Monday, October 25, 2004


Jeff Hodges sent me this delightful essay.

The Chronicle of Higher Education
Monday, October 25, 2004

My Own Private Library

I wonder whether I am afflicted with something more than a "gentle madness," as Nicholas A. Basbanes described it in his 1999 book on the history of bookcollecting. You see, I spend more on books than I do on food. There are at least 700 books in my English department office. There are another 200 stashed in filing cabinets in the hallway. In my home office I estimate there are more than 2,000 on the shelves and another 300 in a pile on the floor. There are about 400 books on cooking and gardening in the kitchen. And, finally,there are about 50 books on a shelf next to my bed.Those are the ones I intend to read soon. That shelf tends to fill up during the academic year and empty out during the summer. Nearly every trip I take seems to intersect with some site of bibliophilic pilgrimage: New England's backcountry book barns, the antiquarian booksellers ofBoston, Cambridge, New Haven, New York, Chicago, Washington, Amsterdam, London, and, best of all, Hay-on-Wye -- the secondhand book kingdom -- in Wales.In that decaying castle-turned-bookstore, I once felt like Indiana Jones delicately lifting an idol from a booby-trapped pedestal, when I presented a stack ofun recognized rarities -- marked at one pound each --to a Welsh cashier with no clue as to their scholarly value. I live in the rural Midwest right now, and there are no notable secondhand bookstores within 200 miles.

The region has not been inhabited long enough to sustain a supply of interesting, older books besides Bibles, almanacs, and classics for children. So I troll eBay and, looking to fill the gaps in my collections, occasionally finding an unrecognized gem or a damaged but readable copy of a rare book that would normally be out of my financial reach. Just as it did in graduate school, book collecting allows me to take a vacation from my scholarly writing without feelings of guilt. Book-collecting academics are often expert procrastinators. My bibliophilic obsessions are not limited to old books. I am particularly vulnerable to sets and series. I think that habit was started in my adolescence when I used money earned delivering newspapers and mowing lawns to buy books fromTime-Life, such as the "Old West" series bound in genuine hand-tooled Naugahyde. I also enjoyedTime-Life's series on artists, nature, and "Mysteries of the Unknown."

I was taught a proper contempt forTime-Life in college, but those books were my introduction to the so-called "life of the mind." It was probably predictable that I would acquire, once my professional interests turned to American literature, the entire Library of America. You've probably seen those books and their glossy black jackets with a red, white, and blue stripe. Beneath the jackets, the books are tastefully covered in woven rayon with Smyth-sewn bindings, acid-free paper, and a nice ribbon book marker. According to theLibrary of America Web site, the size of each book is"based on the 'golden section,' which the ancient Greeks considered to be the ideal proportion." The set includes authoritative collections of the writings of major American figures such as Franklin, Hawthorne, Melville, and Twain, as well as many 20th-centurywriters. The Library of America now has about 150 volumes, each of them retailing for about $35 to $40, although they can be obtained at a 20 percent discount from online booksellers. That means I've spent at least $4,000 onthe set so far, and five or more new volumes come out every year. The set already fills almost an entire wall of my department office. A student once asked me if the books belonged to the college. It was inconceivable to him that an individual might buy that many look-alike volumes. But I'm hooked. There's no way I can turn back now, even if they start publishing the collectedwritings of Millard Fillmore and Elbert Hubbard. Perhaps my book acquisitions reflect some psychological disorder, an unresolved trauma of my youth. Maybe my behavior is no different from adults who collect Matchbox cars, teddy bears, or baseball cards. It may even be less practical. It's been a heavy burden moving those books from job to job, building shelves for them, organizing and reorganizing them (by subject, by size, alphabetically, chronologically, and even by color). Sometimes I feel like I have a part-time job running a private library. But when I think about my collecting impulse, the reasons breakdown into several categories that don't seem entirely impractical or pathological: Convenience. In general, it takes libraries too long to get new books.

A book's moment is usually past by the time a library becomes aware of it, processes it, catalogues it, and shelves it. It's like waiting for a movie to appear at the video rental store. By the time you get it, almost no one cares about it anymore. Still, once the buzz has subsided, I like to own a copy of every book that I anticipate needing for my scholarly writing. Having them around reinforces my knowledge of their existence -- owned-but-as-yet unread volumes are always vying for my attention. AndI appreciate being able to look up something quickly without having to trek to a library, which may or may not have the book.

