BOOK-COLLECTING: A GENTLE MADNESS (2002)
can always take moderation to extremes. For a time, that
was the justification for my book-collecting habit, which
was a bit on the enthusiastic side.
Besides, book-collecting is a victimless crime.
Constructing tilting towers of tomes around the home is
hardly the stuff of major-league addictions. Bring ’em on,
I thought: the hardcover heavyweights, the trade
paperbacks, and even the smaller dog-eared paperbacks,
their glued spines brittle with age. All of cheek-to-jowl
in groaning shelves. You can never have too many books.
Well, actually you CAN have too many books. Every two years
or so I’d have to go out and get another bookshelf. Some
twenty years of apartment living...well, you do the math.
My square footage was butting up against my bibliomania,
big time. Something had to give, and it looked like the
A friend once told me of an acquaintance of hers, a
bachelor-to-the-bone with a novel approach to his reading
habit. Never one to cook meals, he used his oven as a book
shelf. Definitely eccentric behaviour, and probably risky
So it was me or the books (Besides, I need my oven
occasionally). So I learned to set some of my books free.
Even ones I haven’t read.
The mere fact I owned books I haven’t yet read always
seemed to be a source of puzzlement to visitors. It would
have only confused them further to cite the response of
Anatole France to a visitor who admired his library, and
asked the question every book-collector has heard: “Have
you read all these books?” Replied France: “I haven’t read
one-tenth of them, I don’t suppose you use your Sevres
china every day?” (Apparently this was a real thigh-slapper
a century ago.)
But you gotta cull, if only to convince yourself you’re
still sane, and that your collecting habit isn't shading
into the clinical. You want to know you’re sound of mind
and bookshelf, and of no relation to putty-coloured
lepidopterists and mole-like stamp-collectors.
Me, I don’t think I have a problem at all. Not when I heard
of the guy with the book-oven, or the following account,
from a recent article in Utne magazine. Bill Holm, a
Minnesota poet with a home buried in books, gets
progressively more excited describing his passion:
“ I love books also as they might be loved by an illiterate
sensualist. I love the bite of lead type on heavy rag
paper, the sexy swirls of marbled endpapers, the gleam and
velvety smoothness of Morocco calf, the delicate India
paper covering the heavy etching of the frontispiece, the
faint perfume of mildew in old English editions, the ghost
of smells of ink and glue in bindings. I feel my books. I
run my hands over them as over skin or fur. I stroke them
and sniff them and admire them from various angles in
Is it just me, or can you picture a librarian/dominatrix
spanking this mad mid-westerner with a leather-bound
edition of the Marquis de Sade’s memoirs?
in his essay Unpacking My Books, the philosopher Walter
Benjamin wrote: “You have all heard of the people whom the
loss of their books has turned into invalids, or of those
who in order to acquire them became criminals.” Not
personally, to tell the truth. And I don’t even want to
think of the offenses being committed in Minnesota.
For the “real collector,” Benjamin wrote, “ownership is the
most intimate relationship that one can have to objects;
not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in
them.” That was fine in Benjamin’s pre-war era, but in our
time of infoglut, with a pandemic of mass media, a house or
apartment stuffed to the rafters with cheap books and
magazines can feel like a bad rash.
So through a combination of buying and selling, my book
count has held steady at a few thousand. I always find it
in me to choose the weakest titles from the herd, and cart
them off to the used bookstore. And I’ve been doing a lot
more of that lately, as I’m about to move again.
This brings us the topic of booksellers. They’re usually
manic book-collectors themselves, or at least they start
off that way. At a used bookstore near where I live, the
proprietor (who I shall call Angus) has ramped up his
collecting habit from the clinical to the commitable. Which
is great news for me, because Angus will accept damn near
anything for cash or trade value: antediluvian textbooks,
back issues of Creem magazine, Tony Robbins personal power
cassettes, eight track tapes of Molley Hatchet, whatever.
This man will take them all. If there is some pop-culture
effluvia Angus refuses to take, science has yet to discover
it. (I’ll bet dollars to von Danikens he’d even take old
Bazooka Joe gum-wrapper comic strips.)
Needless to say, Angus is my main man when I have a box of
books and magazines to unload.
In his midden of a bookstore, Angus can usually be found at
the bottom of a book-canyon of his own making, tapping away
at an ancient, cream-coloured 486. All around him volumes
are stacked in a huge mesa, their cliffsides tilting inward
several feet above his head. It really does look quite
perilous — you can picture him pausing from his on-line
bookselling to idly pulling a book from somewhere in the
strata, and burying himself in the landslide.
The rest of the store is a ruin of still-boxed books, with
some shelves where the titles are actually displayed
But one man’s crazy is another man’s flair for
collectibles. Angus isn’t out to lunch in this respect at
all. If you’re a bookseller with the space, it seems a good
idea to take on virtually anything, on the off-chance some
of it may inflate in value in a spectacularly inexplicable
fashion. Ephemera like TV Guides from the sixties fetch
huge prices on e-bay and elsewhere-- precisely because they
are now so rare.
Yet books remain the obsession of choice for collectors,
sometimes for less than literary reasons. Angus told me
once of a customer who placed an order for some hardcover
books. He wanted the canonical heavyweights: Shakespeare,
Orwell, Austen, all the usual suspects. The actual titles
didn’t matter, as long as they were from academically
Angus discreetly inquired as to the nature of the library
the caller was building. As it turns out, the fellow had
just bought himself a pricey condo with a terrific view,
and he thought the scenery would be set off nicely by some
high-power spines on the shelves. The books were for
displaying his sensitivity and learning on dates. They were
devices for getting laid, in fact.
Wow. Who says book-collectors are all nerds without an
agenda? But if you can’t score through your books, there’s
always the books themselves. Writes the possibly unhinged
midwesterner in Utne Reader:
“I will go home to Minnesota and light a candle and every
night I will kiss a book. Tomorrow Leaves of Grass, and
after that The Iliad and after that The Well-Tempered
Clavier and after that some random shelfless book from the
top of a dusty pile that's lonesome for the living breath
of a human being. More shelf space, says the Universe, more
You gotta love books. But not like that, folks.