Book collecting: snobbery or reading passion?


The Bibliophiles, 1879, by Luis Jimenez y Aranda, Private Collection. Photo by Christie's/Bridgeman Images
The book has always been a sign of status and refinement; a declaration of self-worth – even for those who hate to read. That’s the lead into a recent piece on Aeon Magazine about book collecting and collectors. It’s also about reading and the snobbery of readers. Fascinating piece.

For me, anyway. Pretty much everything about books and reading fascinates me, from the art to the industry to the neuroscience. I am and always have been a book buyer, proudly taking my place among those “Bookish Fools” referenced in the article’s title. But perhaps from a different part of the podium.

I spent an hour with a painter this week discussing getting a portion of our house repainted. Part of that work involves us moving a lot of books into other rooms. A lot. Many hundreds. Maybe even thousands. Plus the bookshelves. Six large and two small bookcases in the upper hallway alone. And where to put them? One upstairs room is already lined with bookcases and the other rooms have their own, too.

It served to reinforce just how many books we have to think of the time required to unshelve then re-shelve them (in some sort of reasonable order). Many days.

I got two books in the mail yesterday and this morning I ordered another online. Others are somewhere in between, on their way via the post office. I get larger shipments – boxes – from booksellers once or twice a month, plus individual titles. I haunt the local used book stores for more. I still have battered paperbacks I picked up in the 1960s, but most of my personal library is far more recent. That’s because I am mostly a reader. Compulsively, even obsessively, perhaps. But not a fetishist collector as the article describes.

My library goes through irregular but cathartic cleansings: I box up a lot of the books and donate them to the library or (in the case of popular fiction) to a local used book store. I also mail them to friends around the country and lend them around.*

I am not much of a collector in the sense of collecting for value or return on investment. I value my books for their content not their age, their history or their provenance. Owning a rare edition is, for me, a transient treat, even a curiosity, not an obsession. I hesitate to handle anything too fragile or old, fearing to damage it, so I’m as likely to sell anything collectible and replace it with something else; a newer edition I can prop up and read in bed or when lunching at the kitchen counter. A book I can carry outside when we sit on the deck and not worry overly much if a drop of wine spills onto it.**

I carry books with me when I go out for coffee. When I travel I fret and fuss over which books to bring along. I’ve taken as much as a box of books to read on a two-week vacation. Many of my books are marked with bookmarks or sticky notes for later reference. I can spend hours in a bookstore just browsing, for the sheer delight of seeing so many titles in one place, of reading the covers, of perusing the jacket copy.
Frank Furedi, the author of the article, references Richard de Bury’s 1345 essay, Philobiblon, described as the ‘earliest English treatise on the delights of literature’. A later biographer wrote of de Bury that ‘so many books lay about his bed-chamber, that it was hardly possible to stand or move without treading upon them’. I look down at the sprawling pile of books by my bedside and the night stand overflowing with more (to my wife’s endless annoyance) and I can appreciate that observation.

I simply cannot imagine a house could be a home without a personal library. Without books.

There are some evenings when I peruse my shelves looking for a particular title, and find myself being swept into the books themselves, pulling them off the shelf, opening them, reading within, looking behind to see what’s been stuck in the back. And suddenly an hour or two has gone by with me oblivious to the passage of time. Such is the magic the written word has: to immerse us within itself. To engage us.

In her article on bibliomania in The Guardian, Lorraine Berry wrote about a sentiment I can relate to: “When I was a young woman, I drew a sort of perverse pride from my willingness to skip a meal or two in order to afford books.” Which I did too, in my younger days (although no more), She adds,

The first time I sat in that library, holding a book published before 1500, I felt something akin to the way I have felt next to oceans: tiny, and in right proportion to the world. Handling books from centuries before is a poignant reminder that, not only have people loved books for as long as they have existed, they will continue to do so long into the future. Perhaps today, bibliomania does not feel like an irrational behaviour, as books have become less venerated and libraries rarer. Rather, as it was for others before us, it is a careful act of preservation for those who come after.

I have similar feelings when I hold the a page cut from a 1535 antiphonarium (which I wrote about back in 2014). It was printed half a world away, in Renaissance Venice, in the same year Thomas Moore was executed in England for not recognizing Henry VIII as the head of the English church. The year of Jacques Cartier’s second voyage to the New World and the founding of Montreal. Of William Tyndale’s arrest, of Cloverdale’s bible, of Pizarro’s conquests. The year Caxton’s successor, Wynkyn de Worde, died. Almost 500 years later, passing through countless hands, I can hold it myself, a thread that reaches back through all those people and places. How can anyone NOT be moved by that continuity?

I have different emotions, more sentimental feelings when I crack open the old and somewhat crumbling editions of The Boys’ Own Annual, one from 1906-07, the other from 1936-37. I read them as a child. They were my father’s, and, at least the earlier one, his father’s, brought over from England decades ago. To hold them, to read the stories and marvel at the illustrations, is to connect through the generations in my family line, to touch books that were passed along, were on shelves in their homes, were handled and read by the family.

On Aeon, Furedi writes that, “… as symbols of cultural refinement, books really matter. And, though we are meant to be living in a digital age, the symbolic significance of the book continues to enjoy cultural valuation.”

