An article, by William Giraldi, in The New Republic gives a rather good explanation of why certain people love to read and collect books—the physical kind. It often starts at an early age and is a life-long affair of the mind and of the heart. Obsession and inconvenience often mark this kind of life, but it matters little to the lover of books.
Giraldi, an author, writes in “Object Lesson” (April 19, 2015):
Those of us who dwell within mounts of books—a sierra of them in one room, an Everest in another; hulks in the kitchen, heaps in the hallway—can tell you that, in addition to the special bliss of having and holding them, it’s a hefty, crowded, inconvenient life that’s also an affront to the average bank account. (New hardback books are expensive to buy and economically neutered the second you do.) What’s more, your collection is a fatal Niagara if it falls. Every collector knows the probably apocryphal story of the nineteenth-century composer and bibliophile Charles-Valentin Alkan, found dead in an avalanche of his own books, crushed when his shelves upended onto him. Like the sex addict who suffers an aortic catastrophe during coitus, Alkan, at least, died smiling.To say that I identity quite positively and happily with this sentiment is to say the obvious, a thought quickly affirmed and given assent to those who know me. A new book is always a welcome gift. What joy there is to discover a new author? or a work previously unknown? or to wander in the stacks of a library or used bookstore in search of something unexpected? If I had more space and more money, my inclination is to quickly purchase a few more books; but my rational mind says, “Perhaps, this is a foolish gesture.” My wife, who enjoys reading as much as I do, already thinks our two-bedroom apartment contains too many books; perhaps she is right. I confess that even I am not willing to sacrifice space for books. Inconvenience has its limits, as does obsession, despite its beauty and earnest pursuit of knowledge and enjoyment.
Although some see a distinction between the bibliophile and the collector, your Merriam Webster’s nicely insists that “bibliophile” means both one who loves books and one who collects them, which makes supreme sense to me—I can’t conceive of one who loves books but doesn’t collect them, or one who collects books but doesn’t love them. I employ “collector” as Robertson Davies does in his essay “Book Collecting”: not as a quester after books both rare and valuable, but as a gatherer of all books that match his interests. If you have lots of interests, you better have lots of rooms, and mighty floorboards to boot.2
What does it mean when what you own is essential to who you are? In our everyday grasp of owning things, we tag it materialism, consumerism, consumption. But I trust you’ll agree that the possession of books is not identical to the possession of shoes: Someone with a thousand books is someone you want to talk to; someone with a thousand shoes is someone you suspect of belonging to the Kardashian clan. Books are not objects in the same way that shoes are objects. This is what Milton means in his sublime “Areopagitica,” as necessary now as it was in 1644, when he asserted that “books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.” Potency of life, purest efficacy, living intellect: These are the world-enhancing elements you have in any well-made book worth reading.
For many of us, our book collections are, in at least one major way, tantamount to our children—they are manifestations of our identity, embodiments of our selfhood; they are a dynamic interior heftily externalized, a sensibility, a worldview defined and objectified. For readers, what they read is where they’ve been, and their collections are evidence of the trek. For writers, the personal library is the toolbox which contains the day’s necessary implements of construction—there’s no such thing as a skillful writer who is not also a dedicated reader—as well as a towering reminder of the task at hand: to build something worthy of being bound and occupying a space on those shelves, on all shelves. The personal library also heaves in reproach each time you’re tempted to grab the laptop and gypsy from one half-witted Web page to another. If you aren’t suspicious of a writer who isn’t a bibliophile, you should be.3
Even so, I see things in a different way, at least in the abstract and romantic sense: can you have too many books? The answer depends on many factors, which returns to the notions of inconvenience and space. There is also the necessary physical stamina to pack and unpack books, and to place them on shelves in accordance with certain rules: by author, by genre, by period, etc. At least most of mine are neatly shelved; the rest are in boxes in a storage closet, where they will remain until I have more space. A wise accommodation on my part.
Some have suggested that I ought to forgo physical books altogether, that I pursue the electronic route—a convenient and sensible idea. It is true that I, too, own an e-reader, a gift, but I have yet to take it seriously. I understand and can even appreciate what it represents, a nod to efficiency and engineering, but something in me prevents me from using it. (The touch, the smell, the look, among other characteristics, of physical books.) Perhaps my reluctance will cede, over time, when my views on books and what they represent, become less important in my mind’s eye, in my databank of memory. It would be the practical thing to do, I guess.
For more, go to [NewRepub]