I recently decided to re-read a book that I first read back in 1995 when it first came out, a wonderful volume by journalist Nicholas Basbanes called A Gentle Madness. Subtitled Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books, Basbanes traces the long and often delightfully anecdotal history of book collecting and book collectors themselves, from early collectors to those of today (well, those of twenty-some years ago). Such collectors are often odd people driven by specific desires, some are shady characters indeed (witness the case of one Haven O’More), and some are outright criminals (witness the case of Stephen Blumberg, one of history’s greatest book thieves, and whose 1990 arrest in Ottumwa, Iowa, had a bit of local interest to me given that I was in college in that same state at the time).
My Goodreads review of Basbanes’s book is here, but a bit of coincidental happenstance led to my finishing my re-read of A Gentle Madness during a weekend during which there was quite a bit of online controversy regarding the advice of a “decluttering” guru named Marie Kondo, who apparently counseled people to get rid of books that didn’t “bring them joy”. (I’m not sure if this came out via a Netflix series Kondo is hosting, or an article, or what. I didn’t pay that much attention to the particulars.) Here’s an article that argues the counterpoint to Kondo’s advice:
The metric of objects only “sparking joy” is deeply problematic when applied to books. The definition of joy (for the many people yelling at me on Twitter, who appear to have Konmari’d their dictionaries) is: “A feeling of great pleasure and happiness, a thing that causes joy, success or satisfaction.” This is a ludicrous suggestion for books. Literature does not exist only to provoke feelings of happiness or to placate us with its pleasure; art should also challenge and perturb us.
We live in a frantic, goal-obsessed, myopic time. Everything undertaken has to have a purpose, outcome or a destination, or it’s invalid. But art doesn’t care a noodle about your Apple watch, your fitness goals, active lifestyle, right swipes, career and surrender on black pudding. Art will be around far longer than Kondo’s books remain in print. Art exists on its own terms and untidy timeline.
Now, I don’t particularly have a dog in this fight one way or the other. If you love books and want to own a bunch of them? Go for it! If you want to be a collector, focusing on some particular subset of literary production? Go for it! And the whole thing about books “bringing you joy” is…well, it’s pretty amorphous advice, so far as I can tell. There are a lot of things that bring me joy, and there are a lot of ways that books bring it to me. Some by their content alone; some by the style of the content.
I have copies of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in at least three compilations that I know of, so why did I buy the copy that comes in a single slim hardcover? Because it’s pretty. It’s a nicely-produced volume with copies of engravings by Gustav Dore accompanying the poem’s text. I have four copies of The Lord of the Rings for similar reasons, and five or six complete Shakespeare’s. (I could swap all those for a First Folio, of course–any takers?)
My own approach to the gathering of books (I wouldn’t say “collecting”) is that I want my books to comprise a working library. There’s not a book in my Scriptorium (yes, I’m trying that word on for size, deal with it) that I don’t want to read someday, even if I may or may not have a reasonable shot at actually getting there. Some I have because they’re prettier than other books, but I can see myself sitting down to read each and every one of them. Do I weed it out? Yes, occasionally. Maybe not as often as I ought to. But the books all bring me joy in one way or another. There are different kinds of joy, after all, and different ways things can make us happy.
One rule I have–and this I share with one of my favorite bibliophiles, Sheila O’Malley–is that aside from what I’m currently reading and have set aside on the bedstand when my eyes can no longer remain open, there are no books in my bedroom. None. (Well, none of mine–The Wife has a bookcase in there, and that’s on her.) As Sheila wrote, “I don’t want any books in my bedroom. My bedroom is for sleep and moisturizing and loving. I’m sick of sleeping surrounded by 5,000 books.” Hear, hear.
