The Man Who Loved Books Too Much – Allison Hoover Bartlett

April 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

I have only about 150 books sitting on my shelves today, right this moment. Of course, I still have my collection of manga that I’ve yet to display (they’re still in a huge cardboard box, the poor fellas). I’m nowhere near what people would call a “collector”, or a bibliophile.

But I do love my books. It doesn’t take anyone much to learn that fact about me – I wear this particular love on my sleeve.

I had bought this book under the impression that it was a novel, based on a true story. It’s been on my shelves for nearly two years now, and even when my sister picked it up, she didn’t let me in on the fact that I was wrong about this little detail – it is actually not a fiction piece.

At times, though, it really does read like one. How can I realistically believe that someone would be so desperate to own books – books they probably cannot finish reading in this lifetime and the next – that they would be willing to resort to “taking”? And yet, the author does such a wonderful job at letting me know that I’m not the only one in disbelief – she’s constantly in the same state.

And even more odd is the feeling I get reading about this urge to own books. While I don’t understand how he can convince himself that he’s right to take what’s not rightfully his (in his mind, it actually is rightfully his), I can somehow understand why he wants to have those books in his possession in the first place.

Again, I’m no collector – of anything. I simply don’t collect. But I know what it feels like to walk into a space full of books, and feel like I’m doing myself and the universe a disservice if I leave empty-handed. I know what it’s like, this feeling of owing it to myself to take something home.

But, you know, maybe there’s really something to this that I cannot fathom. And I have decided it doesn’t matter.

The difference between a person who appreciates books, even loves them, and a collector is not only degrees of affection, I realised. For the former, the bookshelf is a kind of memoir: there are my childhood books, my college books, my favourite novels, my inexplicable choices. Many matchmaking and social networking websites offer a place for members to list what they’re reading for just this reason: books can reveal a lot about a person. This is particularly true of the collector, for whom the bookshelf is a reflection not just of what he has read but profoundly of who he is: “Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they can come alive in him; it is he who comes alive in them,” wrote cultural critic Walter Benjamin.

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