Later in my home in Toronto, I put up bookshelves just about everywhere – in bedrooms and kitchen, corridors and bathroom. Even the covered porch had its shelves, so that my children complained that they felt they required a library card to enter their own home. But my books, in spite of any pride of place granted to them, were never satisfied. Detective Writing, housed in the basement bedroom, would suddenly outgrow the space allotted to it and would have to be moved upstairs to one of the corridor walls, displacing French Literature. French Literature would now have to be reluctantly divided into Literature of Quebec, Literature of France and Literature of Other Francophone Countries. I found it highly irritating to have Aime Cesaire, for instance, separated from his friends Eluard and Breton, and to be forced to exile Louis Hemon’s Maria Chapdelaine (Quebec’s national romantic epic) into the company of books by Huysmans and Hugo, just because Hemon happened to have been born in Brittanny and I have no room left in the Quebecois section.
Old books that we have known but not possessed cross our path and invite themselves over. New books try to seduce us daily with tempting titles and tantalizing covers. Families beg to be united: volume XVIII of the Complete Works of Lope de Vega is announced in a catalogue, calling to the other seventeen that sit barely leafed through, on my shelf. How fortunate for Captain Nemo to be able to say, during his twenty-thousand league journey under the sea, that “the world ended for me the day when my Nautilus sank underwater for the first time. On that day, I bought my last volumes , my last pamphlets, my last periodicals, and since then, it is for me as if humanity no longer thought nor wrote a single word”. But for readers like myself, there are no “last” purchases on this side of the grave.
Alberto Manguel, “The Library at Night”
The will-power necessary to get rid of books must be maintained at all costs. Even if one buys on a modest scale – say, one book a day on an average – they fill room after room with the inevitability of the rising tide. I once visited a house in Blackheath after its owner had died. It was solid books. Shelves had been abandoned years before; in every room narrow lanes ran between books stacked from floor to ceiling, ninety per cent of them utterly inaccessible. In one of the bedrooms there was a narrow space two feet wide round the bed, and there the owner had died, almost entombed in print. This macabre glimpse of the ultimate excesses of bibliomania has always been a warning.
A.N.L. Munby, ‘Floreat bibliomania’ (1952)
Much as most of us will agree with Manguel’s conviction that “there are no last purchases on this side of the grave” when it comes to books, I think it will also do us good to take heed of A.N.L. Munby’s reminder of what unchecked excesses of bibliomania can lead up to. Indeed, the will-power to be willing to get rid of (at least some of) our books, must be maintained at all cost.
How ruthless are you, when it comes to culling your books?