Friday, March 04, 2016

`But It Brought Us This Far'

Years ago I was introduced to a young man described by a mutual acquaintance as “a real bookaholic.” I was told he was unusually wealthy for someone so young, and that he chose to spend his money not on automobiles (he couldn’t drive) or golf clubs (he had no interest in sports) but on books. “You have a lot in common with this guy,” our mutual acquaintance said (except the money part, I added, silently). The bookman with deep pockets was a pleasant fellow, well-mannered, well-spoken, pleasingly diffident, without the brash showmanship one associates with wealth.

I asked what he was reading and he appeared mildly puzzled by the question. Nothing, it seemed. I asked about his familiarity with some of the books I was reading at the time. Specifically, I mentioned Eugenio Montale. Yes, he knew of the great Italian poet and owned a number of his books, but they were put away in a storage unit. I asked if he had ever read Italo Svevo, the novelist much championed by Montale. Again, he had a copy of Zeno’s Conscience (this was before William Weaver translated it as Confessions of Zeno) but had not read it and kept it in storage. I soon figured out that this wealthy young man owned many books, thousands of them, far more than I did, but had not read most of them and kept them in a climate-controlled facility some thirty miles from his home. Now it was my turn to be puzzled. Normally, when someone buys bulk lots of good books and doesn’t read them, the motive is interior decoration. They hope to impress visitors to their home and appear “cultured,” to show off their good taste and their wallet. This guy kept his books “off-site,” as they say, as though they contained toxic materials. I wondered if he ever visited his books, checked on their welfare, like a guilt-ridden non-custodial father.

I remembered the wealthy young man on Wednesday when the “OED Online Word of the Day” arrived in my email: “bookaholic.” It’s a tacky coinage I’ve never used, in the same class as “workaholic” and “chocaholic.” The first citation dates from 1965 and is taken from a book by Lewis Meyer, The Customer is Always (“The warm and funny truth about life in a retail store”): “Just as an alcoholic somehow gets the money to buy his booze, so does a bookaholic somehow get the money to buy his books.” A brief internet search uncovered the Bookaholic Bookstore in Wichita and a site called Bookaholics Anonymous. Most interesting was the OED’s definition of “bookaholic”:  “A habitual and prolific reader; a compulsive book buyer.” The two phrases seem to describe different species, but they suggest an interesting distinction not only among book consumers but among human beings generally.

I’m in the first category, I suppose – not a collector but a reader. Books are to me as a miter saw and planer are to a cabinetmaker. I’m indifferent to their market value and feel no compulsion to show them off (the likelihood of someone being impressed is nugatory). The wealthy young man belongs to a sub-category of the second group. He certainly is compelled to acquire a lot of books but he does the opposite of showing them off. As a features writer for newspapers I often interviewed collectors (of sand, of wood, of the money issued by leper colonies), and I understand that some of them are people of unusual tastes and motivations. I don’t claim to understand the man who houses his personal library in a storage unit, but I’m grateful that at least he doesn’t collect beer cans or Pez dispensers. Somebody, someday, will read his books.

In his introduction to Latest Readings (Yale University Press, 2015), Clive James writes of the writers who haunt his book, including Dr. Johnson and Hemingway, and says of them:

“Piled up, the books they wrote are not a necropolis. They are an arcadian pavilion with an infinite set of glittering, mirrored doorways to the unknown: which seems dark to us only because we will not be in it. We won’t be taking our knowledge any further, but it brought us this far.”

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