Thursday, September 29, 2022

'My Laden Shelves'

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.”


Richard Zuelch said...

I, too, am not interested in first editions. Similarly, I'm not interested in books signed by the author, although I have run across a few in my bookshop wanderings over the years - most recently, a copy of Helen Hayes's memoirs with her autograph in the front.

I'm interested in books that interest me - mainly, biography, history, and theology (with, rarely, a fiction title thrown in, although I have just started reading Daniel Defoe's "Memoirs of a Cavalier" [1720] in preparation for reading Churchill's memoirs of both world wars [he structured his volumes based on that of "Cavalier," a novel he admired]).

Harmon said...

I don't collect first additions, although I do own a first edition (second strike) of Life on the Mississippi. Stumbled into it about 35 years ago, when I was in San Francisco for some reason I don't recall, at Yerba Buena Books. But I do remember buying the book. I got a deal on it because it was in rather poor condition - later, I had it tightened up. It was one of the books that were sold by subscription, and has the formal look of the books of the time. I learned from the proprietor that it was a "second strike" because Twain's wife objected to one of the illustrations showing a bust of Twain going up in fire & smoke, so the second run eliminated that illustration.

But I did not buy this because it was a near-first edition (though that was cool enough) but because it was an historical artifact, and because I'm a minor league Twain buff. Yet it appears to have become valuable.

I do have a number of other first editions, of course, consisting of books I bought new when they were first published, or used and just happened to be the first and perhaps only printing.

So I guess it turns out that I do collect first editions, accidentally...

Thomas Parker said...

I am someone who loves books and reading, but who dislikes having someone come up to me and ask, "What are you reading?" I don't know what that makes me - a jerk, maybe!

Richard Zuelch said...

Harmon - you'll find some of Twain's very best writing in "Life on the Mississippi," especially his descriptions of the river itself early on and his descriptions of learning to navigate it. It's a fascinating book, easily his best, by my lights.