Harvard University tells us that its esteemed main library alone, in its system of dozens of libraries—Widener Memorial Library—has stacks of books accessible to those with appropriate ID that measure 57 miles of shelves. They house three million volumes, they say, and occupy ten levels on the five floors, plus subterranean spaces, that comprise the main building.
I have appropriate ID, as an alumnus of the graduate school, and when I lived a mere seven-minute walk from the porticoed main entrance in the fabled Harvard Yard, I would pay the statutory fees of $200 a year to obtain a precious special borrower’s pass. This afforded me entry at the designated portals to the book storage areas, with guards checking my credentials, like passport control.
Indeed, it was the accessibility of the campus, not to mention, at the time, in the mid-1980s, the 35, plus-or-minus, bookstores within a 1⁄2 mile radius of Harvard Square in Cambridge, that induced me to choose the somewhat pricey dwelling I proceeded to occupy for the better part of the next 25 years.
It was a lot of money, let’s say, to invest in ensuring I would have constant and virtually contiguous proximity to my many suppliers, if not all day and all night, then a significant percentage of both, in case I needed a fix. I never regretted it, nor the spending of many thousands more year after year, to feed my wanton appetite.
I have to face up to it. My name is Howard. I am a book addict.
It started out when I was a sprout, barely a year or two from a toddler. I demanded being read to, and in time came to claim I too could read on my own. My sister, my usual storyteller, had eight years advantage in how to be a schemer and saw through my ploy before I even began to “prove it.”
“Here,” she said, “start reading,” opening the book to a random page and putting it in my little boy lap. “No!” I protested. “I have to start from the beginning.” For many, a resonant kind of familial memory, repeated countless times. My memory hasn’t improved, but a year after the incident in question, I could indeed read unassisted, and the question of whether I was clever as well as being very cute was moot.
I already had my preferences, usually identified by the publisher. Even as a five-year-old, I thought Little Golden Books were a joke. Most of them for sissies (I wasn’t sophisticated enough yet to differentiate a lack of imagination from sissyhood). Though I was partial to certain volumes. “The Little Engine That Could” can still manage to evoke some stress as the story chugs toward its climactic resolution.
After that, I was truly on my own. I had, as I know only in retrospect, definite but unpredictable preferences. I adored The Wind in the Willows. Still do. Black Beauty, not so much. Could never get past the first page, and still haven’t read it, 70 years later.
Along with the behaviors of an iconoclastic personality type, my reading career pretty much follows in the same fashion. Especially after I started hitting the hard stuff. You know. What we now call “creative nonfiction.” When I read, at age 15, all 1,249 pages of William L. Shirer’s monumental The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in the year of its publication, there was no looking back. You know I was headed for deeper mind-altering texts. That’s right, I became an English major, and it was F.R. Leavis and Northrop Frye all the way to graduate school. Where I wrestled with the psychical effects of what they keep locked away and only refer to by its initials. I mean Ph.D. materials. Don’t be shocked, but I devoured The Cantos of Ezra Pound, Ulysses, of course, but also the frightening consciousness distorting run-on sentences of Finnegans Wake.
And it continues even to the present. I do very little of the really addictive texts— but I still can’t break my obsessive need for more and more books, of even the mildest sort. And I keep buying, and the shelves get full, and horizontal surfaces get covered with literal stacks of books (very much shorter than those miles and miles of the Widener, but tall enough to lean and tumble over on a tabletop). But not quite three million. Not even close.
But plenty of books to fill many linear feet of shelves, enough that virtually every room in the house, save the kitchen and the five bathrooms, has its complement of shelves filled with books. Maybe not measured in miles, because we’re still working on our first-mile marker, having accumulated a total of about 3000 books, which is a good 300 feet. A football field.
A perusal of the library in its present state will permit one true observation. It’s eclectic. As long as it’s in book form, I’m interested. But clearly, I have my favorites. And clearly, there is much work to do by way of sorting and organizing. A mere glance at just four shelves on an atypically narrow set of shelve is revealing. These shelves sit on a landing between two of our three stories above ground. Like Widener, we have a basement (storage for books, among other things), but only one level to their four. However, the living space above is filled with books, as I first pointed out.
These four shelves are but some of a total of nine in this unit, being seven feet tall. You’ll see I read not only several authors but many works of each of them. There’s Ellen Gilchrist, there’s Nick Hornby, there’s Sedaris, and, inevitably, there’s Philip Roth, who wrote for over 60 years, and this collection of 13, is only a third of the total he did write. And yet, only a fraction of what I do own, the others tucked away randomly on other shelves, in other rooms. To be gathered and rearranged and managed via no other system of rhyme or reason but my memory of where I think I remember seeing the others, languishing perhaps next to a book of poetry or a foundational text of 20th-century critical literary theory (exempla of which you’ll see in this photo). Numbers would help, if I had more books, perhaps, making the LOC cataloging system a possible choice.
However, even with all these books, and plenty more waiting to be shelved, once there are shelves acquired to receive them, the effort at categorization, though logical, would be onerous and probably, knowing myself and my predilections, a thoroughly unpleasant effort, even after achieving the satisfaction of completion. There are two titles in this photo, I noticed after examining the evidence more closely, that bespeak the conundrum and the trials of my obsession. One is a classic in our time, spelling out (starting with the title). The narrative relates the joys and uncertainties of a French literary movement based on the philosophy and practices of the pataphysician. Pataphysics, in case you don’t know, is understood as the philosophy of the absurd, and by extension, since it was first invented (or invoked) by the French surrealist writer and humorist, Alfred Jarry (c. 1873-1907), through usage—especially as transmitted through the works of mainly French writers and linguistic experimentation in that language—it consists of pseudoscientific or pseudo-metaphysical nonsense. I’ll put it this way, it makes me think of the sweet and silly hijinks of the film Amélie. And, it should go without saying, sparse as the pataphysical canon may be, it is a keystone to my lifelong interest in life as reflected in books.
This may account for the insane manifestations of my affliction, shared as it is by, doubtless, thousands, if not some higher order of magnitude than that, of book maniacs, whose history is recorded for further study in that other volume I alluded to on my shelves (and a bestseller itself when published not that long ago), A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books.
Guilty. Commit me.by