On Being a Bibliophile

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After coming across a 2012 article by Julian Barnes, on life as a bibliophile, I felt compelled to record my own memories of book collecting and bibliophilia. I came to book collecting at a rather late age, sometime in my teens. Before that point, I had relied on library copies, none of which I can recall clearly, except for the copies of the adventures of Arsene Lupin, those yellow paperbacks that are now long gone; I always thought Lupin was much more brilliant than his rival, Sherlock Holmes. But sometime during my early teens, the local library in Vancouver began having these secondhand books sales, twice a year, in April and September. There, my bibliophilia bloomed. I discovered all sorts of vintage paperbacks and folio editions bound in leather, with embossed covers, all for incredibly cheap prices (no more than $3 each). There was an 1850 edition of poetry by Elizabeth Cook, whom I had never heard of; a collection of palm-sized, cream-coloured copies of Jane Austen’s works, from the early 1900s; a late 1800 copy of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which I can’t really read, because it’s so fragile. Before the days of book recommendation sites, these book sales were a fantastic way of learning about new titles or authors. So, I would go to the book sales with empty cardboard boxes and come back home with the boxes overflowing with precious finds. For the first time, I saw books not only as companions or sources of delight and knowledge, but beautiful objects to be coveted. Gone were the days of those Wordsworth editions (though I still keep those). It’s safe to say that soon, most of my allowance was spent on books; similarly, a bulk of my salary nowadays is dedicated to the cultivation of my bibliophilia.

It’s not unusual for people in the humanities, or academia more generally, to be obsessed with books. In fact, it’s probably a stereotype, one that I was happy to perpetuate. I became attached to certain copies and tried to hunt down out-of-print editions. These were not editions that were rare due to monetary value, but editions with specific cover designs or editions with which I associate certain memories. For example, for years I hunted for my own copies of a series of E. M. Forster’s complete works (published by the Quality Paperback Book Club of New York), simply because those editions were the ones I had used in the school library when I first encountered Forster; re-reading A Room with a View would not be the same without Corot’s picture of Florence on the cover and the familiar font on the pages. As Barnes writes, ‘To own a certain book – one you had chosen yourself – was to define yourself.’

During the early days of my book collecting, I was very careful with each volume, taking care not to crease the covers or bend the spines. But as my collecting progressed, I began to appreciate these signs of wear and tear; they were evidence of a book having been read, vestiges of the mornings spent in the company of that particular copy. This all probably sounds a bit obsessive, but as Benjamin suggests in his seminal essay, there’s very little that’s not obsessive about the collector.

My bibliophilia reached its heights during my years in London – predictably, given the many treasure troves that London has to offer the bibliophile. I roamed every secondhand book depository, from the basements at Charing Cross to the South Bank bookstall. I became particularly fond of vintage Penguin paperbacks, which were very accessible at £2 each – it’s very difficult to resist judging a book by its cover when I came across these lovely little volumes. I once had the great privilege of browsing through the private storage room of Skoob Books in Bloomsbury (they have the friendliest staff out of all the bookstores I’ve frequented), and found a few of the earliest Penguins. It was also there that I learned how stickers and other ephemera stuck on paperbacks, such as the half-torn tag on Lawrence’s Sea and Sardinia (below), make the book more valuable to collectors.

Ephemera became one of my top reasons for visiting secondhand bookshops – the Waterstone’s on Gower Street in Bloomsbury was a particularly bountiful shop in this regard, as many of the books in its secondhand section come stuffed with old ticket stubs, random notes from the 1960s, publisher’s notifications etc. These fragile pieces of paper are surprisingly among my most prized possessions. Their scent of time and their ephemerality are precisely what make them so alluring (the subject of another post). I once learned from the staff at Waterstone’s that an elderly gentleman would go into the shop every fortnight to hunt for vintage train tickets, and eventually the staff joined in the hunt and collected his tickets for him as soon as the new shipments came in. But one day he stopped coming into the shop, and they wondered what had happened to him.

Years of bookshop hopping have brought me some wonderful finds, such as a 12-volume set of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which I found in one of my favourite bookshops outside London – G. David in Cambridge, the old haunt of many writers including Forster and Virginia Woolf. Other great finds (some rather costly) include a Baedecker of Northern Italy from 1899 (which is kept next to the Forster); a remarkable atlas from 1932, when national boundaries were slightly different in various regions; first edition Faber pamphlets of ‘East Coker’ & ‘Little Gidding’ (I have yet to find the other two of the Four Quartets); and the 1832 Heath’s Picturesque Annual, my only book from the Romantic era. The collection will continue to grow. Each book collected defines a period in life as much as the books read during that period, and as such they are the best markers of time.

No Kindle, no matter how comprehensive or practical, can replace these individually selected volumes, carefully inscribed with the date and place of purchase. Unlike the eternally brand new Kindle edition that will never show any signs of age, these books have been passed down the generations, forming an invisible community of readers that have loved or hated the book, extracted wisdom from its pages or misunderstood its complexity. The underlined sentences and marginalia attest to the reading process in a way that electronic highlights cannot. Few activities are more intrinsically human than the reading of a book, for it is through books that human beings have first come to understand self and others.

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