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Confessions of a Bibliophile: Michael Dirda

alex atkins bookshelf books

“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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Confessions of a Bibliophile: J. Kevin Graffagnino

alex atkins bookshelf booksAs with most human passions, there is disagreement over whether booklovers are born or made. For my part, I can only say that I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a biblio­phile. I grew up surrounded by books. When I was a boy in Montpelier, Vermont, in the 1960s, our house contained somewhere around 1,000 books — then (and now, I suppose) considerably more than the average for an American home. My family’s “library” was an eclectic, unplanned mix of subjects and titles. Thirty years later, I can remember concentrations in European and American history, dozens of beautifully printed Limited Editions Club volumes from the 1930s to the 1950s, various impressive but impenetrable classics from the Everyman Library series, and an assortment of mod­ern literature, economics, biography, and philosophy. Even though there was almost nothing specifically aimed at chil­dren, beginning at about the age of nine or ten I still managed to fill many happy hours at home reading books I was too young to understand, plowing cover-to-cover through a near-complete run of American Heritage, and mining the tissue-thin pages of the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica for arcane, out-of-date information to include in school papers and assignments. The absence of television — we were the only family I knew in Montpelier that didn’t own a TV — may well have steered me toward books for entertainment, but I don’t recall any particular sense of deprivation over having to substitute books for the delights of My Three Sons, Bonanza and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

From Only in Books: Writers, Readers, and Bibliophiles on Their Passion by J. Kevin Graffagnino. Graffagnino is director of the library at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

The Joys of Book Collecting

atkins-bookshelf-booksOne of the essays that is most revered by bibliophiles is found in Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations (1931): “Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting.” Benjamin (1892-1940) was a respected German cultural critic and philosopher, best known for his critical study of Baudelaire, Goethe, Kafka, and Proust. As Benjamin carefully unpacks his library, he reflects on the ineffable joys of book collecting.

“I am not exaggerating when I say that to a true [book] collector, the acquisition of an old book is its rebirth. This is the childlike element which in a collector mingles with the element of old age.”

“Experts will bear me out when I say that [not reading all the books in a collection] is the oldest thing in the world. Suffice it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question, ‘And you have read all these books, Monsieur France?’ ‘Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sevres china every day?'”

“[One] of the finest memories of a collector is the moment when he rescued a book to which he might never have given a thought, much less a wishful look, because he found it lonely and abandoned on the market place and bought it to give its freedom… To a book collector, you see, the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves.”

“[A] real collector, a collector as he ought to be — ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.”




Illuminations: Essays and Reflections

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