature’ approach to book buying.

So, here are the new rules coming into play this month.
• Only two (two!) books to be bought each month
• Before those books can be bought, I must have read at least one of the previous month’s books
• For each new book coming into the house, an existing book has to leave

Like a true addict, I can almost feel my hands sweating at the thought of only two books a month. But the rules seem achievable. Then again, I tried routines of controlled use when I was trying to quit my other addiction. Never worked for long.

Growing up can be painful sometimes, can’t it?

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