Reading, the unpunished vice, promises, as most vices do, a finer world within the world. Beyond the narrow realm of our senses is the greater reality retained in and contained by that cumbersome and collectable commodity, the book.
While all book collectors consider themselves bibliophiles, most bibliophiles perceive collecting as the precious sport of a rarified few to whom a book’s physical stature dwarfs its state of mind. Such people, it is felt, have too much respect for books and not enough love. As George Antheil, the avant-garde composer once wrote, “People who are in love with one another do not really respect each other – they know too much about each other.”
Bibliomanes occupy themselves not so much with literature as with books. They more entomb than enjoy their treasures and they judge books by their covers. Despite sharing the same object of affection with those of us who keep books, much as we keep old friends, their real interest lies not in the books content but in its context, its value as an antique, its singularity, its rarity. Despite their calculated eccentricities, they are generally bores.
Book collecting can be a vice analogous to covetiveness. I wouldn’t say the acquisitive aspect of the habit is any worse than the universal urge to squirrel away, say, rusting automobiles, unrepaired appliances, salt and pepper shakers or any other nostalgic memento. It can also be an act of self-realization.
There is an art to it. One collects books and builds a library to create an intensified environment, a reflection of our perception of the world. In collecting, the bibliophile balances the centrifugal force of serendipity with the centripetal force of methodical reading in seeking his intellectual thrills. He as often doesn’t know what he’s looking for until he’s found it as he doesn’t want what he’s looking for once it’s found.
The charm of collecting books is you find out what you want to know. The book itself, once read, becomes more an accomplishment than a possession. To the bibliophile books solicit an emotional response analogous to religious faith and sexual attraction. To the bibliophiles herein assembled books are a practicality for the life of the mind.
While the ballast of my career as a bookseller/librarian has been a voracious vice-like reading habit, the quixotic course of my dealing has taken me far afield of my own special interests. The vast majority of the people I’ve come to consider my friends are less the result of an active social life and more a part of what I think of as my auto-bibliography.
People have lead me to books as often as books have lead me to books. Rather than a formal education, and this is often the case with booksellers, I have a succession of mentors – writers, scholars, librarians, fellow dealers, and customers – who have contributed to my literacy and whose thoughts books are much more informative than picturing their libraries.
These interviews and portraits amount to less of the dialectic one who reads literary criticism is accustomed to and more of the personal experience, the aesthetic echo, of the appreciation of literature I am looking to share with fellow readers.