MICHAEL ATKINSON

O BIBLIOKLEPTS!

AN ADOLESCENCE OF BOOK STEALING TAKES THE AUTHOR THROUGH THE ANCIENT, THE MODERN, AND THE ADULT

DISCUSSED: James Dickey, Chariots of the Gods?, Squirm, Treblinka, Biblioclasts, Bibliophagists, Bibliophobes, Onanibibliophiliacs, Bibliomania

I steal books. Or, rather, I used to steal books, when I was young. I’m forty now, and haven’t stolen a book in nineteen years. Do you believe that? I’m not to be trusted.

I buy books. That’s true. When I return home after buying books—novels, volumes of poetry, monographs on French filmmakers, tracts on Irish history and Slavic history and evolution and Rimbaud, remaindered philosophy, remaindered anthropology, remaindered semiotic theory, long-discarded Seventies science fiction paperbacks, transcribed interviews with Noam Chomsky, collections of favorite comic strips for the bathroom (Calvin and Hobbes has acquired, since our son turned five, an almost Delphic authority)—my wife repeats the same, only remotely tolerant cavil: “Just what we need, more books.” Or, often, “We have enough books.” To her, books are a quantity, an amassing infestation, like silverfish the size of sandwiches. Her assumption is self-evidently stupefying: that at least in some important ways all books are more or less the same, are more or less interchangeable, that a particular number of books, once acquired like sections of fencing or patio bricks, is universally sufficient for whatever purposes one could possibly have for them. Laurel is not a non-reader; on the contrary, our courtship was a blissful storm of bookish passion founded on our separate core-rings having both been hit, years earlier, by the lightning of Wuthering Heights. We were fiercely, if only temporarily, fascinated with antique books (particularly if they bore engravings), which we bought each other for Christmas. If I had three times as many books as she did upon our setting up house together, her personal freight itself doubled that of anyone else we knew or knew about.

Three children and a mortgage later, the ceaseless propagation of a library has simply fallen from her docket of priorities. “You can get rid of half of these,” she’ll groan. The most rueful aspect of her antagonism is that she, once, had the quiet hunting jones that still possesses me in used bookstores; the perhaps self-congratulatory satisfaction of being surrounded on all sides, from the floor to the ceiling, by read and heretofore unread world literature (who doesn’t love their unread books more intensely than their read?); the happiness that comes not from merely reading books, but possessing them—and in this, used books, books with histories and notes and smudged love left on them like coffee rings, were even preferable to new. (Libraries always possessed a limited utility for me—borrowing, returning.) “Look at these—will you ever read them all?” Perhaps, perhaps not; what if I don’t? It’s not as if the goddamn things will expire into a moldy pile, or grow obsolete and need to be replaced. (Obsolescence, as with Proust and Dostoyevsky translations, does occur, but it is not a pervasive plight for the book owner.) Save the dreaded plumbing disaster, books age as trees do; with any luck, my great-grandchildren will wrangle over the collection a century hence, and will hopefully have the inherited good sense not to bust it up into eighths or tenths.

How many books do I have? No one with any reasonable amount of books can say; even so, only my wife could find interest in the number. I know that, being a house-owning, Long Island suburbanite, I have more room, and therefore more books, than any orthodox urban-dweller. (Merchants, who often like to consider their bookstores an extension of their private ownings, don’t count.) Books puddle like rainwater: if there is room for them, they will arrive and fill it. Helping us move years ago, my friends would lug 90-pound boxes of books until they no longer wished to be my friends. I have seen photographs of poet-editor-translator-Manhattanite-über-literati Richard Howard’s apartment, which has books wedged (neatly) into every nook, and bookshelves erected to utilize every square half-foot of wall space—and, with a free-standing, library-stacks-style bookcase, much of the floor, too. Even so, it’s an apartment; I have more books. Howard may have—definitely has—read more of his books than I have mine, but that’s a separate point: owning books is a discreet vocation from reading. It’s the difference between cultivating a victory garden, and eating its radishes. The former may hold the latter as its culminating purpose, but ask the gardener where her deeper satisfaction lies, and she’ll tell you, in the dirt.

