You May Remove the Cause but Not the Symptoms

by Liraz Taler (July 2009)


As a library owner it often happens that I stand baffled in front of the long rows of colorful spines and wonder. First, I feel like the people who pick at their overcrowded closets and exclaim that they have nothing to wear. This is far from the truth, as, like other bibliophiles, I keep buying books at a rate that exceeds my reading speed limit in any given time. Then, when I look at all those books pressed tightly together, mounting horizonically and vertically in double lines, I feel a slight (ok, a strong) tingle of shame. I wonder what makes me different from any other collector. In some dark moments, I rebuke myself that I am no different from someone who collects vintage key holders. Is the passion I have for this library contained within itself, for the reading itself; the great ideas, the language, the vast escapist landscape, or is it just gluttony combined with covetousness, disguised and excused as an intellectual front?
 
There has been a continuous stream of notes on Bibliophilia, written by many wonderfully articulate bookoholics who were and are much more experienced both in the field of book collecting and writing than I. These people devoured mounts of books I still aspire to. My continuous state of semi-poverty and relatively young age have prevented me from buying as many books as I would have wished. My library contains today approximately 1,000 books – a laughable excuse for a library when you compare it to Alberto Manguel's (author of the excellent A History of Reading), Samuel Pepys', Anne Fadiman's (author of the wonderful Ex Libris - Confessions of a common reader), Walter Benjamin's and so many more - all of them are or were proud owners of thousands and thousands of books.
 
Yet, I believe the psychological and behavioural manifestations of this illness stay basically the same (though they can develop into a specific fetish like searching for first editions, chasing leather bounds etc), whether most of the walls in your house are still bare or whether your collection is so big you have to take the extricating action of screening and removing some books to the cold rough streets, full of dangers like garbage trucks, in order to have enough space to lift your hands, not to mention accommodate other live-in creatures.
 
Undoubtedly, one of the guilty pleasures of the bibliophile is to plot and fantasize ways in which books can come into his/her hands and (as Bibliophilia causes pain to your wallet), preferably without paying. When I read Ms. Fadiman's book, I couldn't help feeling overcome with envy as I imagined her wall to wall decor of books. I wanted to be her friend. Indeed, it seems that it would be very worthwhile to be Ms. Fadiman's friend because she what reads is deeply interesting, making her a very interesting and humorous individual. But being her friend, and that's what really allures me, also means that I might be there when she suddenly has the urge to clear out some shelves.
 
These plots and schemes, often ethically suspect, sometimes even bordering on the illegal, mostly stay on the shakey shelves of my mind, I hope. But they can generate some morbid thoughts. Whenever I see an obituary hanging in the streets, as is customary in Israel, I have to suppress my desire to 'innocently' wander around the deceased's house. There, I think, I could interview the condolers who come out, and if it turns out the deceased had a big library I could offer to the grieving relatives a chance to redeem those books into the safety and warmth of my own house. Of course, there are ads in the papers of people who want to buy unwanted, orphaned books. But as I said, I am ever shekel-less, and when I do have a few shekels I go to the bookshop, I don't wait for someone to die. I have nothing to offer but love for these books and an occasional anti-vermin spraying, plus a written statement to never disrespect or abuse them; and a philanthropic desire to relieve the remaining family from the headache and burden. You see, it's out of noble motives really.

Yet the fact that I'm holding back from invading some stranger's house of grief just to satisfy my greediness might prove I haven't yet progressed (or is it regressed?) into advanced Bibliophilia, a kind of decision of which William Blake said "Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained". Ouch.
 
It doesn't matter that there are hundreds of books on my shelf waiting to be read. They are there, and by default exist on my reading horizon. There are the books I have already read, there are the books I am reading now, and there are the books that I will read in the future. Curiously, it's feels like they all exist together on parallel levels, not in a linear line. The unread are also part of me as a reader, from the moment I acquired them, they became mine.

Don't ever ask a bibliophile that stupid question 'Have you read all these books?' - We don't buy books that we necessarily want to read now (the people who do are just plain book-lovers, and as much as they are respected, they are not the subject here). Our library is not a monument of collected knowledge, it's an oasis of great opportunities, and great options, and represents, I believe, not just our past but mainly the person we envision ourselves to be.
 
Just like the library must be guarded from invading insects, it should also be guarded from another kind of unwanted invader: human beings. Two painful issues come to my mind regarding this: one is the doomed mission of the book missionary and the second is the awful business of lending books. As for the first, experience tells me that trying to convert someone to love a book you have adored is setting yourself for disappointment. There is a certain magic in the exchange between a book and its specific reader which you cannot duplicate and transfer to someone else. This match-making between a book and a friend, a friend whose taste you think you know, often meets with a bland critique (if the friend ever bothered to read it in the first place) that leaves you hanging. Pushing books on people is something that is very hard to abstain from.. After all, we all discovered wonderful books thanks to other enthusiasts. But by all means - lower your expectations and prepare yourself to get a mild 'it's nice' kind of answer. After all, books tap onto the reader's psych not solely by presenting the reader with close to home subjects, but also by constantly referring to the reader's endless volume of links -associations, memories, personal rhythm and other abstract preferences. When the match-making does succeed, and the receiver comes back to you with a sparkle in his eye, it's an uplifting moment. You feel as though you've managed to share a sweet secret with him, to create a joint experience and to broaden your partnership. But alas, this makes it only easier to be tempted to keep on being the avid missionary with the next person…
 
The second subject connected to other people and your library has less to do with disappointment and more with to do with anxiety, wrath and a license to kill. As an owner of a big library, you might feel proud when guests notice it, are impressed and scan with interest the collection. The danger is of course is the minute they spot a book they fancy reading, which is followed by that dreadful question: 'may I borrow it?' I used to say yes to all kinds of guests, even ones who were practically strangers, figuring we'd meet again (the book and me, I didn't always care about meeting again with the guest). Oh boy, what a foolish thought that was. I admit I haven't lost many books that way, only because at some point I lost all manners and started to haunt those people. But I did lose some books. And thanks to Murphy's Law, those books were not the kind you can buy in every bookshop.

Since then, I've mastered the wonderful art of saying "No". It's liberating!  
I just say, "Sorry, I don't lend books" and that's it. If someone tries to persuade me to change my mind, I just repeat that sentence again with the same blank expression. You won't believe how easy it is. Petty? Unkind? Possessive? Yes, yes and yes. So?

This hard learnt lesson often collides with fighting my addiction to be a book missionary, I'm afraid. It's wonderful to know that someone, just by looking at your library, might have found a book that will give him immense pleasure. But afterwards
-the polite reminders at first, the discomfort of pestering the person later, the sour feeling -no thanks. Today I lend books to a select few only, all of whom are very close friends whose current address I know and to whose shelves I have free access to.
I do know of people who have no difficulty lending books to every riffraff coming across their library, but unless you have no attachment to bookish possessions and have the patience of a saint -just say no. There rarely has been more justified use for this slogan.  
 
Is this a too serious, too stuffy approach to the simple sheer joy of reading books? Maybe. But whenever I might slide into arrogance there comes a moment when I've finished a book, go to the library to pick another, notice how much of it still left unread and then feel that slight (ok, strong) tingle of shame.

And yet, I've got nothing to read. It's time for another visit to the second-hand bookshop.
 
 

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