When conversation turns to books, especially with people who are not themselves staunch readers, precise definitions are essential:
“I am not a bibliophile in the true sense, that is to say someone who finds excitement in a misprint on page 278 which proves that the book, which he might or might not ever read, is a true first edition. Nor am I a bibliomaniac in the true sense, the kind of person who will eventually be found lying dead under a pile of books that he has incontinently or indiscriminately collected because of some psychological compulsion to accumulate.”
Fetishism of any sort has never appealed to me. The books of a bibliophile as defined above by Anthony Daniels (aka Theodore Dalrymple) constitute less a library than a museum. Several of the most enthusiastic book accumulators I’ve known have not been readers. When my friend Bill Healy named his bookstore Bibliomania in 1981, that was marketing not linguistic exactitude. Most of the dedicated non-academic readers I’ve known have been pleasant, interesting, emotionally inoffensive folk, not lust-driven obsessives.
I’ve occasionally posted on Anecdotal Evidence photographs of my bookshelves. They were intended to illustrate my devotion to the subject of a given post – say, Chekhov or Joseph Epstein. I wasn’t gloating over my vast holdings. I’m not a freak about first editions, a condition I find amusing, especially when the owner has no intention of reading the books. The last time I bought a volume for “investment” purposes – that is, not to read but to quickly resell at a profit -- was almost thirty years ago, and at the time I could barely pay the rent.
A blogger previously unknown to me has asked if I would take photographs of all my books so he could add them to a “visual essay” he plans to devote to “private libraries.” That last phrase is pretentious and a little embarrassing. Having a lot of books handy is not the same as running a library. I’m happy to loan or give books to appropriately appreciative readers, but any similarity ends there. I see little difference between showing off my books and another guy who flaunts his collection of Armani jackets. Daniels’ attitude sounds happy and healthy:
“For the moment, however, I derive a certain comfort from looking over, and being surrounded by, my laden shelves. They are my refuge from a world that I have found difficult to negotiate; if it had not been for the necessity of earning my living in a more practical way, I could easily, and perhaps happily, have turned into a complete bookworm, or one of those creatures like the silverfish and the small, fragile, scaly moths that spend their entire lives among obscure and seldom disturbed volumes. I would have not read to live, but lived to read.”