You know the feeling: that tickling, bubbling exhilaration that starts somewhere right underneath your bellybutton and spreads like a warm current to all limbs. Your cheeks turn slightly red perhaps, or your neck, or your ears, and your eyes get glassy and twinkle in the light. It makes you dizzy, a little out of sorts and slightly disabled because how on earth are you going to help that customer find something “a bit less philosophical; just something light for the beach you know” when you feel downright randy and want nothing other than to stroke the back of that gorgeous, leather bound book with gold-rimmed leaves all day?
Alright, I may have lost you there in that last sentence. When I say “book horny” I don’t mean “horny by the book” as in the definition of horny, nor do I mean the Fifty Shades of Grey soft porn kind of horny – I mean horny for books. Actually, horny by the book might be a better way of putting it, since it is a pun on the literal meaning versus the semantic meaning, and I adore puns nearly as much as I adore books. The Oxford English Dictionary defines horny as “sexually excited; lecherous”, which is precisely what a beautiful-looking novel will do to me. I am horny by the book (i.e. dictionary) and horny by the book (i.e. the one I am pressing passionately to my chest right now). It doesn’t happen every time I’m in a bookshop (which is at least those two afternoons each week when I work in one), but every so often there is a new book in stock which will cause me to whinny or purr with a yearning and a pleasure that is not exactly by-the-book public behaviour.
You know the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover”? Well, that’s exactly what my over-the-top bookish brain does. The cover of books can make me go positively crazy for various reasons. Sometimes the vileness of the illustration makes me want to rip it off, put it in the toilet and flush thoroughly because it’s not worthy of the treasure it guards. Like that horrid cover of The Casual Vacancy by Rowling – it looks like a warning sign in an amusement park. Or the cover for the Norwegian edition of The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Ghastly!
Other times the putrid covers represent perfectly well what’s inside, like those absolutely gruesome novels for fifty plus-women with covers depicting ladies who gaze longingly out in the distance; their cheeks flushed with deep emotion and their surroundings blurry. The mere sight of those makes me feel like I’m fifty and menopausal. There are the covers that are so dull they make me sleepy, and covers that give me the feeling of being reprimanded by a teacher with horn-rimmed glasses upon a pointy nose and an underbite, and if I don’t like the text inside it’s because I’m an imbecile who doesn’t know how to take in the subtleties of such a complex work of art. Susan Sontag’s On Photography and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace are examples of such fear-inspiring books. I haven’t yet dared to do more than read on their backs, and I carefully put them back afterwards and am still trying very hard to ignore the nasty glances they send me every time I walk past their shelves.
But then there are the covers that will turn my entire day around. It may be the gorgeously formatted title, the burgundy leather back or the artful illustration; it could be the fact that it has a lovely silk bookmark sticking out or that the pages are trimmed with gold. If a book is beautifully bound I will nearly always get somewhat affected, although it does help, of course, if I know that those seductive, silkily shining covers hold between them a little piece of the world’s best literature. A dazzling new edition of The Hobbit or the complete works of Jane Austen, for instance, will be more arousing to me because I already have a well-established relationship with their contents.
Sometimes the book’s physical beauty will fool me and its insides will be a disappointment. Kind of like a promising date that turns into an unpleasant one-night stand. Other times I have already been married to the book for years and so it feels safe and natural to be standing in a bookshop with the luxury edition of A Game of Thrones in my arms and slowly slide the book in and out of its slip. I don’t care about the odd glances I get when I stand behind the counter, moaning over The Lord of The Rings Anniversary Edition or drooling over a particularly pretty Poe-collection. I tell myself that customers like my enthusiasm and that their averted eyes and uncertain smiles merely reflect their lack of experience. Because books are sexy.