14 April 2004

Burgeoning Biblophilia

I was amused to read in the IHT yesterday an article from the Boston Globe on owning too many books. Mind you, I'm not sure how many is too many. I've got an essay at home somewhere - don't ask who it's by - where some nineteenth century geezer disparages another for being proud of having a library of a thousand books.

A thousand? Nonsense, he declares. That's not a library. One shouldn't claim to have a library until you have at least two thousand books, and you shouldn't begin to be proud of it until you have ten thousand.

I suspect my mother would disagree. I'm approaching two thousand volumes now, I think (somewhere in the region of 1,920 at the last count), and she's fretting. Despite the fact that more than five hundred of them are here in Manchester she fears for the walls and floor of my room at home, suspecting that the weight of the books there will tear the shelves from the walls and crash through into the room below!

People get startled whenever they see how many books I have. Sometimes their jaws drop and they say things like 'You have so many books... have you read them all?'

Unlike Umberto Eco, I have difficulty in resisting the urge to reply, 'And more besides. Many more.' I know, I deserve a clatter. Or two.

Neil Gaiman comments on the same phenomenon in this interview:
'The funniest thing I find is the question that non-bookie people ask bookie people when they walk into their houses. They look at the books and they ask, "Have you read all these?", as if the idea of reading all these books is like some kind of terrible, awful punishment. It's as if they would actually be relieved if the answer were , "No, no I haven't read all these. These are purely for wall decoration. We buy them by the yard." '
About which Flann O'Brien once wrote a legendarily funny series of article for the Irish Times.
A visit that I paid to the house of a newly-married friend the other day set me thinking. My friend is a man of great wealth and vulgarity. When he had set about buying bedsteads, tables, chairs and what-not, it occurred to him to buy also a library. Whether he can read or not, I do not know, but some savage faculty for observation told him that most respectable and estimable people usually had a lot of books in their houses. So he bought several book-cases and paid some rascally middleman to stuff them with all manner of new books, some of them very costly volumes on the subject of French landscape painting. I noticed on my visit that not one of them had ever been opened or touched, and remarked the fact.
'When I get settled down properly,' said the fool, 'I'll have to catch up on my reading.'
This is what set me thinking. Why should a wealthy person like this be put to the trouble of pretending to read at all? Why not a professional book-handler to go in and suitably maul his library for so-much per shelf? Such a person, if properly qualified, could make a fortune.

Let me explain exactly what I mean. The wares in a bookshop look completely unread. On the other hand, a school-boy's Latin dictionary looks read to the point of tatters. You know that the dictionary has been opened and scanned perhaps a million times, and if you did not know that there was such a thing as a box on the ear, you would conclude that the boy is crazy about Latin and cannot bear to be away from his dictionary. Similarly with our non-brow who wants his friends to infer from a glancing around his house that he is a high-brow. He buys an enormous book on the Russian ballet, written possibly in the language of that distant but beautiful land. Our problem is to alter the book in a reasonably short time so that anybody looking at it will conclude that its owner has practically lived, supped and slept with it for many months. You can, if you like, talk about designing a machine driven by a small but efficient petrol motor that would 'read' any book in five minutes, the equivalent of five years or ten years' 'reading' being obtained by merely turning a knob. This, however, is the cheap soulless approach of the times we live in. No machine can do the same work as the soft human fingers. The trained and experienced book-handler is the only real solution of this contemporary social problem. What does he do? How does he work? What would he charge? How many types of handling would there be?
These questions and many more I will answer the day after tomorrow.'
I might post the next bit then myself, but I might not, so if you're interested in what the man had to offer, just read this or go out there and buy The Best of Myles.

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