*

The first book thief, the premier biblioklept, didn’t steal books, but he did help invent them. The Turkish king Eumenes, ruling in the 200s BCE over Pergamon (now Bergama), one of the post-Alexandrian world’s busiest cities and cultural hubs, nursed the ambition to amass a library to rival Alexandria’s. Pergamonic soldiers swept through the Mesopotamian basin and beyond, stealing scrolls. Imagine: spear-wielding troops rampaging through every private library, pagan temple, oracle-den, doctor’s hut, astrologer’s cache and sorcerer’s cave, taking only scrolls and copying them by hand many times over. As the library in Pergamon snowballed in size, the Ptolemaic king in Egypt, in the spirit of early capitalism, exacted a papyrus embargo. The library’s preservative and utilitarian copying of manuscripts ground to a halt. The Pergamonic library-magnates devised a solution: being thick with sheep, they began to write on sheepskin, or vellum, called, in Latin, charta Pergamenum, which was eventually smushed in the speaking to parchment. Having difficulty rolling parchment into scrolls, the Pergamons decided instead to slice the material into rectangular leaves, and sew them together on one edge, thus allowing the reader to turn the pages on an axis. The book. A few centuries later, the Romans marched.

*

I steal books, or used to. Many of my books are stolen. I’m neither proud nor particularly guilt-stricken about it. For a time in my youth, stealing was my scary, penniless, compulsive intercourse with the cultural universe—my tool for jimmying open the reluctant legs of a civilized world where novelists, by merely writing a story down, could acquire the profile of earth-shouldering titans; poets could woo any woman with a handful of words; prose-drunk libertines were as free as hammerhead sharks to roam, ingest life experience, and mark history.

My family owned all of twelve books—mostly hardcover bestsellers from the Fifties my mother had half-decided not to give away. We also had a dictionary, a crossword dictionary, a small stack of heirloom children’s books no one enjoyed, and a World Book encyclopedia from 1960. That was about it. Much of what I’d come to know about literature, culture, politics and history I learned from reading The New York Times Book Review—the only section of the Sunday Times I read, just as the magazine and its back-page puzzle was all that concerned my parents—from the age of seven or so. Thanks to my weekly dedication, I eventually became a pre-teen expert on the Eisenhower administration and the love life of Ernest Hemingway, but I also learned that I needed books, which were clearly the currency of the world anywhere outside of south-shore Long Island, where mechanics hung gutted deer in their front yards and housewives smoked Kents during dinner.

When I was nine, I was bedazzled by the hardcore, adventuring ka-thunk of the TV commercials for the film Deliverance, and I begged my mother for months to buy the James Dickey novel—complete with sweaty, man-surviving-in-the-wilderness photos of Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds on the cover—off the supermarket rack. (I knew that I had as much of a chance of being permitted to see the R-rated film as I did of sprouting a tail; having seen the film years later, I can only thank the Fates for my mother’s stern faith in the MPAA.) My mother, less concerned about any ostensible “adult content” than in Dickey’s potential use of profanity, and in her stretched-to-snapping food budget, hadn’t seen or heard much about the movie, so eventually she acquiesced, and I settled in to a long year of reading that most furiously abstruse of wilderness-ordeal novels, which could dally for dozens of pages on the parameters of a forested field of vision (perhaps it was only two or three pages, but it seemed to go on, sludgily, forever), and at one point involved hillbillies making the protagonists, for reasons I don’t remember Dickey making clear, pig-squeal at gunpoint, or something.

