The Reluctant Bibliophile
Joseph Epstein, bibliomaniac
May 5, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 32 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
I'm pleased to report that I’ve just returned from the Evanston Public Library saleroom empty-handed. The saleroom is off the main lobby and contains used books, donated to the library, which sell for a mere 50 cents. Not all the books in the saleroom are serious—junky novels predominate—but a fair number of superior books show up. The library is less than a block from my apartment. When passing it, I find it difficult not to step inside to check the saleroom for a book I don’t need but nevertheless buy.
The reason I say I’m pleased to have returned empty-handed is that I already have enough unread books around my apartment, as the English say, to see me out. Old habits, though, die hard; and my habit of acquiring books doesn’t seem to die at all. How can I not check the sale-room? I mean, 50 cents, for heaven’s sake, and for some genuinely splendid books!
Before I mention some of them, I ought to make clear that it feels slightly odd, not to say antiquated, to be buying books nowadays. Collecting books in the age of the Kindle, the iPad, and the smartphone—I have a friend who read War and Peace on his smartphone—begins to feel a little like collecting buggy whips or anvils.
I love books, their feel, smell, design, but I do not require a large personal library. Twice, in fact, I have broken up my library, lest it take over the apartment. I told myself that for every new book I brought home I would get rid of one already in my possession. I haven’t quite lived up to this rule. I do, though, continue to eliminate books that I’ve read and am fairly certain I shall not need to read, or even consult, again. I don’t believe a book has any special value because I happen to have read it. I’m not, that is to say, in the least sentimental about books.
My rough guess is that I currently own 700 books. Among serious bibliophiles this is small beer. (When my friend Edward Shils died in 1995, he left a library in his Chicago apartment of 15,000 books, and had another 6,000 in his small house in Cambridge in England.) I’ve kept 90 or so volumes from the Library of America, the books of my favorite writers (Gibbon, Tolstoy, Henry James, Proust, George Santayana, Max Beerbohm, Thomas Mann, and Hugh Trevor-Roper), and books on subjects in which I have a continuing interest (Greek history and philosophy, French literature, modern poetry up to 1960 or so), and the books of friends. Enough here, one would think, to keep a fellow busy.
Why, then, does a small marimba band begin playing softly in my heart when, at the Evanston Library saleroom, I see a paperback copy of J. P. Nettl’s biography of Rosa Luxemburg? Why am I so pleased on another day to discover Isaac Bashevis Singer’s In My Father’s Court, which I read perhaps 30 years ago, and The Rape of Tamar, by my friend Dan Jacobson, which I’ve never read? Two volumes of Lewis Namier show up—irresistible. Ah, me, a clean hardcover copy of Eugène Fromentin’s Les Maîtres d’Autrefois; I already own a copy of the book in English, but you can’t have too many copies of a minor classic, I always say. (What do you always say?)
Am I likely to read the two thick Liberty Press volumes of Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations? A good chance not, though I buy it all the same. What have we here: The Collected Stories of Caroline Gordon, the wife of Allen Tate, and the travel writings in paperback of Bruce Chatwin. Go for it, a small wicked voice within me cries out, and I do.
Clearly, I am a man with a problem. How else would you describe someone who has taken home from the Evanston Library saleroom at least five copies of H. W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, three of which I’ve given away to people sensitive to language who have not hitherto heard of Fowler. These are books, I reason, that deserve a good home.
The remainder of my reading life should be devoted to filling in the gaps of the great books I’ve not yet read or rereading those I read too young and with too little understanding. Yet I continue to acquire new books. At what point does bibliophilia turn into bibliomania? I fear I may have reached it. So if you happen to see a mild-looking little man descending the steps of the Evanston Library, a copy of Tarn and Griffith’s Hellenistic Civilization and of Michael Millgate’s hefty biography of Thomas Hardy under his arm and a complacent smile on his face, proceed cautiously. He is probably not dangerous though undoubtedly mad.
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