Until 1993 I enjoyed an addiction-free life. I had, after all, survived 20-plus years of school and 30 more of work, marriage, and motherhood without the aid of recreational chemicals. Satan was safely behind me, right? Wrong! This false sense of security caused me to drop my guard, and now I have a larger-than-life monkey on my back.

Books are my drug of choice. I gotta have ’em. Unfortunately, no labels forewarn of the way they multiply. No TV commercials explain the possible side effects or risks to hearth and home. And temptation beckons to me no matter where I go.

Consider, for instance, the allure of Barnes & Noble: no-hassle browsing, comfortable reading chairs, a cappuccino bar, and an aura of quiet reverence that is the envy of librarians everywhere. Such seductive ploys make it easy to descend from innocent pleasure into wild-eyed obsession. This happens in stages.

In the first stage, the addict-to-be views book buying as an occasional gift to herself—for a birthday, perhaps, or as a pick-me-up during times of stress. I was at this stage 25 years ago when I moved to Savannah and discovered E. Shaver, Bookseller (left), where I had gone in search of self-motivation. In a quiet 19th-century room with rippled window glass, creaking floors, and the smell of old paper, I browsed for a pleasant half-hour and finally bought two books, neither of which had anything to do with self-motivation. Soon afterward, the Paperback Book Club found me, and B. Dalton opened in the mall. In those days, my book-buying was the equivalent of light social drinking—a glass of wine now and then with friends.

In the second stage, an addict spends more and more time hanging out in bookstores and begins stockpiling books for future reading. My troubles began in earnest when Regina’s Bookstore opened on my route to and from work. Regina greeted me as a friend, quickly learned my literary preferences, and encouraged me to forage undisturbed for as long as I pleased. Often an hour spent sitting cross-legged on the floor at Regina’s expanded into two.

But such pleasures began to present a problem—lack of available shelf space at home. The solution? More shelves—at the top of the stairs, above the bedroom closet doors, in both bathrooms—and more and more until we ran out of walls. I brought home six-packs of books, loading up table tops and cramming volumes sideways into shelf crannies, grateful when a friend agreed to borrow one. “Take two,” I would say. “Take three.”

In the meantime Regina’s Bookstore changed hands, sporting a new look and a larger inventory. I stopped by at least once a week—merely, you understand, to show my specific support for the new owner, Robin Gunn, and generally for all independent book sellers. Each time I left with my canvas tote full to the brim. My habit was now the equivalent of several stiff drinks a day, starting with Bloody Marys at noon.

In the third stage of this addiction, the need for books leeches into other parts of the addict’s life, influencing her behavior in strange ways. Secrecy becomes commonplace. One day my husband commented on my burgeoning collection, happy, I think, not to be the only packrat in the family. The very next day I began squirreling away my purchases, hiding them in seldom used suitcases and storing them in boxes in the trunk of my car.

Yet I continued to study the New York Times Book Review, highlighting appealing titles and savoring the commentaries. I also subscribed to Bookmarks Magazine, a mecca for avid readers. In a computer file I maintained an updated list—of books recommended by friends, of authors whose work sounded intriguing, and of old favorites I wanted to reread. Compulsively, I alphabetized, classified, and rearranged my bookshelves, devising categories such as “signed books,” “new fiction,” “keepers,” etc. Too often, however, these overlapped, causing me to begin anew.

In the final stage of any addiction, the afflicted either succumbs completely or summons the inner fortitude to break away. Unhappily for me, no trans-dermal patch exists, no twelve-step program, no alternative drug. Though I flirt with the idea of stopping cold turkey, I panic at the thought of not having my fix of at least ten books waiting to be read.

So what am I to do? I can’t bring myself to “throw ’em out” as my cleaning lady suggests. Used book buyers don’t want them—all highlighted and annotated and underlined. The public library won’t have them. I can’t give them to my friends, most of whom are stage-three bookaholics themselves.

Perhaps it’s time to buy myself a Kindle or a Nook or Sony Reader. Any one of the three would solve the shelf problem. But electronic readers just don’t smell or feel like books to me. More importantly, I know first-hand that an author, who only earns what’s left over once the agent, the publisher, and the bookstore have taken their cuts, pockets even less once her book is digitized.

I have no illusions. Once an addict, always an addict, so taking it one day at a time may be my only option. Come Monday I vow to find a new route home, and if I catch myself detouring toward Books-a-Million, I resolve to pull directly to the curb, pick up my cell phone, and call the bookaholic hot line: 1-800-LIBRARY.

In the meantime, it’s 11 p.m. on Sunday night, and Amazon.com is just a click away.

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  • Carol Arrington April 22, 2011 at 11:09 am

    Great article – there are others out there……

  • Rainicorn April 10, 2011 at 5:43 pm

    I’ve given up on the idea of ever having enough shelves. The last 30 or 40 books I’ve bought are stacked in piles on the floor around my bed and desk. DVDs are stacking up too, although my DVD problem isn’t a quarter as bad as my book problem 😀

  • Donna Hoff April 9, 2011 at 11:12 am

    Ah Susan B. Johnson – my twin! I didn’t know there were still any book addicts left in the world!!! At least to our extent. I can never remember a time when I wasn’t either being read to or reading. And as I grew into adulthood having piles and piles of books surrounding me was the equivalent of having dear friends and loved ones near – no matter where I lived! I live in a small Victorian house and the walls that I haven’t managed to have built-in bookcases built, are filled with standalone bookcases – and I’ve still run out of room! One half of my couch is filled with books I’m in the process of reading – all different subjects, just depending on my mood which one I grab. Last summer my niece talked me into buying a Kindle and while I understand the convenience and space saving features of e-readers, nothing can compare to the feel and the smell and well, the downright tactile sense of holding a book in your hands and turning the pages (not to mention not seeing how many pages I have left to read when I read on my Kindle is quite disconcerting). But Susan take heart – Kindles are WONDERFUL for traveling! I no longer have to lug 4 or 5 books with me “just in case”. You’ll love traveling with your Kindle. And Amazon.com? We’re on first name basis and I just ordered a photography book this morning. Book addiction – incurable. And isn’t that great!?

  • Robin Wheeler April 7, 2011 at 7:08 pm

    Long Live Shavers, Robin Gunn, Regina’s and Hanna Banana Books!

    I’ve always found the trunk of my Volvo God’s own personal gift to me as a place to stash a bag (or four) of books until I could somehow work them into the room decor……