That’s somewhat of mis-statement: it suggests that books have more symbolic value in our culture than functional, which I feel is incorrect. Despite the obsession of some collectors, the whole purpose of the written word since it was first scratched into soft clay has been to transmit knowledge and experience to others. That sharing is essential to being human: before the written word, storytellers and bards fulfilled the role of transmitters (they still do, albeit braced by technology)

Writing is the most significant technology ever invented and reading is the most powerful, most influential, most important activity you can engage in. Sometime soon I’ll post about reading, the brain and our incredible ability to turn abstract symbols into rich images, ideas and experiences. But not right now.

And as for the digital age, while e-readers, smart phones, screens and tablets have to some degree replaced some forms of publication (notably newspapers and magazines), they still remain an adjunct, not a full replacement for books. An article in Publishers’ Weekly (June, 2016) noted that,

…electronic devices are optional for reading books (unlike for listening to music or watching video), and the current range of e-book reading devices—including smartphones, tablets, and dedicated e-readers—has not delivered the quality long-form reading experience needed to supplant print, even with e-books’ major price and convenience advantages. Second …a new consumer phenomenon, “digital fatigue,” is beginning to emerge… The Codex survey also found that though book buyers stated they spent almost five hours of daily personal time on screens, 25% of book buyers, including 37% of those 18–24 years old, want to spend less time on their digital devices. Since consumers almost always have the option to read books in physical formats, they are indicating a preference to return to print.

A PW article from January, 2017 noted that e-book sales are falling, while print sales are rising (which fact Furedi recognizes, albeit only in passing):

…e-book unit sales from reporting publishers were down 16% in 2016 from 2015. Units fell the most in the juvenile fiction segment, where e-book sales dropped 28% in the year and accounted for 10% of total category unit sales in 2016, down from 14%… unit sales of hardcovers overtook unit sales of e-books. With hardcover units up 5% in 2016 over 2015, hardcover’s 188 million units sold topped that of e-books for the first time since Borders closed in 2012…

And another January article in PW noted:

…sales of print books were up 3.3% in 2016 over 2015. Total print unit sales hit 674 million, marking the third-straight year of growth, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 80% of print sales in the U.S.

In the face of the jeremiads that warned digital would soon replace all forms of print, books are enjoying increasing sales. That suggests people are reading their books, not simply displaying them. That’s functional, not symbolic.

One of the comments following the Furedi article includes this:

Is there much of a difference between the physical performativity of a bookshelf and the digital performativity of say a Facebook page or Twitter feed? Surely what’s signified depends on the reader?

To which I must respond: YES, the difference is significant. It’s like the difference between an ocean and a raindrop. The books on the shelf have longevity, have presence, have depth, solidity, gravitas. The social media feed is transient, short and often irrelevant in a larger context (e.g. what the poster had for breakfast or saccharine videos of kittens and puppies…). A book is written with a purpose, a social media post may be nothing more than the intellectual equivalent of a fart.***

A decade, two decades from now, maybe more should I live to that age, I will still have my Chaucer and my Shakespeare. I will still have my Boys’ Own Annuals. I will still have copies of my own written and published books. Tomorrow all today’s posts will have vanished from my social media feed. In a few years, this blog will probably be forgotten. If I forget to renew my domain, it will vanish, every word. Yes, there is a difference.

Books may be status symbols for some; unread, unloved items put on show to express some vaguely snobbish impression, but not for me. Nor for Susan. Books in this home are, and will always be, cherished and read.

* Books I have read, books whose subject matter I no longer pursue actively, earlier editions I have replaced with newer, that sort. Not, of course, those books I consider ‘core’ material, whose content still speaks to me, and which get periodic re-readings and study. Books like The Elements of Style, Zen Flesh Zen Bones, the Dhammapada, Modern English Usage, Dune and the Lord of the Rings, various collections of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Wallace Stevens and my Edgar Rice Burroughs paperbacks. Some you just keep forever, until they fall apart from use.
** I have a very few books that date back to the 19th century, mostly odds and ends picked up at yard sales. Nothing particularly valuable, but interesting nonetheless. Once, at a used book store in New York City some decades back, I found three small books of late 19th century translations of Japanese haiku that I bought because they were so elegant and well made. Somewhere they still sit on a shelf. But I do have a large collection of old sheet music, mostly from 1924-40, bought to feed my passion for classic ukulele music.
*** Performativity? “… the capacity of speech and communication not simply to communicate but rather to act or consummate an action, or to construct and perform an identity.” I wasn’t not sure why a neologism was required to replace the perfectly adequate word performance. I had to look the word up – it appears on many sites – to appreciate the difference. Here is where I found the best explanation:

PERFORMATIVITY produces a series of effects (intended or not). We act/talk/dress/etc in ways that consolidate us being a woman/man. We act as if being a woman/man is a fact about us, something that’s ‘just there’ from the start – out it’s actually an effect that is being continually produced and reproduced… PERFORMANCE, on the other hand, is about acting/embodying in the moment and presumes a certain kind of choice within that. So it’s different to performativity, because performativity is ongoing and produces certain effects in terms of the way you are treated, which are often not of your choice.

This site notes, “In narratology, performativity denotes modes of presenting or evoking action.” Narratology? Another neologism: “…the study of narrative and narrative structure and the ways that these affect our perception.” I wasn’t aware until I started researching that such a study existed.

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