Confessions of a Bibliophile: Michael Dirda

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“I’ve never counted how many books I own, but my attic is stuffed with genre fiction from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century–needed for a big project–and the basement is solidly packed with recent novels and non-fiction, some of it on industrial shelving but the bulk in boxes piled higgledy-piggledy. It’s really quite apalling. There’s also a rented storage unit, which has sucked a fortune out of me, probably more than its contents are worth. I’d estimate that I own between 15,000 and 20,000 books, conceivably more. From many quite reasonable points of view I have ‘too many books’, but to my mind I just need more bookshelves. Or a bigger house.

‘Yet am I, in fact, a collector?’ Somewhere I read that if you couldn’t lay your hands on any book you owned in five minutes, you were just an accumulator, a hoarder. I couldn’t lay my hands on some of my books if I had five days to search for me. The great bibliographical scholar G. Thomas Tanselle contends that any true collection requires an overarching theme, a plan, defined limits. My only plan is to keep books I might need in my work or that I hope to read some day for my own sweet pleasure. That means Tarzan and the insidious Fu Manchu as well as Dickens and Proust. The novelist and bookseller Larry McMurtry once observed that only those with basements or storage units like mine can enjoy the highly rarefied delight of scouting their own books: you never know what might be waiting at the bottom of the next box. Of course, McMurtry used to buy entire bookshops to stock the used and rare shelves of Archer City, Texas, his American version of Hay-on-Wye.”

From the essay “Snow Day” by Michael Dirda included in Browse: The World in Bookshops edited by Henry Hitchings. Michael Dirda is an American columnist for The Washington Post. In 1993, Dirda won a Pulitzer Prize for his insightful book reviews. He has written several books, including An Open Book, a memoir, and of four collections of essays: Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments; Bound to Please; Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life; Classics for Pleasure; and Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books.

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