I shouldn’t have been reading Deliverance, not having been schooled at all in even the simple definition of the word “rape,” and years later my mother shakes her head at the affable ignorance that would allow her to give a fourth-grader a novel centering on homicidal sodomy and revenge slaying. More to the point for me, once my mother tossed that light, moss-green-edged, $1.25 volume into her shopping cart, I resolved never again to waste so much time trying to get my hands on the books I needed—needed to read, needed to have. My career as a book-thief began soon thereafter. I began modestly, as a nine-year-old might, with Ray Bradbury, whose 95-cent Bantam paperbacks comprised a more or less matching set of differently hued covers, and proceeded to Edgar Rice Burroughs (whose scores of Ace paperbacks were often adorned with Frank Frazetta paintings), H.P. Lovecraft, H. Rider Haggard, Robert E. Howard, Chariots of the Gods? and its accompanying stranger-than-science imitators, etc., as well as too many movie novelizations to number. (My ebb, perhaps, was picking up the novella-pamphlet-version of the monster-worm film Squirm.) I was determined, at least, not to duplicate my mysterious, arduous Year of Reading Dickey, and instead erred to the side of preadolescent pulp. That began to change a year or two later when, seduced by the extraordinary, proto-apocalyptic cover art of Thomas Pynchon’s V. in its Bantam edition—a stormy Tanguy flatland surrounded by distant, blood-rivered mountains and occupied only by an ultra-realistic, silk-bedizened woman whose red hair scarved her face, and, beside her, a giant, Rockwell-font V carved from stone, all of it a painting signed by someone named ‘Bama’—I stole what might’ve been my first Adult Novel.

Of course, the book was just as mysterious as the painting (though not in the minutiae-obsessed way Deliverance had been, but rather grandly, purposefully, wickedly mysterious), but even as I could not claim to have comprehended the point of Pynchon’s layer-cake historical absurdisms, I was thereafter hooked on the secret language of Lit and, crucially, the implicit notion of how becoming familiar with the Great Books would distinguish me from the pack of glandularly bedraggled school kids surrounding me. I had no money to speak of, so I stole. In the next years, I found myself copping Proust, Sterne, Tolstoy, Kafka, Barth, Brautigan, Lautréamont, Balzac, O’Connor, Faulkner, Updike, Huxley, and García Márquez. And more. I didn’t read them all—honestly, I have never cracked that Signet War and Peace (a book the exact dimensions of a patio brick, as it happens), and I still haven’t finished Remembrance of Things Past, but since the edition I absconded in 1978 remains on my shelf, I may still. I grabbed film crit (all of Pauline Kael and Parker Tyler, as well as the first edition of David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film), art books (Ballantine Books had a lovely large format fantasy-art series that ran from Dali to Sulamith Wulfing to Brian Froud, and I took every one), lit crit, history (I read my hot copy of Jean-Francois Steiner’s Treblinka floating in my pool the summer before ninth grade), and, after stumbling upon the humongous, desolate coolness of “The Waste Land,” poetry.

My technique was simple–an admixture of stealth, nonchalance, and surveillance-mirror evasion. Eschewing the obvious shopping bag, I opted instead to insert the books under my clothes, most often, down my pants. This was performed in whatever corner of the store fell out of the zone monitored by the large, convex mirrors (which I suspected were little more than a security pretense anyway—standing even ten feet away, you could barely discern what was being reflected in them). Mass-market paperbacks fit snugly across my bladder. If they were positioned horizontally atop my rump, under my denim waist band, the confusion of shirt and jeans camouflaged them perfectly. Rarely did I leave a bookstore without a book warming in my crotch, but naturally my ambitions grew. I found that a winter coat was an almost heartless advantage. Under the bulk of layered winter clothing, I could secrete up to three paperbacks down the front of my pants, two down the back, two down the front of my shirt, two down the back, walking away with nine books in one shot. Larger publications required more care, and occasionally I would abandon a massive coffee-table history of Hollywood for a Kobo Abe novel if the storekeeper began to grow suspicious of my hovering. Thick books—Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, for example, another patio brick I’ve never read—naturally consumed more waist space and the resulting belt stress meant it would be secreted out of the store by itself. Several times, accompanied by a book-thieving crony, I had the temerity to bring a shopping bag from a nearby supermarket and leave it outside nearby, depositing booty into it and, after an acceptable span of time had passed, returning to load up once again.

