In her 1980 essay on the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Elias Canetti, Susan Sontag draws a distinction between two kinds of book collectors. The first, she says, has "a passion for books as material objects (rare books, first editions)". The second kind of book collector builds a library as "the materialisation of an obsession whose ideal is to put the books inside one's head; the real library is only a mnemonic system".
I don’t call myself a book collector but I do acknowledge that I am an obsessive buyer and owner of books. Wherever I settle, books accumulate in piles around me. Wherever I go, I buy a book. Put me down anywhere on Earth, and I will find some way to buy a book. I’ve bought books everywhere. One-room cafes on remote barbaric coasts. Railway stations in the middle of nowhere in countries where English is not spoken. Theme parks. Log cabins. Parties.
I don’t know how many books I own. But it’s a lot. No: more than you think. A quick survey of the books currently piled on my desk gives me a count of 83 – and that’s just the ones on my desk. Why so many books? Well, it’s like Susan Sontag says. I want to put the books inside my head.
In practice, I wonder how useful a well-stocked mind really is
Of course, I will never put every book I own inside my head. I read about 180 books a year (this might sound like a boast but is actually, I think, a sort of cry for help). So it would take me just under half a year to read even the books that are lined up on my desk (my "TBR pile", as the phrase goes). What about the books stacked two layers deep on the Ikea shelves behind me? How many of them are there? I'm afraid to count.
“You have a problem,” my wife tells me. During lockdown, unable to conduct my customary thrice-weekly bookshop visits, I was forced to order books online. Very quickly it became unignorable: I bought too many books. Not just too many – insanely many. Worryingly many. But I didn’t – I don’t – know how to stop.
The goal is absolutely to put the books inside my head: to possess them, to make them mine. Not just to accumulate knowledge (wisdom, facts). To accumulate imaginary worlds, beautiful sentences, perfectly structured stories. To construct for myself, in a phrase I encountered as a teenager and fell in love with, “a well-stocked mind”.
In practice, though, I wonder how useful a well-stocked mind really is. Mostly what it seems to mean is that everything that happens to me reminds me of something I read in a book. Is that useful? It doesn’t even really serve as a hedge against boredom. I am amazingly easily bored, especially if I don’t have a book to hand.
Anyone who collects anything is driven by a desire for control and a deep-rooted fear of disorder
Sometimes it occurs to me that my reading habit – my book-buying habit – is structurally identical to my other addiction – scrolling aimlessly on my phone. My Twitter feed versus a book. These may seem to offer distinct experiences. But aren’t they, functionally speaking, basically just the same kind of distraction from the void?
Anyone who collects anything – model trains, postcards, gig tickets – is, whether they know it or not, driven by a desire for control, and hence, I suspect, by a deep-rooted fear of disorder. To contemplate your collection is to contemplate a little patch of coherent reality – one that’s all yours and no one else’s.
The book obsessive is therefore, I suspect, really just a literary-minded neurotic. On the other hand, books do have specific qualities that make them attractive to the obsessive mind. Books have cultural capital. They’re respectable. They’re classy. But books are also soothing. Owning books is soothing. Buying books is soothing. Arranging books is soothing. The mere physical presence of books is soothing (is there any public space more restful than a bookshop or a library?).
I've just heard that Chapters is reopening. Which for me is like hearing the neighbourhood dealer is back on the street
And books themselves are miniature emblems of order. Linear print. A graspable geometric shape (all those neat rectangular volumes). The words within carefully organised, edited, printed, bound, shipped and sold by an intricately organised system of production. No wonder they reassure us. No wonder they reassure me.
Yes, I have a problem. But my real problem, I’m beginning to suspect, isn’t owning too many books; it’s what owning too many books says about me. I would, it seems, rather entomb myself in books than stare boredom or disorder in the face. But it’s too late to change that now. And I’ve just heard that Chapters on Parnell Street is reopening. Which for me is like hearing that the neighbourhood dealer is back on the street. I shouldn’t go in; I have vastly too many books already. But look at that – I’m already on my way.