Yearning for Books During a Time of Famine

There is a new expression going around these days, "hunger for books." I can say, "I'm starving for a good book," and everyone understands what I mean.

Hungry people are like rats. They walk into the library and begin gnawing at the rock-hard volumes. If, of course, it is books they are starving for. If they need sausage, it is a simpler matter. A hunk of sausage in the stomach will calm them down. Sated, they can go to sleep.

But if you are tormented by a hunger for books, it is much harder to get full. The process of satisfying that hunger is completely different. To be honest, it never really takes place at all.

Consuming books one after another -- did you notice the expression, "consuming," not "reading"? That is what my grandmother used to say to me when she caught me racing through books like someone who cannot possibly get his fill. Consuming books one after another becomes an endless process. One book draws another after it -- either you become interested in the author, or you like the genre, or you just want to fill some gap in your knowledge.

One library isn't enough for you and you move on to the next. One language isn't enough for you and you begin to study another in order to consume and consume the emotions, passions, misfortunes and loves of other people. You no longer have any loves or misfortunes of your own -- they are too hard to bear; they might kill you. Reading books, though, won't kill you.

On a Sunday afternoon, my best friend takes a book and goes out to sit on the embankment of the Main River. From time to time he tears his eyes away from the page and looks around -- at the cathedral, the clouds, an airplane flying overhead. His room is bare and spartan; he has a narrow, soldier's cot. He is a reader; he consumes books. Or, maybe it is closer to the truth to say that books have consumed him. With other people's sensations, he has isolated himself from his own. The graceful, delicate world of Alan Hollinghurst, a rising star of English literature, is more real to him than the one in which he lives. And more safe and more peaceful.

The hunger for sausage can be satisfied, but the hunger for books cannot. It is an eternal process. I can identify people who are starving for books right away. Their pupils are a little constricted; their delicate hands tend to tremble. I've seen them standing by stacks of books in San Francisco, in the Latin Quarter of Paris or here, in a dusty used bookstore on Kuznetsky Most.

They fall into a trance at the mere sight of books. You can use books like the magic pipe in Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale to captivate them and lead them away. They are helpless ... and sad. And they know themselves that they are helpless and sad.

And then there is love, of course. I have a rendezvous with a book. Carefully balanced on the arm of my chair. Brand new, pure. That is why my hands are trembling. That is passion. A heightened sensitivity in the extremities, weakness, nausea -- the early signs of love.

I am starving for books. I want to read, but there is nothing. I am studying a language in order to read other books, but for now there is nothing. There is a famine on the land. We have sausage. We have cakes decorated with pretty confectionery roses. But there is nothing for me to read.

My best friend, wrapped in a warm scarf, is reading Hollinghurst on the banks of the Main. He is rereading the book and he is loving it. And every once in awhile the sun peaks through the clouds, as if bringing greetings from some like-minded English youth or -- just maybe -- from Hollinghurst himself. His hands quiver and his pupils contract just a bit more. The wind lists through the pages. My friend is hungry. He has the hunger.

I walk into a store. "Could I buy some bread, please?"

"Yes, sir. How many would you like? One bottle or two? Red or black?"

"Do you really sell bread in bottles?"

"How else? Just take a look at how nice our bread is!" and the clerk points to a shelf with rows of bottles of ink standing straight and even like soldiers at attention.

"Yes, that really is beautiful bread," Gelsomino agreed, pointing to a bottle of red ink.

"Oh, excellent, you've chosen the best green bread that we have ever had here."

Of course, Gionni Rodari knew all about books. He was hungry too when he wrote "Gelsomino in the Land of the Liars." He was in love.

I go into a bookstore. "Could I buy a book, please?"

"Of course, we have the very best -- with remote controls!"

A second salesperson chimes in: "These volumes are more interesting and cheaper." She shows me a Sony. "Remote control and a CD player."

"And if you are hungry," says a third, "we have excellent Danish sausage." His eyes are reassuring and understanding. He is a secret dissident, a booklover. They will come soon and take him away.

Cakes and sausages all mixed up with new cars and computers. In the poetry department, you can order all sorts of kitchen appliances from a catalogue. You can leaf through the instruction manuals. Sit back in your armchair and relax. When someone is hungry, even a little portion helps.

"Books," the sign on the door says. But we must learn to read correctly, or -- rather -- incorrectly. The shopkeeper scolds the confused Gelsomino: "We don't take real money here, only counterfeit! Watch out or they will put you in jail!"

But Russians aren't confused. They are playing by the new rules. "I am an honest man," says an entrepreneur, and we know what he means. "Deposit your money in our bank," says an advertisement. "No, in ours!" screams another. "Fly the planes of Aeroflot!" And we understand it all. And we say "yes" to everything.

There is a famine on the land. Hungry people are staring at their television sets, which show all the things that are for sale in our book stores. Sausages, sausages, sausages. "A sausage in every pot!" I hear them say at the political rallies. I agree. A sausage. For more than a week now there has been a banner hanging on my street that says, "Economics must be economical!"

"But how about a book?" I whisper. My hands long ago stopped shaking. I am calm.

My best friend is reading a new novel on the banks of the Main. Maybe when he is finished he will send it to me. Humanitarian aid. For the starving. Soon it will be winter. Maybe he will send it as a Christmas present. And later I will give it to someone else. If he writes a note in it, other people will see it -- but what can you do when there is a famine? My hands have begun to tremble again.

Alexander Shatalov is a poet, journalist and editor-in-chief of the publishing house Glagol. He contributed this article to The Moscow Times.