Late in her recent memoir, Horror Stories, in a chapter called “Goodbyes,” musician and artist Liz Phair writes about clearing out her parents’ house prior to them moving. She talks about the process of decluttering, the winnowing away of extraneous or unnecessary objects – furniture, art, jewellery, as well as photographs, post cards, school art projects: all the detritus collected over a life. “This was a paring down of items,” Phair writes, “a selection of what was truly important, evocative, meaningful, or irreplaceable.”
While Phair claims she tackled this project rationally, and moved through the house efficiently, “like a samurai,” she also admits that the process was difficult for her mother, for whom every item was a reminder of a time and place, a tangible symbol of a life lived fully and a balm against the approach of death.
Inevitably, Phair gets around to tossing out some old books. Here, she writes about the kind of disagreement she and her mother engaged in during the closing up of the family home: “[W]e fought over decrepit, mouldy paperbacks she and my father had read when they were newlyweds. ‘You can buy another copy,’ I argued. ‘You can read it on your iPad.’ I wasn’t opposed to keeping meaningful items if there was something rare or singular about them, but these books were decidedly commonplace, and their bindings were manifestly rotten.”
On the surface, Phair’s comments seem perfectly reasonable, especially when confronted with a collection of tattered paperbacks that are “decidedly commonplace.” Mass market paperbacks of a certain vintage – all those novels by Harold Robbins and Jackie Collins and Clive Cussler and Judith Krantz – were meant to be disposable: entertainments best consumed on a beach in summer or during a long day confined indoors by rain or snow.
And yet there is something about Phair’s reaction that indicates she is probably not, at heart, a true book lover. Real book lovers – the die hards, the collectors and completists, the fanatics – find it difficult verging on impossible to part with books, no matter how commonplace, how mouldy, or how torn their bindings. In fact, for a true book lover, a well-thumbed volume is more likely to be prized than discarded: it shows manifest evidence of being devoured, consulted, and returned to on a regular basis. In short, of being loved.
It takes a true bibliophile to appreciate the desire not just to read books, but to surround oneself with them, to collect them, to pile them on shelves until the wood bows from the weight. These are the people who, in the face of the current interior design fad for minimalism, will respond that books decorate a room; they will heap teetering stacks of books on tabletops and scatter them across the floors of studies, living rooms, bedrooms. These are the people who will continue to purchase new books even though they already have more than they can hope to read in several lifetimes.
For filmmaker John Waters, people who display books in their homes are deep thinkers and well-rounded individuals. “If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em,” Waters says. But for the dyed-in-the-wool bibliophile, books are more than a marker of character (or even fuckability). They are as essential as water and oxygen, and as difficult to part with.
In his indispensable essay “The Bibliophile,” William Giraldi writes about a run-in with a cop who attended his home and, gazing around at the shelves, asked Giraldi if he’d read all the books. Giraldi admitted to having read only about half of them, and writes that the question itself is a cliché that no one other than a non-reader would think to ask. Later in the essay, Giraldi expands on this notion:
Since bibliophiles acknowledge the absurdity, the obese impracticality of gathering more books than there are days to read them, one’s collection must be about more than remembering: it must be about expectation also. Your personal library, swollen and hulking about you, is the promise of betterment and pleasure to come, a giddy anticipation, a reminder of the happy work yet to do, a prompt for those places to which your intellect and imagination want to roam. This is how the non-reader’s question Have you read all these books? manages to miss the point more than a bit. The tense is all wrong: Not have you read all, but will you read all, to which, by the way, the bibliophile’s answer must still be no.
The recognition of the absurdity Giraldi is talking about lurks behind another cliché often heard uttered defensively by book lovers who have jammed their shelves to bursting with books they have not read and perhaps never will: it’s not hoarding, we are told, if it’s books.
Except, what if it is? Even such an avowed bibliophile as Giraldi will allow as much: “Cram your home with books and you’re lovingly called a collector; cram it with newspapers and you’re derisively called a hoarder. But the collector is a hoarder, too: a discriminating and noble-minded hoarder, perhaps, but a hoarder just the same.”
