Compulsive book buyers are great rationalizers. And for years, my best rationalization was this: the size of your personal library is like the sail on a ship. The bigger it is, the farther you go on the winds of passing interest. So in preparation for that day when I would finally feel like sitting down and dipping into, say, The Collected Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, I justified having a nice copy sitting on my shelf. For twelve years. Unopened.
You never know when you’ll want to read a certain book, I used to say. And if you don’t have the book at arms length, the urge to read it might be gone by lunchtime, never to return. I could die with Rilke’s letters (or The Golden Bowl, The Song of Roland, The Anatomy of Melancholy, etc.) unread! There was actually a whole period of my life where thoughts like this made me uncomfortable. Somewhere in my mind, I was continuously prepping for a final exam on everything, assigned by nobody, scheduled for never.
The price I paid was lugging around an expanding library that could’ve served a small prep school for the entire decade of my twenties, all of which I spent living in tiny New York apartments at the rate of about one every two years. I may have been renting garrets in slums, but I had a library fit for a Renaissance duke, which might sound romantic if it weren’t so ridiculous.
And oh, how ridiculous it was. I once paid $600 to ship some of my books into storage, only to ship them back the following year for even more money. I would get annoyed when people opened the blinds in my room, letting in sunlight that might bleach the spines of my precious volumes. I would buy used paperbacks on impulse, only to wriggle them into tight spaces in my shelves not far from their duplicates, which I had bought years earlier and forgotten about. “Have you read all these?” people would ask on the rare occasions when I let visitors into my apartment. At which point I would quickly change the subject.
Whatever opportunity or challenge my life presented, there was always a little voice in my head telling me that the solution was to be found in a book I did not yet own.