Acres of books

Language Hat has some remarks on a piece in the New York Times on Kathie Coblentz, a librarian at the New York Public Library who has managed to fit 3600 books into a one-bedroom apartment (Carole Braden, “A Bibliophile, 3,600 Friends and a System”, New York Times 10 Feb 2005—this link may not last). Of course, this being the Times, there must be (i) a trend and (ii) an angle.
The trend is toward the traditional:
[…] home libraries are becoming more of a preoccupation, posing challenges for decorators as well as for book lovers. “Every room can have bookcases,” said Thomas Jayne […]
Buzz Kelly, a designer at Jed Johnson Associates, has devised a string of book-dedicated spaces in the last year. These days “a library is as standard as a master bedroom,” he said, citing one client’s recent decision to sacrifice a formal dining room for an eat-in kitchen and a cubby filled with leather-lined shelves for the family’s books.
In an odd way it’s comforting to know that even people who can afford the services of Jed Johnson Associates have to make the occasional sacrifice.
On the other hand, it’s disturbing to realize that for the Jed Johnson set, libraries are fungible with dining rooms. —Eat, read, eat, read… Which is it to be? Ah, but these days libraries are a “preoccupation”: that settles it! Buzz, build me a cubby filled with leather-lined shelves! Rich Corinthian leather!
The angle is that Coblentz has put together the NYPL Home Library System. It’s $40 from the NYPL. There are certainly less deserving outfits to send your money to. On the other hand, your own city’s library probably needs the money just as much (). Unless it’s in Monowi, Nebraska.
Modest obsessions
Aside from the amusement of seeing a Times reporter confuse Melvil Dewey with John, the article gave me a new (or newly reinforced) word: completist.
It turns out Ms. Coblentz is a voracious consumer of Clint Eastwood films and has a large category dedicated to him. […] “I’m a completist where Eastwood is concerned,” Ms. Coblentz said.
Some people have a “completist syndrome”: about Morgan Llywelyn, for example, or Williams and Elfman. You can also buy a completist toothbrush.
The word may be new (Word Spy added it in 1999), but the concept is as old as the Library at Alexandria. Or older (). The true collector, one who “has the passion of collecting as such”, wants something abstract: not the things themselves that gather on shelves, in glass cases, or on the sheets of albums, but completeness itself:
Chacun de ces objetsEach of these objects, considered in isolation, has at base no real interest to the collector, who is instead impassioned by the idea of possessing them all, that they are all there, and who is correspondingly tormented by the idea that they might not all be at his fingertips, that “I might be missing one”., considéré isolément, ne présente au fond pas d’interêt réel pour le collectionneur, que passionne en revanche l’idée qu’il les possède tous, qu’ils sont tous là, et que tourmente inversement l’idée qu’ils pourraient ne pas être tous présents à l’appel, qu’il «pourrait m’en manquer un».
It might once have been possible (the collector must regard the object of his or her passion—the complete collection—as possible) to aim at owning a copy of every book (the Library of Congress is supposed to receive a copy of every work copyrighted in the US). The Library of Babel is uncanny in part because it is guaranteed to contain every book: it is not the fulfillment of the collector’s desire but its defeat—a collection that cannot be added to. The true collector, if he or she does manage to acquire all the works of author X, then finds it necessary either to particularize, and to start looking for association copies, limited editions, autograph manuscripts, and the like, or to generalize—to collect not just the works of X, for example, but X-iana, a collection inexhaustible because “being related to X” has no fixed bounds.
The collector of books and the bibliophile are distinct. A collector, say, of science fiction need not be concerned with the condition of the books, or their rarety (though in a complete collection some items will almost certainly be rare). What the collector wants is all, which is usually many (there was a story in the Post-Dispatch recently about a local woman who owns 5,000 snow globes, which is of course not a complete collection).
The bibliophile in a pure state might well be content with one book, if only it were possible to acquire it—that one book being the perfect representative of the art.
Evidence for that last claim can be found in Charles Nodier’s “Le Bibliomane” (). The charmed item is an edition of Bocaccio’s Decameron from 1527—“le vintisettine”, as it is called by the expiring bibliomane Théodore. Nodier mentions in the story another edition, a Virgil of 1676, that he himself desired but never managed to buy. The bibliomane doesn’t want every edition of Virgil, nor even every copy of the 1676 Elzevier; what Théodore and his author wanted was just one copy, the “exemplaire géant” whose leaves had lost the very least amount of margin in being bound. Théodore’s decline begins with his discovery of a unpurchasable copy whose pages, measured with his elzéviromètre, are one-third of a ligne (about 1/33 of an inch) larger than his copy’s pages. “Une tierce de ligne!” is his melancholy refrain thereafter.
I myself am neither a collector nor a bibliophile or -mane. If the logic of the collector is to want what is absent only so long as it is absent (and so, by way of maintaining the passion, to want what cannot but be absent), the logic of my acquisitions is instead an inverted sorites: if one book is not too many, and if, given that n books is not too many, neither is n+1, then for all n, n books is not too many. The resulting velleity is easily satisfied partialiter; but of course it shares with the collector’s passion the property of being impossible to fulfill completely.
Acres of Books was a bookstore in Cincinnati, probably the first used bookstore I went to. It apparently still exists, but is looking for a new location. The founder moved to Long Beach and started another bookstore with the same name, which is now the largest of its kind in the LA area.
() I do like the Personal Library Kit. But they should have included overdue notices.
() See Nicholas A. Basbanes, A gentle madness: bibliophiles, bibliomanes, and the eternal passion for books (Henry Holt, 1995) and Lionel Casson, Libraries in the ancient world (Yale, 2001).
() Charles Nodier, “Le Bibliomane”, in L’Amateur de livres, édition présentée par Jean-Luc Steinmetz (Bordeaux: Le Castor Astral, 1993) 27–46; orig. publ. in Le Livre des Cent-et-Un, 1831, 1:87–108.

LinkFebruary 17, 2005 in Books