As soon as I’d completed the order on Amazon I said to myself, “Don’t tell Molly.” I hadn’t bought anything that questionable. All I’d done was buy a book that was more expensive than usual: The Complete Works of Primo Levi. This was less than a week after I’d purchased multiple books on World War Two.
Later that day, as I took a stroll in the sunshine, I began to wonder, “Why did I react that way? Am I embarrassed about spending money on books? Do I feel like it’s indulgent or stupid?”
As books go, it’s not the most expensive I’ve ever bought. Years ago, I bought a book called Supertraining by Mel Siff. That was eighty-odd pounds. And quite recently I bought William Manchester’s The Last Lion trilogy. That set was almost ninety pounds. Both were worth it.
So no, I don’t think buying books is indulgent or stupid. I don’t allow myself many extravagances. I don’t drink or smoke or do drugs. I don’t really buy clothes, and if I do, I do so begrudgingly. But I permit myself to spend whatever is necessary on books. In fact, I suspect my library is the most valuable thing I own.
But I’m not going to sit here and argue about the value and ROI of a book. Other people have done that and I think it’s self-evident that a book is one of the best investments you can make. Instead, I want to see where this train of thought is heading.
Primo Levi was a chemist, writer and Holocaust survivor. And by purchasing his Complete Works I have gained access to his innermost thoughts, to the very centre of his mind and soul. You may think that is an over-exaggeration, but I assure you, it is not. I myself can say things with the written word that I could never, or would never, have elucidated in conversation. And I’ve had a relatively comfortable and lucky life. I cannot imagine the weight of what a man like Levi saw and felt unable to express. His experiences must have been a terrible burden, a burden that he was only offered respite from when he was exorcising them with his pen.
How much is that privilege, that honour worth? How much would I pay to have access to a person’s deepest and profoundest reflections? Sixty pounds is a bargain, right? But where’s the line? Would I pay six hundred to know what someone like Levi saw thought and experienced? How about six thousand? What about six hundred thousand? Would I, if I had the means, be comfortable paying millions to see the most intimate and intimidating parts of such a man’s mind?