Of vital importance was the display of abject innocence–after padding myself with books I would often loiter around the store for another ten minutes, in full view. Occasionally, I would actually buy a low-priced sci-fi novel as well, standing casually at the clerk’s desk with pilfered goods cluttering up my underclothes. The thick-cabled adrenaline charge I’d get from stealing in this manner was immense and addictive; I surely took dozens of books I never really wanted or needed so as to revisit that shuddery bolt of risk and triumph. I remember I shoplifted a collection of plays by Euripides once, and marveled afterward how little interest I actually had in reading it. I’ve read it since, but never mind: stealing was the motivation behind Euripides, Euripides was not the motivation behind stealing. I still have that book. It’s mine now.

*

Book thieves were a more honored species when books, hand-transcribed and illuminated, thrummed with spiritual and cosmic sovereignty. For one thing, no longer do book-makers care to inscribe their product with thievery-quelling curses, all of which, however artless and ham-handed, equate the matter of bibliokleptism with the sum of divine retribution. A common, almost pre-literate Olde English curse:

Thys boke is one
And God’s curse another;
They that take the one
God geve them the other.

This one has a little more verve:

Steal not this Book my honest Friend
For fear the Galows should be your hend,
And when you die the Lord will say
And wares the Book you stole away?

Of course, even in the Middle Ages a guaranteed pox upon you from the Lord Almighty is a mild corrective to book-love, and as the texts were often chained to the table in ancient libraries and churches in case the curses weren’t sufficient, so were the chains oft left hanging.

This present book legible in scripture
Here in this place thus tacched with a cheyn
Purposed of entent for to endure
And here perpetuelli stylle to remeyne
Fro eyre to eyre wherfore appone peyn
Of cryst is curs of faders and of moderes
Non of hem hens atempt it to dereyne
Whille ani leef may goodeli hange with oder.

Librarians, exchanging antiquarian book curses online, love this stuff, for obvious reasons. Here’s a well-circulated Spanish biblio-oath, reputedly from a monastery named after San Pedro in Barcelona, though there may have never been a San Pedro monastery in Barcelona, and so this library-wide condemnation may have originated outside Barcelona, in a monastery or church or abbey in San Pedro de Dardeno or San Pedro de Nave or San Pedro la Siresa or San Pedro de la Rua Cloister, or perhaps may be wholly apocryphal:

For him that Stealeth a Book from this Library,
Let it change into a Serpent in his hand & rend him.
Let him be struck with Palsy, & all his Members blasted.
Let him languish in Pain crying aloud for Mercy,
Let there be no Surcease to his Agony till he sink to Dissolution.
Let Bookworms gnaw his Entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not,
When at last he goeth to his final Punishment,
Let the flames of hell consume him for ever & aye.

*

Quake, indeed, ye biblioklepts. The prospect of having my members blasted and my entrails gnawed did not deter me, and, in fact, I was never caught. I was nailed for other transgressions, some smaller, a few larger, but never was I nabbed as a book thief. I found as I matured toward college age that I could score in any bookstore I came upon—particularly if it was in a mall, and therefore probably staffed by disinterested high schoolers. But the majority of my swiping was performed in two stores local to me: a bloodless WordsWorth Books outlet in the mall on Sunrise Highway, and a cluttered, independently owned hovel in Sayville proper, called The Book Case. The former was a slightly more difficult scenario, and also the less fecund—I felt after several years of steady boosting that I had, even by my liberal standards, exhausted the store’s reserve of books worth owning.

