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Bibliomania: A Love Affair With The Printed Word

You can keep your Kindles and e-books because there’s nothing to beat the feel of a book in your hands - and even better if it’s a new title for your growing book collection, writes Matt Roper

Those of us who travel light are always said to be the ones who travel fastest, but the fact is that among the few material weaknesses I have seems to be the one for books. Typewriters, too – although thankfully I’ve managed to curb that particular obsession. I’ve had to.

To accumulate books is not a sensible thing to do if you lead the life of a hopeless wanderer but as I find I have to explain to people (why?): a book should not be considered a luxury but a necessity. Books are my downtime, sometimes my lifeline and – most importantly – my education.

In an article published in 1943 by a Dr Martin Sander, he writes that “the collector smiles upon the ignorant who cannot understand the enjoyment of collecting. The philosopher says: Ne quid nimis, go not too far.” But of all the adages, this one is the most difficult to follow. The bibliophile is the master of his books, the bibliomaniac their slave.

I see my dear pal Hovey Burgess as both the happy bibliophile and the incurable bibliomaniac. What can you do with that Dr. Sander? Hovey is a man in possession of one of the largest libraries of books relating to circus, comedy, theatre, vaudeville and variety arts in the world. Sometimes just being around vast collections of books – if not your own, but somebody else’s – with plenty of time on your hands is enough to get your fix.

Hovey’s books have flowed right out of his fifth floor Manhattan apartment and into several carefully catalogued, lovingly maintained storage units and to spend time in them is a rare and beautiful thing. In those collections Hovey has titles, many of them first editions, which go right back to the Victorian era and then some. I think we both get on because we understand the mind of the avid collector of books. Others might see it as a disorder – some sort of pathological compulsion – after all, what is the difference between the hoarder of old newspapers and the collector of books?

The Australian comedian Barry Humphries puts his lifelong bibliomania down to a childhood episode in suburban Melbourne when he came home from school one day to find his collection of beloved books had vanished from his bedroom shelves. Not just one or two, but the entire collection. Teary-eyed little Barry ran downstairs to his mother desperately asking after their whereabouts, only to receive the reply that she’d given the whole lot away to the Salvation Army. When begged as to why, she replied “But you’ve read them all, Barry!”

Humphries today has amassed a collection of over 25,000 books and because I’ve never laid eyes on his library myself I can only assume he has plenty of space and very strong floorboards.

In the past I’ve whiled away a lot of time and a little money at one of the great independent bookstores of the world, found at 37 Rue de la Bûcherie on the Left Bank of the River Seine. I say bookstore, but it’s so much more than that. You can even move into it. The perfect solution to those fellow souls who love the printed word but who have to travel light.

Opened in 1951 by an astute American named George Whitman in a part of Paris then filled with junk shops and dreary hotels, Shakespeare and Company was fast established not only as a fine bookshop but as a place for published and unpublished writers to read extracts from their work – a sort of meeting place and creative hub for all the promising young Hemingway's of Paris and beyond. But he didn’t stop there. Generations of young penniless artists and writers have been given a space to sleep – be it a bench, a cot or a roll-mat – on the upper floors of the vast but crumbling building that houses the shop.

Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Durrell and Anais Nin are just a few of the rogues, vagabonds and scribblers who lived above shop in exchange for a few hours of manning the tills and tending to the shelves which allowed them then to spend at least a part of their day reading and writing. Shakespeare and Company has formed a community since the Fifties which draws on the philosophy of Whitman himself, with those immortal words that greet you as you ascend to the first floor: Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.

I would still prefer to lose hours at a bookshop or in a library than trawl around for titles online – though the latter certainly has its uses and there is nothing like the sound of the thud of a package which contains an eagerly-awaited book dropping through the mailbox.

I imagine the bibliomaniac finds it just as difficult to walk past a second-hand bookshop in the same way a hardened drinker finds it difficult to walk past a pub. Lead me not into temptation. Travel light, they tell me. Don’t go on buying books.

Oh, but I will. I will.

 

Matt Roper is a British comedian based in New York City. His relationship with Lush began back in 2011 when he appeared before the muddy festival-goers of Lushfest, returning the following year to curate the line-up of the comedy stage. As he travels around the world, he shares his musings with us here in a series of writings — a sifting of thought from a restless but always seeking imagination.

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I would still prefer to lose hours at a bookshop or in a library than trawl around for titles online - though the latter has its uses

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