The Dao of Book Collecting

When my grandmother was working on her will, she asked me what I wanted, and I hesitated not. “The books” was my answer. Not the baby grand, not the fine furniture, not even money. I wanted all the books I could get, and it didn’t matter that I was living in a dorm room with barely enough room for my textbooks. With the bibliophilic equivalent of youthful invincibility I believed that there was no such thing as too many books and that somehow there would always be empty bookshelves waiting to receive them. I dreamed of one day having a library (the room, that is), and my papery inheritance would fill a fair number of my (future) gleaming, darkly-stained, built-in bookshelves.

I have to admit, though, that the older I get the more I become like my father, in general and with regard to books. As the years and pay cheques go by, I am becoming more aware of my temporal, spatial, and financial limits. I still buy books, but not before checking them out at the library to make sure they are all they claim to be. I have become quite selective in what I will buy, or even borrow, limiting myself to solid references or foundational works in the subject areas I’m most interested in. Thanks to the internet I can now sift through hundreds of titles, read excerpts and reviews, and find the gems, without even leaving my home.

I recently went through Amazon’s nearly 800-strong selection of books on Chinese medicine and found that a mere seven works, by unrivalled leaders in the field, were sufficient to address the subject with all the depth and breadth that I could wish for. I now consider my library in that subject area to be complete. It’s a novel concept for me to be done buying books, at least in one field. I applied the same method to the subject of calligraphy and came away with an even more frugal trio of books: one classic, one manual, and one reference work. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

More astonishing still is that I am now able to let go of books that no longer (or never did) serve my needs. I have unquestionably been influenced by watching countless episodes of TLC’s Clean Sweep, where expert organizers rescue charmingly neurotic families from their mountains of clutter. The bottom line of the show is that you only have so much space, and your space should be reserved for the life you have now, not for the life you had in the past or the life you may (or may not) have in the future. The new bottom line of my book buying is that I only have so much reading time, shelf space, and spending money, so I must select the best of the best, and leave the rest behind.

Thomas Hardy's Study

Since my grandmother’s passing I’ve added significantly to my stock, taking little notice of the fact that the more books I buy the less likely it is that I will be able to afford a library to put them in (never mind shelves to store them on, which is a whole other subject). Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw gave new meaning to the phrase “well heeled” when she realized that with the money she had spent on shoes she could have bought an apartment. “I will literally be the old woman who lives in her shoes,” she lamented to her sensible, apartment-owning girlfriends. I know how she feels (though I would point out that books make a sturdier shelter than Manolos).

I’m not the only one in my family with a love of collecting books. In fact all of my relatives are afflicted with bibliophilia, which leads me to conclude that it is a genetic trait. The only black sheep in the family is my father who is ruled by a reluctance to part with money (apparently a dominant gene). His pile books come from the library, and he spends many happy hours at his local branch reading magazines and newspapers. (It’s a good thing too—my very existence is owed to the fact that he stood and read, rather than bought, the magazines at my mother’s gift shop.)

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4 comments on “The Dao of Book Collecting

  1. Seesaw says:

    Read this beautiful post only today!
    From the point of view of someone who is single, and will soon be 68, must admit you had more wisdom when writing this post than me until lately (i.e. D.'s illness and surgery.)
    At one pont I had cca 3.000 books, then came the war, my parents library disapeared, together with grandparents' Brockhaus Enzyklopädie from 1880! After the war, I was forced to sell some of my books, and today, finally I came to senses, go to library to take a book when I feel like reading, and each time I do that I also bring to the library as a present load of books from my personal library. Where you living closer, I would leave to you in my will all these books in English that I bought during my studies…

  2. Sylvia says:

    I'm sorry to hear about your loss of books! It sounds like it was an impressive library. I appreciate the thought about your will. I sometimes wonder what will happen to my books after I've gone. I'll likely be the last of my family, so they'll probably go to the library, and I imagine most will be sold to raise money to buy new books. And the cycle of books will continue…

  3. Seesaw says:

    So I hope…
    To me, same as to you, the books were everything, they were my friends, my new dresses, my flat… And they never disapointed me.
    Now I only wish the books that I still have should finish in the hands of somebody who appreciates the written word, once I am no longer there to take care of them.

  4. Sylvia says:

    Yes, whoever owns them, books should be loved!

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