Sonderbooks Book Reviews by Sondra Eklund

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*****= An all-time favorite
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***A Passion for Books

A Book Lover's Treasury of Stories, Essays, Humor, Lore, and Lists on Collecting, Reading, Borrowing, Lending, Caring for, and Appreciating Books

edited by Harold Rabinowitz and Rob Kaplan

Reviewed September 13, 2005.
Three Rivers Press, New York, 1999.  355 pages.
Available at Sembach Library (028.9 PAS).

As the subtitle indicates, this book covers all possible aspects of loving books, in a wide variety of forms.  I found the essays on book collecting rather dry (since my own passion doesn’t take that form), but mostly it was fun to read about others who love books.

The editors say in the introduction, “We are among those for whom there is no such thing as too many books and, as a consequence, have become inured, of necessity, to that ridiculous question we all face from time to time from those who do not share our passion:  ‘Have you read all these books?’”

“We are the people for whom buying books is not a luxury but a necessity, those who can understand what Thomas Jefferson meant when he said, ‘I cannot live without books,’ and how Desiderius Erasmus could write, ‘When I have a little money I buy books.  And if any is left, I buy food and clothing.’”

I enjoyed the essay “The Ritual,” by Rob Kaplan, as I learned that here’s another person who has made a data base of books he owns and whether he has read them or not.  Like me, “I’m constantly falling behind and, at any given time, have several hundreds books I intend to read but haven’t yet had the opportunity to.  The ‘status’ field in my database enables me, once I’ve finished reading a book, to immediately call up a list of all those books I haven’t yet read, thus giving me a choice from which I can select the next one.”  He also writes the purchase date in the book, exactly like my mother does, and her father before her.

I love Umberto Eco’s response to people who see all his books.  He possesses “a fairly sizable library (large enough in my case that someone entering our house can’t help but notice it; actually, it takes up the whole place).  The visitor enters and says, ‘What a lot of books!  Have you read them all?’  At first I thought that the question characterized only people who had scant familiarity with books, people accustomed to seeing a couple of shelves with five paperback mysteries and a children’s encyclopedia bought in installments.  But experience has taught me that the same words can be uttered also by people above suspicion.  It could be said that they are still people who consider a bookshelf as a mere storage place for already read books and do not think of the library as a working tool.  But there is more to it than that.  I believe that, confronted by a vast array of books, anyone will be seized by the anguish of learning and will inevitably lapse into asking the question that expresses his torment and his remorse. . . . 

“The question about your books has to be answered, while your jaw stiffens and rivulets of cold sweat trickle down your spine.  In the past I adopted a tone of contemptuous sarcasm.  ‘I haven’t read any of them; otherwise, why would I keep them here?’  But this is a dangerous answer because it invites the obvious follow-up:  ‘And where do you put them after you’ve read them?’  The best answer is the one always used by Roberto Leydi:  ‘And more, dear sir, many more,’ which freezes the adversary and plunges him into a state of awed admiration.  But I find it merciless and angst-generating.  Now I have fallen back on the riposte:  ‘No, these are the ones I have to read by the end of the month.  I keep the others in my office,’ a reply that on the one hand suggests a sublime ergonomic strategy and on the other leads the visitor to hasten the moment of his departure.”

Robertson Davies talks about himself as one whose “affair with books is a cheerful life-enhancing passion.”  He admits that moving them is a daunting task—something I know much about as a military spouse.  “The one thing that never occurs to me is to get rid of some books or to forswear buying any more.”

A. Edward Newton quotes an unknown author as saying, “I hold the buying of more books than one can peradventure read, as nothing less than the soul’s reaching towards infinity; which is the only thing that raises us above the beasts that perish.”  I like that way of looking at it!

I like the quotations peppered throughout the book, such as the one by Henry Ward Beecher:  “Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?”  Or, from Jorge Luis Borges:  “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”  From Augustine Birrell:  “An ordinary man can. . . surround himself with two thousand books. . . and thenceforward have at least one place in the world in which it is possible to be happy.”

If you have a passion for books, you will enjoy reading this book, which shows you are in good company.

Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund. All rights reserved.

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