The Secret Inner Life of a Bibliophile
I love books.
From the time I first picked up a battered copy of The Hobbit to the time when I discovered a deep affinity for science fiction when I first read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, books have been the center of gravity that my life has orbited around. I spent five years studying English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan for that very reason, learning how to grapple with the difficult ideas that literature often forces you to face.
Books are more than just literature, though. They’re more than just allusion and framing and metaphor. They’re human, and because of that, they represent us. Our hopes and aspirations. Our fears and malevolence. Sometimes it is easy to forget that books are more than just bound pages with ink. They’re the voices of people echoing through time. Who was the first person to tell the epic of Beowulf? How many times did the words “Hwaet! we Gar-Dina…” pass between the lips of a poet, strumming an Anglo-Saxon lyre, while people huddled around a fire, captivated by the stories of a Geat who defeated a horrible monster and later became king of the Geats?
We’ll never know, but these questions have always inspired me. I learned how to read Old English and that act, inspired by images of a tradition of poet-actors who passed the story down orally, opened me to more worlds of thought than I could ever have imagined. Kennings, which are particular to Old English, helped me to see how flexible language can be. Why adhere to a rigid understanding of words and definitions when our language was so adept at using words like heofon-candel, or sky candle, to mean sun?
There aren’t many ways to see just how powerful Old English is when spoken anymore. I was lucky enough to come across two videos by Benjamin Bagby, the opening lines of Beowulf and the battle scene with Grendel, which do a magnificent job of showing how the epic poem might have been performed.
Books are also physical. Holding a copy of an old book and feeling its weight is, to a bibliophile, an affirmation of life. The smell of the fragile, often yellow pages invokes a sense of wonder. We want to collect the books we love. I tend to collect different editions and printings of the same book if I can find them. Some time ago I started to catalog my books so that I could keep track of the different editions.
One of the things that’s absolutely wonderful about cataloging books is that not only does it allow me to show off a huge stack of slips that detail the books, but it also allows me to feel and hold each one. I have to open the book to get the information to put on the slip for the catalog, so even if I never get around to reading it (I do have a life outside of books and I do enjoy living it) I can take the time to appreciate it. The picture above and to the right is from a copy of David Starr, Space Ranger that I had recently purchased. Little things like these old order forms make me smile.
One of the drawbacks with book collecting is space. I have personally cursed the laws of physics more than once over the years as bookshelves were filled to capacity and storage containers to bursting with books. So now they exist wherever I can find room for them: under the bed, in multiple closets, and in various rooms.
Despite the lack of space for the books, I don’t ever imagine I’ll stop collecting them. Every time I go to a bookstore I have to stop myself from grabbing up stacks of books (lest I drive myself into bankruptcy) and carting them to the counter. Collecting books isn’t just a hobby or a passion, though. In many ways it is like the accumulation of money; a kind of cultural and intellectual currency to expand the mind and enrich the soul. They allow you to connect and communicate with people that may be long dead, adding their ideas and perspectives to your own.
The search for books is the search for knowledge. Fiction can teach us about the perils and pitfalls that we must face by our nature as humans, just as nonfiction can guide our learning on history and science. We become more than what we were after we learn. We improve ourselves and we pass that on to those that come after us. And that’s the open secret we bibliophiles know. Books, like ideas and knowledge, are precious.