When my daughter visited Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, our third president and author of the Declaration of Independence, she brought me back a souvenir — a t-shirt with a quote from Jefferson that said, “I cannot live without books.”
If Jefferson lived in 21st-Century America, I’d be wearing a t-shirt that said, “I cannot live without Netflix.” Or “I cannot live without sex.” Or “I cannot live without a 5 percent match on my 401(K).” Or “I cannot live without my Starbucks matcha latte!”
He was a reserved fellow by today’s standards even though some things that occurred behind closed doors at Monticello were scandalous by colonial standards. He loved books, but he wasn’t crazy about newspapers and once said: “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” What, I wonder, would he say about CNN and Fox News?
I have to confess that my wife violated my First Amendment right to freedom of expression, as guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. She won’t let me wear the t-shirt around the house because books are the bane of my family’s existence. We have books everywhere. There are books in bins on nightstands that are stacked so high they’re a household hazard and could come tumbling down like an avalanche in the Alps and crush us while we sleep.
There are books in the basement, the garage, the barn, the trunk of my car. There are thousands of books I’ll never read even if I live to be as old as Abraham at 175 or Noah at 950.
With the projected life expectancy in America at 78.6, I have a problem.
Once upon a time, all the rooms in our home had bookcases, until my four daughters insisted I take them out of their bedrooms so they could hang posters of Britney Spears on the walls. If I had an estate like Jefferson, I could have had a monumental library with leftover room for Britney. Nevertheless, my daughters love to read, even though our tastes differ slightly, which means I haven’t gotten around yet to buying a copy of their recommended reading, Crazy Rich Asians.
I probably suffer from a condition Gustave Flaubert described as “Bibliomania” in his novella about an insane monk who was the librarian in a Spanish monastery … until he left to become a rare book dealer in Barcelona. His obsession with books led him to become a serial killer. I bet my family is worried I’ll go off the deep end, too.
After years of book buying, I have some regrets. Books are generally a poor investment with no resale value, which makes me think I should have put my money in something lucrative like Florida real estate or pork bellies. On the other hand, you can’t keep your pork bellies or real estate on your night stand.
Don’t tell me the solution is digital books. I already have thousands of them on my Kindle, from Dickens to Dostoevsky, but I’d rather hold a tattered copy of Great Expectations in my hands than an iPad.
The other day, I visited Whitlock’s Book Barn in Bethany, where I’ve been spending my allowance since I was 15, not to mention my retirement savings. Suddenly, I had a religious experience. I realized I was in paradise surrounded by first editions of Robert Frost and Virginia Woolf, the speeches of Winston Churchill, and a limited edition of Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds. Jefferson was right. I cannot live without books, even though the dust makes me sneeze.
Give me more! Jefferson and I are kindred spirits. I agree with him when he said: “I’d rather be shut up in a very modest cottage with my books, my family and a few old friends, dining on simple bacon, and letting the world roll on as it liked, than to occupy the most splendid post, which any human power can give.” That’s so true. I don’t want a job in the Trump administration … or the Chelsea Clinton administration. Give me more books and bacon! Crispy bacon, please. Maybe I’ll even wear a t-shirt that says, “I cannot live without bacon!”
Joe Pisani can be reached at [email protected].