The Soul of a Bibliophile

There are more books being written and published than anyone will ever have time to read. In fact, if the writing and publishing of books were to cease this very minute there would still be more than enough books to fill multiple lifetimes of reading for each of us. Yet, for people like me, I will continue to buy books even though I have piles of books I have yet to read. That is to say, I keep buying books knowing that I will never have time to read all of them. Some may think that this is a waste of time and money, but the simple truth of the matter is that there are just some books that you have to have in your possession. It’s as if owning these particular books is its own reward. The bibliophile never knows when a certain edition of a certain book will be calling. Therefore, it is better to buy the book and secure the peace of mind that if the time comes when a consultation of the book is necessary the book will be there, waiting on the self.

Bibliophilia, while not fatal, is a chronic disease that can have serious consequences. The money spent by bibliophiles can send him or her into bankruptcy—this was certainly the case with Thomas Jefferson who spent more than he could afford on books; it can ruin marriages and destroy almost any type of personal relationship. Bibliophilia can cause cases of insanity, as it did with that famous man from La Mancha whose obsessive and voracious reading exiled him from the realm of reality. Bibliophilia can drive some to crime, treachery, and even murder. Yet this is a risk the bibliophile is willing to take because there is no other alternative than to obtain that much sought after volume.

Of course, some books are worth more than others. A first folio by William Shakespeare is priceless, whereas a first edition in today’s world may not be worth much at all considering that print runs are larger than they were at any other time in history. But the bibliophile does not buy for investment, at least not in a monetary sense. The investment in books is an investment in the soul, which is ironic since the very thing at stake is the soul of a bibliophile, who would also gladly sell his or her soul for any number of volumes he or she desires. The last words uttered by Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus offers illumination here: “’I’ll burn my books!—Ah, Mephistophilis!’ (Exeunt DEVILS with FAUSTUS).” That the soul of Faustus is no longer his own is not in question, but I am more interested in where his books will end up after he is dragged to Hell. In yet another example we have Shakespeare’s Prospero, whose power comes from his books. His library, along with his dukedom, is stripped from him. Again I wonder if his revenge is a manifestation of his desire to gain his dukedom back or his library, which is surely the envy of his world.

Not every bibliophile will sell his soul to a devil. But for the serious bibliophile the soul is entangled within the paper and glue and leather of a book. In his story “The Library of Babel,” Jorge Luis Borges writes that the universe for some is like a library. This is certainly the case for the bibliophile who will never be able to cure his bibliophilia. But finding a cure is not what the bibliophile is after. The bibliophile is after the next big score. Graham Greene wrote: “The value of a collection to the collector lies less in its importance, surely, than in the excitement of the hunt, and the strange places to which the hunt sometimes leads.” Indeed, the thrill of the hunt for books is as romantic as any scene portrayed on film, perhaps more so. I have found myself in some strange places and even stranger situations when it comes to book hunting. I once searched the apartment of a dead man looking through his personal library for books I might have wanted to add to my collection. The bed in which he died was still warm at the time I offered my services to his relatives. I am not proud of this as there was more than a hint of larceny involved, but I do offer it as another example of just how far one will go to add to one’s collection of books. I have only once allowed a book I coveted to escape my clutches, and that was because I could think of no way to hide the cost of the book from my wife. Whenever possible, then, it is always better for the bibliophile to keep a separate and secret bank account for the sole purpose of book buying. And with advent of the Internet, book searches have taken on a new and exciting, if somewhat less romantic, path. There are countless sites where one can find that elusive edition.

Bibliophiles are indeed suffering from a sickness. But what better sickness can one have than the need to surround oneself with books? So, would I sell my soul for a book? Well, maybe not for a book, but for certain libraries?

Yes, yes I would.

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