I’m reminded of Roger Ebert’s words about his own personal library:
Chaz [Ebert’s wife] and I have lived for twenty years in a commodious Chicago town house. This house is not empty. Chaz and I have added, I dunno, maybe three or four thousand books, untold numbers of movies and albums, lots of art, rows of photographs, rooms full of comfortable furniture, a Buddha from Thailand, exercise equipment, carved elephants from India, African chairs and statues, and who knows what else. Of course I cannot do without a single one of these possessions, including more or less every book I have owned since I was seven, starting with Huckleberry Finn. I still have all the Penrod books, and every time I look at them, I’m reminded of Tarkington’s inventory of Penrod’s pants pockets. After reading it a third time, as a boy, I jammed my pockets with a pocketknife, a Yo-Yo, marbles, a compass, a stapler, an oddly-shaped rock, a hardball, a ball of rubber bands, and three jawbreakers. These, in an ostensible search for a nickel, I emptied out on the counter of Henry Rusk’s grocery, so that Harry Rusk could see that I was a Real Boy.
My books are a subject of much discussion. They pour from shelves onto tables, chairs, and the floor, and Chaz observes that I haven’t read many of them and I never will. You just never know. One day I may need to read Finnegans Wake, the Icelandic sagas, Churchill’s history of the Second World War, the complete Tintin in French, forty-seven novels by Simenon, and By Love Possessed. That 1957 bestseller by James Gould Cozzens was eviscerated in a famous essay by Dwight Macdonald, who read through that year’s list of fiction bestsellers and surface with a scowl. I remember reading the novel late into the night when I was fourteen, stirring restlessly with the desire to be possessed by love.
I cannot throw out these books. Some are enchanted because I have personally turned all their pages and read every word. They’re shrines to my past hours. Perhaps half were new when they came to my life, but most were used, and I remember where I found every one. The set of Kipling at the Book Nook on Green Street in Champaign. The scandalous The English Governess in a shady bookstore on the Left Bank in 1965 (two dollars, today ninety-one). The Shaw plays from Cranford’s on Long Street in Cape Twon, where Irving Freeman claimed he had half a million books. Like an alcoholic trying to walk past a bar, you should see me trying to walk past a used bookstore. Other books I can’t throw away because, well, they’re books, and you can’t throw away a book. Not even a cookbook from which we have prepared only a single recipe, for it is a meal preserved, in printed form. The very sight of Quick and Easy Chinese Cooking by Kenneth H.C. Lo quickens my pulse. Its pages are stained by broth, sherry, soy sauce, and chicken fat, and so thoroughly did I master it that I once sought out Ken Lo’s Memories of China on Ebury Street in London and laid eyes on the great man himself, dining alone in a little room near the entrance. A book like that, you’re not gonna throw away.
Returning to Basbanes’s book, I was struck reading it this time by the fact that many of the people he interviewed twenty-five years ago are now dead, and their collections are either long-dispersed or long-bequeathed. The question comes up over and over again: What happens to your books when you die? And the answers change all the time. Some collectors make arrangements for donating specific parts, or the wholes, of their collections. Some are trying, with varying degrees of success. One mentioned was Forrest J. Ackerman, he of the greatest science fiction, fantasy, and horror collection ever assembled; Ackerman wanted his entire collection to be kept whole, but as no major institutions could accommodate the books and the memorabilia, his collection was eventually auctioned off.
That might seem a bit of a tragedy, but many of Basbanes’s interviewees specifically intend to auction their collections, either because families have no interest or, as a few note, only by auctioning their collections can they guarantee in some small way that the next generation of collectors will have their chances at anything worthy at all. Collectors paying it forward to collectors: the wheel turns on.
Perhaps the greatest single instance of a collection being bequeathed in its entirety is that of Samuel Pepys, who made detailed arrangements and instructions for the handling of his personal library after his death. Pepys gave the entire collection to Magdalene College in London, with instructions that no books could be sold from or added to the library–and he even included the bookcases that he had had made for his own home. To this day, more than three hundred years after Pepys’s death, that library remains intact on the very shelves that once graced Pepys’s own home.
So, what should you do with your books? Do as you will. It’s really the only way to go.