The Post-Modern Self   /   Spring 2017   /    Notes And Comments

Friendship by the Book

Richard Hughes Gibson

Private library of George L. Meyer, Hamilton, Massachusetts.

What do your books say about you?

The critic John Sutherland once observed that private book collections can become for their assemblers “intimate parts of themselves.” As an example, he cited John Keats’s arrangements for the posthumous distribution of his books as he prepared for his ill-fated voyage to Italy. Sutherland characterized the plan as a “quasi-sacramental bequest”: The poet wished to issue parts of himself with the volumes of his beloved little library. Sutherland’s insight helps to explain how books become a mode of transaction, signifiers on which layers of interpersonal meaning are piled. This quality is usually overlooked by prophets of the codex’s imminent demise, and even by most ardent defenders of the physical book.

The book’s ability to acquire relational meanings was brought home to me late last year with the death of a friend, the poet and Renaissance scholar Brett Foster. Brett suffered, quite happily, from what Nicholas Basbanes has taught us to call “a gentle madness”: bibliomania. In his bibliophilic memoir Phantoms on the Bookshelves, Jacques Bonnet helpfully differentiates between two “principle categories” of bibliomaniac: the collector and the manic reader. The former collects for collecting’s sake, usually according to some category or field, such as incunabula, illustrated editions of Pilgrim’s Progress, or, to cite a more eccentric example offered by Bonnet, books by writers whose surnames begin with B.

For the latter sort, accumulation is never an aim in itself; it is incidental, arising from “the itch to read and a wide-ranging curiosity.” So they acquire. Manic readers, Bonnet argues, suffer acutely from a malady of memory in which books soak up “past emotions,” as well as its forward-looking counterpart, the expectation that new emotions and insights await in books unread.

As the novelist William Giraldi, an exemplary manic reader, writes, “Your personal library…is the promise of betterment and pleasure to come, a giddy anticipation, a reminder of the joyous work left to do, a prompt for those places to which your intellect and imagination want to roam.” So manic readers cannot bear to release what they’ve caught. While the collector, Bonnet observes, “frets obsessively about the books he does not yet possess, the fanatical reader worries about no longer owning those books” in which are lodged “traces of his past or hopes for the future.”

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