We bibliophiles do not want to consider ourselves hoarders, in part because we fear some psychological impairment in the impulse to hoard, something that goes beyond the affront to postmodern interior design and Marie Kondo. We watch the documentary series Hoarders aghast, our mouths open in horror at the squalor and presumed maladjustment on offer, the unspoken question on our lips: how can anyone possibly live that way? We fail to make the connection with the lumpen masses of paper and glue strewn all about us.
We fall back on Giraldi’s idea of nobility: books represent erudition and imagination and wisdom. A robust library is an avenue for understanding our fellow humans from far-away places and right next door. It is a gateway to flights of fancy and universes only dreamt of. It is a locus of what Matthew Arnold referred to as the best that has been thought and said. All of which sounds better than suspecting that what we are actually doing is hoarding books.
Ray Robertson writes about this phenomenon in his recently published volume of philosophical meditations How to Die: A Book About Being Alive, in a section discussing his annual pilgrimage to the used book sales at the University of Toronto. Robertson talks about V.S. Pritchett’s idea of genius as “spiritual greed” and connects that with the impulse to obsessively purchase books that one feels one must own because they are classics or intellectual touchstones or would simply look good on one’s shelves. He talks about the desire to purchase nicer editions of books one already owns or additional entries in a series one has only read a single volume of, and didn’t much like at that. Robertson has a word for this: not hoarding, but “acquisitiveness.”
It is interesting to note the way some devout anti-capitalists will make an exception when the trade in question is bookselling: books somehow exist outside the maw of the marketplace, despite the fact that they are items of commerce and – on at least one level – products to be bought and sold.
Of course, books are more than just commercial products (the novels of Harold Robbins may be exceptions); they are vehicles for knowledge, amazement, laughter, boredom, anger, and wonder. And it is here that the bibliophile is probably on safest ground. Books as physical objects may be considered by some as little more than paper and ink, but this is as reductive as considering a human body simply a repository of blood and tissue. What a book contains is what gives it life and, notwithstanding Liz Phair’s insistence that an iPod would do as well, the physicality of a printed book is part of what makes it special (the way Donovan’s brain, once removed from its corporeal vessel, becomes an instrument of horror). In Giraldi’s words: “I’m sorry but your Kindle has no presence.”
The books we surround ourselves with have more than a physical presence, which is what separates bibliophiles from your garden-variety hoarders. (Though it should be self-evident that comparing books to living things is meant metaphorically, not literally. We are not actually in an H.P. Lovecraft story.) They represent our cumulative history and tilt toward our fullest potential. As with Liz Phair’s mother, those well-loved, well-read volumes represent who we have been; as with Giraldi, those unread volumes represent who we might yet become. It is not just acquisitiveness that drives the bibliophile: it is also curiosity, enthusiasm for different experiences or perspectives (an enthusiasm Robertson assigns particularly to youth but which may persist well into middle age if not old age), and a yearning to immerse oneself in different worlds, different lives, different ideas.
At its most base, bibliophilia is driven, it would seem, by lust. Not sexual lust, but lust for sensation, for emotion, for adventure, for psychic and physical response. Books are intellectual and political and entertaining, but they are also bluntly erotic: they are containers for sensual pleasure and feeling, all of which can be extremely potent and addictive. An inescapable element of bibliophilia is hedonism. It is perhaps not entirely polite to admit as much, but it is also disingenuous to deny it.
So call it acquisitiveness, call it hoarding, call it lust, or call it bibliophilia: it is a condition that persists even in the face of the evident absurdity Giraldi notes. And like the rapacious plants in the basement in Paul Tremblay’s story “Growing Things,” the bibliophile’s library continues to expand beyond an ability or even a willingness to control it. Or, as Alberto Manguel writes in “The Library as Home”:
There is a story by Julio Cortázar, “House Taken Over,” in which a brother and sister are forced to move from room to room as something unnamed occupies inch by inch their entire house, eventually forcing them out into the street. I foresee a day in which my books, like that anonymous invader, will complete their gradual conquest. I will then be banished to the garden, but, knowing the way of books, I fear that even that seemingly safe place may not be entirely beyond my library’s hungry ambition.