Pedagogy. If I recommend a book to a student, 9 timesout of 10 the students will forget all about it. They are much more likely to look at a book if I can put it in their hands immediately. I also like to pass books around in my classes. If I am lecturing on the Philosophes, it's helpful to have a facsimile edition of Diderot's Encyclop├ędie for my class to examine. And because I am interested in a field called the history of the book, I like to give my advanced students access to literary works in the form in which they were originally published. For example, the various permutations of Whitman's Leaves of Grass as a book tell us many things that cannot be learned from a simple reprinting of the text in a Norton anthology. It's important to me to convey a love of books to my students in the same way that reading a particularly good poem aloud is intended to convey enthusiasm for literature.

Economics. It's often cheaper to buy reading copies of many rare books than it is to travel and spend time at distant archives in expensive cities. For the price of one week at the New York Public Library, you can buy reading copies of all but the greatest rarities on almost any manageable topic. And then those books become a permanent asset for your own research, your students, and, possibly, for everyone at yourinstitution if you are inclined to lend materials. Also, now and then, every serious bibliophile finds an unappreciated rarity, sometimes by accident. I once bought a water-stained volume of Lincoln's portraits from a dollar bin that turned out to contain clipped autographs of secretaries of the Navy stretching backto the early 19th century. That accidental acquisition-- which I subsequently sold on eBay -- paid for my book purchases for the entire next year. The more one knows, the more often one finds treasures amid the trash of the average used book sale.

Preservation. Scholars who amass large collections of older, secondhand books often acquire the former property of famous older scholars. I have some volumes from Alfred Kazin's set of the Collected Writings of Walt Whitman. They include page after page of heavy underlining and marginalia that a book dealer thought detracted from their value. I have several volumes on Mark Twain that once belonged to his famous biographer, Justin Kaplan. Themarginalia of older books are often much more valuable than the books themselves. Many copies of 19th-century literary works were once owned by people who had important associations with the author. Multiple copies of books that are regarded by sellers as"damaged but readable" can help a scholar reconstructthe relationship between writers and their audiences.

Community. Old book collectors can meet one another and begin talking like old Red Sox fans. More often,we have unspoken, nodding acquaintance from years of passing one another in the aisles of conventions and shops like Brattle Books of Boston and the Gotham BookMart. Of course, that world of physical contact is being replaced by the Internet in all but the biggest cities. Increasingly, my fascination with old books makes me feel personally connected with dead writers more than living bibliophiles. Whitman understood that. He said of Leaves of Grass, "he who touches this book touches the man himself." He liked to insert photographic portraits of himself in his books, along with inscriptions, and the pledge that he had personally handled the book. People don't really "own" books; they are custodians of them for a time. Sometimes I think about who will own some of my books after I am gone, and I write short notes to them in the margins.

Aesthetics. I've always liked the image of being a rumpled, pipe-smoking don in a book-lined study. I like the way books look, and even the way they smell-- the odor of tobacco and decaying paper is thel ingering aura of the golden age of the professor. Good books have an appealing tactile quality, an animated artistry in their construction that once led me to learn bookbinding and consider a career as a conservator (a profession that is even more intensely competitive than the academy). Nowadays, I enjoy the ritual of opening a new shipment of books from, say, Edward R. Hamilton, Daedalus, orLabyrinth, wrapping their jackets in Mylar (fromGaylord Library Supplies), and finding places for them on oak shelves that I built myself. Even if I have no immediate plans to read them, owning a selection ofthe best books on a variety of topics gives me a proprietary feeling over subjects which I have not yet had time to study in great detail. They are already old friends when the time comes for me to call on them.

Hope. A couple years ago a cartoon from The New Yorker depicted a man in a book-lined study sipping a martini and talking to a woman in a black party dress. The caption: "These books represent the person I once aspired to be." Anyone who collects old books knows that most of what we call "literature" is never read. Large collections of books are fetish objects rather than authentic scholarly resources. I'm like all those architecture students who feel compelled to buy a pair of expensive and uncomfortable Barcelona chairs. I have not yet given up on my professorial aspirations, and each new book is a small investment in that future, which, with any luck, could last another 40 years. At bottom, I suspect I am a scholar because I am a bibliophile rather than the other way around. One could scoff at that as putting the cart before the horse. But if professors and students spent more time buying many books, instead of just writing them at a furious rate, it might help to revive the endangered enterprise of scholarly publishing on which we all depend. Or are all of these points merely the rationalizations of the gently mad?
Thomas H. Benton is the pseudonym of an assistant professor of English at a Midwestern liberal-artscollege. He writes occasionally about academic culture and the tenure track and welcomes reader mail directedto his attention at