Any suggestion that my father’s association with books was governed by a developing strategy would be a wicked deceit. Apart from my mother and his music, they were the light of his life. They were his meat and drink. They were his bulwark against the world. They became – it is impossible to deny – an overpowering disease.
He bought them, read them, marked them, reread them, stored them, reallocated them on the shelves, which spread like erysipelas up every available wall, knew where each precious volume of the countless thousands nestled without the aid of a catalogue. His appetite was gargantuan and insatiable. He was a bibliophilial drunkard – with the difference that the taste never palled and he never had a hangover. The only stab of remorse he ever experienced was the rare recollection of how, at one of the Hodgson’s sales or in one of the second-hand shops where he spent another of his lifetimes, a temptation has been cravenly resisted. He would tell me over lunch how he had been at the bookshop prompt at nine o’clock that morning to repair some cowardly error of the day before. The treasure was still there on the shelf. Who could want further proof of the intervention of Providence?
Since the house in Cornwall had still to be run as a place of human habitation my mother often found the pressure intolerable. So my father became furtive. He would get up early to waylay the postman or set off for London on a Monday morning with several empty suitcases. When he went on a lecture tour to America he returned with eleven cratefuls. When each member of the family was old enough to leave home, the parting could be borne. Valuable wall space was released. Wordsworth or Napoleon or Montaigne or Dr. Johnson could at last have a room of his own, like John Milton.
Michael Foot, ‘Isaac Foot: A Rupert for the Roundheads’ (1980)
I bet there are many among us who can identify with the above quite well, although we may all vary in terms of the degree of intensity involved. But we all know what it feels like to regret having left a book behind on the shelves of a bookshop and hoping it would still be there when we try to rectify the mistake at the earliest opportunity we can get. Or how we can so easily come up with all kinds of ways (or ‘schemes’) in order to ‘cover up’ our tracks in our book-buying habits from those whom we know would look at us with disapproving eyes. Or the lengths that we go through in order to satiate our book hunger or cravings.
I once took a half empty suitcase with me on a trip to the UK, and came back with the lugagge carrying 30 odd books. Yes, it was back-breaking lugging them around, especially towards the last leg of the trip where we had to literally drag the suitcase three floors up using the stairs to get to our room at the YMCA in Bath! We nearly died upon reaching the top. :p
When I want a book, it is as a tiger wants a sheep. I must have it with one spring, and if I miss it, I go away defeated and hungry.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, ‘The Poet at the Breakfast Table’ (1872).