The Book That Didn’t Exist
I breath slower in libraries. I carefully take in air through my nose and inhale the earthy perfume of the books which I hold deep within my lungs exhaling only when necessary. I was maybe fifteen when I realized this. I was lost in the stacks at the University of Calgary during a cold, gray and slushy day. I remember winter days like those well. I would spend them on the train listening to music or wandering through the Devonian Gardens which were housed in a mall in downtown Calgary. If in the gardens, I was with friends and we were likely drinking cheap beer and raising hell. But on quieter days I could be found in one of the cities libraries seeking out various histories, facts or revolutionary theories. This day that I am recalling, in particular, I was on the search for Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. I frequented this particular library at the university because I had learned that if I unplugged the photocopier and plugged it back in a minute later I could get as many free copies as I liked.
After a year of having this insider knowledge, I had amassed a large library of xeroxed books. Among this treasure trove of stolen literature was my first copy of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a couple of shoe boxes housed Proust’s seven volume’s of In Search of Lost Time (which I believe I have still never read a word of), Marx’s three-volume Capital: Critique of Political Economy, Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread, several books by Borges, a stack of biographies ranging from Darwin to Charlie Chaplain, and of course I would soon have my first copy of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. The books I collected at this time were stored lazily in folders, small boxes, binders, and even in plastic grocery bags. More often than not the pages were loose so that they would never maintain their order. Many of them like Proust’s epic would remain unread, but it still always gave me comfort to know that I had them. Those that I did read had tremendously changed my life. The fiction and poetry inspired me to live my life to its fullest and the philosophical texts reinforced my sinking suspicions of the bourgeoisie and wealthy elite. One such book was The Society of the Spectacle. But this book isn’t the most important book for me during this time, there was another book and I found it perhaps a week after or a week before I copied the entirety of Debord’s small volume. Somehow the memory of these two books is attached? The only thing is, I can’t clearly remember the other book. I can’t remember its author nor its name.
I remember laboriously copying the book with the old hacked machine I had been abusing for months. I recall the dark library and the bright light that always seems to creep out from beneath the lid of the photocopier as each page is duplicated. I remember the smell of the ink and the warmth of the pages as they came spitting up out from the innards of the machine. I even remember a pretty girl with a long black coat, a white scarf and delicate looking hands scouring over the books in the stacks behind me. I can remember all of this, but I can’t recall what book it was that I was stealing. Was it fiction or non-fiction? Poetry or prose? Biography or philosophy? I am not sure. What I am sure of is that shortly after reading it, my life would change forever.
When I was fifteen, during the winter I spent more time at the mall drinking poorly made coffee than I did at school or in class. During these visits to the mall, I would flirt with girls, steal tapes from the music store or jeans from the department store, or sit by the coffee shop in the middle of the food court and read to the cacophony of shoppers and their seemingly feral children. I faintly recall the day I read the book. I know I read some of it on the long blue city bus and some of it on a bench at the mall. I might have finished it sometime the same night as I remember waking up in a sea of xeroxed papers the next morning.
Sometimes I wonder if this is a false memory, like when I was seven and I had tried to convince myself that my closet was indeed a cave and that I was certain J.R.R. Tolkien was living in it. A memory I would hang onto until my early teens. Or maybe it was like the memory I have of my neighbors and I riding our bikes along the ridge on a summer night and our witnessing a spacecraft of some sort land right there in front of our tiny noses? But there was something less fictional and dreamlike about this book. Maybe it is a blocked memory? Or maybe it has simply faded to time? I truly wish I could remember what this book was and who wrote it, but I can’t. The memory is just this: One day I read a book and that book changed my life.
Whenever I think about the book that didn’t exist, I think of what book it might have been. Since then I have read thousands of books. Anyone of them could have been the book that didn’t exist, or it is yet to have been read again. It might have once sat on my bookshelf staring me straight in the eye, or maybe I walked past it in one of the used bookshops I used to frequent. What brings me back to this phantom-like memory is that I have lived now, for three years without many books surrounding me. I sold most of my library before moving to Mexico and the rest of it remains in that large liminal country between here and Canada. What books I do have, I cherish. They are little treasures. Or maybe more appropriately they are treasure maps for every good book will lead you to another one. Except for the book that doesn’t exist. The book that doesn’t exist was either a dead end or it lead me to every other book I have ever found. Either way, it was an important book. Like a slow deliberate breath that I hold onto because I know that breath is my own. The book that doesn’t exist is important to me because it is my own. It is as if it was written for me.
When I think of what that book might have been I think maybe it was something by Robert Walser, or perhaps Walter Benjamin, or maybe it was my first exposure to Leonora Carrington? Whoever it was or whatever the title, the book that didn’t exist was my sole inspiration for cultivating a life of creativity and deep contemplation. It represents a fictionalized theological body such as Christ or Buddha, or a strictly censored Mohammad. I have faith the book that didn’t exist did, in fact, exist at some point, but I have no proof. This book, if it was a false memory, represents all of the books I have read. The books that I have consumed and in turn have consumed me. For every book is the Eucharist in some way or another. If we do not eat our gods, they are not worthy of our bodies.
I’ve never been one to fetishize the artist, writer or critic. I am not one to latch the identity of another onto mine for some sort of social benefit or as a practice in polishing my identity for the other. I refuse to define myself through others for others. I guess what I am really trying to say is that I am not an idolatrous person. I have no gods and I worship no one. I once wrote a long poem that started like this:
I asked myself:
“what is the difference
between adultery and
“Nothing,” I said,
“you either want to
be a celebrity or
I am somewhere in-between this claim, I suppose, edging on the idea of manual stimulation more than wanting to be a celebrity. Either way, I often feel that am playing a cuckolds toy. In a society obsessed with celebrity it is difficult to escape. As I read I feel sometimes like someone is watching me do something naughty to someone special to them. I sometimes feel like the author is shaping my body and putting me into positions for the enjoyment of a small hidden audience; however, and more often, I see something of myself in an author, or I see something of them in myself. I study them cautiously. I position them in whatever way I like. They are the cuckold. I take what I need from them creating a sort of lively collage in which I often forget what piece or aspect came from whom. I should be honest when I tell you that most of the people I read are dead. When I read them I jump into their skin and shuffle around for a moment. Like a marauder, I plunder their wisdom and upon exiting their corpus I leave their skin worn and frail. So maybe I am committing naughty acts here? No, not in the name of idolatry, I refuse such derision.
Some of this is the reason I likely can’t remember who wrote that book that changed my life. Whoever wrote it and whatever it was about it is no longer apart from me, it is a part of me. I have digested it, and at some points, all of the books I’ve read have woven together to create some sort of continuous fabric of reality for me. We are what we read. In the infinite nature of my own being, the book that doesn’t exist continuing to be written. Perhaps someday it will find itself in a citation or reference or will be subconsciously nestled in some way into my own life’s work.
Looking back at my time in that dark library with the machine, it was as much about theft as it was ritual. The reproductive aspect was at once a sexual flight of fantasy as it was a religious defiance of the publishing companies who I felt imprisoned the works of these writers through their greed and shifty economic models. I was devaluing the books in their reproduction via photocopying, not only aesthetically, but devaluing them as commodity. I was stealing them but also liberating them, and this is what the book that didn’t exist taught me. If it really didn’t exist, it couldn’t have taught me the benefit of stealing it. The book that didn’t exist only existed because of my stealing it. I brought it to life. It was a dormant potential, but I slowly breathed life into its dusty old pages. I gave it a new body, and then I gave it my own.