The Bibliophile’s Dilemma

Bibliophile: (noun) A person who collects or has a great love of books

For several years now I’ve purchased more books that I can afford or store. Much more traumatic is the fact that I buy more books that I will ever be able to read in one lifetime, which is ironic, since reading allows the reader to live many lives over the course of one lifetime. Bibliophilia is the sickness that comes with the obsessive need to be surrounded by books. This, as all bibliophiles will inform you, is much different from hoarding. Books lend a certain prestige to the collector whereas hoarding is the inability to part with anything. For the serious bibliophile there is no situation too outlandish to stop one from obtaining a certain book. I, myself, have occasionally stooped to larceny to liberate a particular volume from a particular place.

Perhaps my “lowest” moment came a few years ago when a colleague in my department passed away. He was an English professor for over thirty years and had never married. I managed to find my way into his apartment to see what I could take out, all under the guise that I was willing to help unload a townhouse full of books. This was not entirely untrue, but to be honest, I was more interested in having the opportunity, the first crack if you will, at his collection. I spent the next hour or so combing over books that proved to be so specific that I left feeling more than a little disappointed since most of the books focused on the Catholic religion. However, I did manage to find one or two worthy books to liberate. Before I finished up I was searching the bookshelves in his bedroom, the last room I had left to search. Bending over at an odd angle, I lost my balance and fell onto his mattress, the mattress he had died in just a few days before. Thankfully the bed had been stripped of its sheets, but the feeling has attached to itself to me like a stain.

Unless the bibliophile is wealthy, he or she must be careful with buying books, as the habit works like a drug on the psyche of the afflicted. Every year I spend thousands of dollars on books, and every April when my taxes come due I wince at the thought of how much I spent during the previous year. My wife, bless her, has never really given me any grief when it comes to buying books, but she has drawn the line whenever I attempt to spend more than a few hundred dollars on a single volume. And who can blame her? I have at the moment at least four different versions of War and Peace, Madame Bovary, The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Don Quixote, to name a few. Each time a new translation is published I rush out to purchase that translation. I have at least twelve translations of Dante’s Inferno alone! If I read a hardcover book that I really like I find that I must buy the paperback so that I can have a “reader’s copy,” which means one I can write in. I also try to buy paperback copies of all my first editions, so as to keep the integrity of the spines of the books in place.

Whenever I come across a certain book or author that I do not have I go to great lengths to obtain the desired item. In order to finance my book buying I have had to take on extra work and often teach over the summer to subsidize my habit. Moreover, when, in the midst of my research on this or that academic subject, and I come across the reference from a book I think I should read, I buy the book instead of checking it out from my home institution’s library. This, as one might imagine, is costly and, one might say, crazy. 2017-06-22 19.59.44

As understanding as my wife is with the amount of money I spend on books, she is less understanding because of the space the books take up in our home. In fact, we are now at the point where we either have to look for a new house or I have to stop buying books. I lack the moral courage to stop buying books, so that will never happen. Therefore, moving seems to be our only option. However, as anyone who has even a modest home library knows, moving books is perhaps the hardest part about moving. First, there is the psychological damage that occurs to the bibliophile when he or she packs away a library. Second, there is the weight of the books in countless boxes waiting to be moved. Space is a terrible enemy in the bibliophile’s life. There is never enough space and one finds oneself placing books in almost every conceivable location in one’s home. Digitizing one’s library in not an option for the bibliophile, for books are not like one’s musical or video library. Digitizing one’s library is the same as getting rid of one’s books altogether. No self-respecting bibliophile has a digital library that takes the place of the physical one.

Of course, enemy number one in the bibliophile’s life is time. There will never be enough time to read all of the books one has purchased in one’s lifetime. And yet, we continue to buy books despite, or perhaps in spite of, this knowledge.

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