BOOK-COLLECTING: A GENTLE MADNESS (2002)

You 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 shelves.

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 too.

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 various light.”

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 spine-first.

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 respectable authors.

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 shelf space!”

You gotta love books. But not like that, folks.

Geoff Olson