Last summer I moved about 1400 books westward across the Atlantic Ocean and nearly half of America to my new home in St. Paul, Minnesota, after managing to shed about two hundred deemed extraneous. The first thing we did on arrival, before we had bedrooms or beds or any idea where our summer clothes were, was to build a bookshelf the entire length of the hallway at my in-laws’, whose home we have been gradually colonizing. This has become Andrew’s furniture specialty; it’s the third such he’s built for our various homes.
Eight years before that we’d moved about 1200 books from New Jersey to France, and that was only after the sale of the century—paperbacks 10¢, hardcovers a quarter. A guilty shopped insisted I take $10 when the whole collection of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers didn’t amount to even that. I think we got rid of about 800 books that way, but it’s hard to say precisely. We had ten days to evacuate the place after learning that I’d gotten the Strasbourg job and were not entirely in our right minds. Sometime after we got to France I started a list of “Books We Got Rid of But Shouldn’t Have.” Each one of those was grieved, but in the end the list wasn’t actually that long, no more than twenty.
The blessing and curse of being an anglophone-bibliophile in France was that if I wanted books in English, I had to buy them. I liked that, because the urge to own books is very powerful in me. They are not simply data that could be successfully conveyed by another means. The book itself is desired, valued; to be touched and gazed upon. We bibliophiles look upon our libraries as the external construction of our souls: this is who I am, these are the texts that have composed me, these words are so valuable that they cannot simply reside in my mind or the ether but have to take material form. (By like token, I have a hard time keeping books that I strongly dislike or disagree with; it’s like campaigning for the enemy.) This library-as-soul habit is, I am convinced, an anti-docetic move.
It’s also a gluttonous one. Religious convictions that include the incarnation and sacraments seem to run that risk—there is a fine line between eating and consuming, between enjoying and devouring. It’s very easy to justify bibliacquisition on the grounds that books are not merely themselves but windows, luminous icons, through which we are transported far beyond ourselves—the only legitimate, non-gnostic option for exiting our own bodies and souls for a time. And yet honestly compels the admission that this habit can be every bit as corrupting as one of collecting Precious Moments statuettes or vintage cars or mistresses. I’m not the worst biblioholic of all time (but I’m strangely comforted that a good candidate for that title is also a theologian—if the Word became flesh, shouldn’t we take that as a positive command to surround ourselves with books?) but I recognize the danger signs. Moving twice has helped me prune back my excesses, for practical reasons if not exactly ascetic ones.
There’s also the guilty secret that I own books that I have not read. These books I felt compelled to buy, yet I have still not made time for them. I feel slightly more ashamed of this in the case of expensive books, but it should be no different for the ones that were $0.01 on Bookfinder or whatever and all I had to pay was the $3.99 shipping—because after all the book was virtually free, and when would I ever find it again, and I’ve wanted it for so long… I just haven’t managed to read it. This dirty secret gives the lie to the library-as-externalized-soul, suggesting to hapless visitors that indeed all these books are in my soul. When queried, “Have you read all these books?” I always resort to the retort of my beloved college professor Michael McDaniel: “Some of them twice!” The nicest little dodge I’ve heard to this day.
Having to pay for all the books I wanted to read did curb the worst excesses of bibliophilia while I was in France. I could not afford every single book I wanted to read, and shipping (often from the U.S., if the U.K. didn’t come through for me) was usually higher. This sounds again like some kind of virtuous restraint; it wasn’t, because my job also put me in the way of lots of free books, not to mention being a journal editor, which allowed me to trade books for a review. That would seem like an easy privilege to abuse, but it does have a built-in check: you do actually have to read the book, not just stow it away for some vague future, and then commit to writing about it. I’m sure the publishers come out ahead on this one. I’ve learned to pace myself, except when I don’t, and then suddenly I have a thousand pages in several volumes demanding my attention and distracting me from all the other books on my list.
Now I’m in the U.S. again and the ground has shifted beneath my feet once more. Yes, I am surrounded by my bibliobeloveds, the books I cannot live without; most of which never come off the shelf and never get read and yet I could not possibly live without them—it would be like having one of my horcruxes destroyed. But there is a new factor: the library. The excellent, English-language, urban-center, widely-networked library. There is almost nothing they can’t get for me.
Andrew and Zeke and I got our library cards quite literally the day after we touched down from France. They warned us we could only take out a hundred books at a time, per person. The very model of restraint, I started requesting mere dozens of books at a time. Cookbooks I wanted to peruse for ideas; novels and nonfiction I vaguely remembered reading years before, or had been stockpiling on my Amazon list time out of mind; theology books too old to get free for review—because why make the physical trek the whole five miles over to the Luther Seminary library when the local branch would save me the trouble? (Of course, within a month I had a library card at Luther, too, and I still go there for the pleasure of roaming the dark, claustrophobic stacks and scanning the magazines.)
Of the making of books there is no end, as Qohelet rued long before the printing press, but time is limited. It’s a truism now of marketing that the only limited commodity is attention because of the finitude of time itself. What I quickly discovered in my greedy, gulping (but at least free) book borrowing is that I could not keep up with my stacks. And it wasn’t just the limited time:book ratio. It was also that insidious American need for novelty. The second I actually had the book in my hand it lost some of its luster, as if I had driven a new car off the lot, and I was already hankering to get back to the digital catalog and order the next two dozen. Among others, one result was that I came to favor the cheap-and-easy reads over the meaningful stuff, the faster to cycle through my piles.
I even came to develop a love/hate relationship with my lists of books to check out. They kept me pinned between two fears: one, that I would never catch up with all the books I wanted to read, and two, that I would. What’s worse, dying with a desired book left unread? Or living with no books worth reading left at all? This is where the biblioppression reaches an acute phase; and this is where human reason fails and eschatology steps in. Surely Jorge Luis Borges was right: paradise is a kind of library. The shelves stretched across infinite time, where I can read without panic and will never have to make a choice between books and people.
Not quite a year into my newborn library patronage, I’m learning to pace myself. I’m imposing a certain modest discipline on my reading: taking note of what I really want and need to read each month, and letting the others fill in the cracks as time allows. Either that or I’ve already hit burnout.
To do homage to bibliopassion at its best—and perhaps even to spur myself into reading the unread—herewith yet another blog: to talk about the books I have known and loved. And, in due course, to talk about the books I have written and am writing and will write.
I’ll understand if you’d rather re-read Harriet the Spy.