The Book Case was a different animal—one of those aging, small-town, warren-like establishments in the crooks of which you could always manage to find an out-of-print treasure collecting dust. Whereas the clerks at WordsWorth were anonymous mall-dogs, the owners of The Book Case worked the register themselves: a man and a woman, though doubtlessly unattached to each other, of extraordinary urbanity, bookish fervor and anti-provincial frustration. He was old, thin, as effeminate as a man could be and not don lipstick, and a fetishistic chainsmoker, leaving the entire store (which had warped-wood steps running up and down to its various subrooms and expanded closet areas) reeking of unfiltered tobacco soot. She was also old, chubby, red-cheeked, and given to explosions of inappropriate laughter. Both would regard customers over their thick glasses as woeful but harmless freebooters into their musty universe; it was not a store in which I ever saw more than one other customer at a time, and there were books I happily stole that hadn’t apparently been touched in twenty years. It was clear that stealing from The Book Case meant stealing more or less directly from these two lovely old farts. But the store was a profitless business that hung on by a spider’s thread for years; I, perhaps questionably, feel no great culpability for snatching books no one in Sayville had any interest in buying at that time, for decades past or for the conceivable future. That the proprietors were already near retirement age also softens the jagged edge of responsibility. In any case, by the end of high school my larcenous friend and I had all but run The Book Case out of business. Perhaps the store could have survived had the town managed to muster up something resembling a decently sized book-buying demographic to offset the losses incurred by our shoplifting, but there’s little evidence to support the notion. Sayville could and would never summon such reserves of literary hunger, in any case. Returning home from college some subsequent semester, I saw the old shop had been transformed into a garden-gift emporium with painted vines on its front door and a front window full of polished rocks with the word SOLACE cleanly carved into them.

I stopped stealing books soon thereafter. Earning money in college (for the most part, by writing theses and term papers for my compatriots, at $5 to $10 a page) made stealing an unnecessary folly; also, having passed the age of eighteen, I knew that an arrest meant more than a call home to my ballistic mother, whose member-blasting wrath may have been the more fearsome repercussion. I’ll never know. The books, any that I did not subsequently peddle to used book stores once I’d realized they were contemptible trash, are still with me, surrounding me.

*

There is no question I can count myself among bibliological pariahs, but my crimes have been small and affectionate. I am no biblioclast, like some small-town reactionaries we’ve heard about once their bonfires reached a certain altitude, nor a bibliophagist, like certain madmen, moth worms and, in one case, a pet rat I owned in college who gnawed up a stolen boxed edition of Louis Aragon’s Aurelion that was being employed to keep his tank cover secure. Neither have I acted as a bibliotaph, he who hoards and hides valuable books in cathedral vaults so as to subtract them from public use and historical impact, or an onanibibliophiliac, with whom a book, however revered, awaits a particularly unsavory fate. Far from nefarious, all of these behaviors represent extreme manifestations of classic bibliophilia—book-love so overwhelming that some sort of impotent loathing or rage or at least amoral opportunism results. The bibliophobe’s dread, too, must begin, one would surmise, as mad ardor. Those who do not care about books do not steal or burn or eat or bury or fuck or fear them.

Of course, saying so may simply be a form of biblio-apologism—the sticky-fingered thief calling the madman brother. But books, bought or stolen, presuppose a reader, or at least a user—don’t they? Consult early twentieth-century scholar and bibliophilosophe Holbrook Jackson’s newly reissued The Anatomy of Bibliomania and The Fear of Books (a hole-in-one at title-golf) and you’ll find a gangbusting tabulation of the many, many ways in which books and humans interrelate—from reading to library-building to stealing to burning to bibliomancy: divining by books. So, too, does contemporary bibliothecary Nicholas Basbanes, in Patience & Fortitude (2001, just out in paperback), devote his hefty tome to the sagas of world librarians in the task of obtaining, collecting, storing, worshiping, preserving and, only occasionally, reading the actual content of mankind’s ocean of bound matter.

Do we need to read the books we love? Or are they simply dense, ownable, inexhaustible totems of humanness, of dead lives and expired thoughts and expended feelings magically caught, like Rilke’s insekt, in amber, for us to call ours years or even centuries later? Clearly, something secret is going on, within every book and between every book and its owner. What else could motivate Nicholson Baker, our carekeeper of cosmic quotidian triflings, toward the rampaging bibliognostic biblio-evangelicism on display in Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper? This firebrand’s philippic on the institutional disposal of archived printed matter—in which Baker famously decries the careless loss not only of books but of card-catalogue cards and newspapers, every newspaper—surely could convict him with any sensible jury of a bibliopathology run amok.

No less a bibliomaniac, Paul Collins plopped himself and his family down into the wan, Welsh bucolia of Hay—possibly the only town in the world supported entirely by the trade in discarded books. Collins seeks out and buys old books in part for the pleasure of locating and quoting outrageous passages. That is, to flavor and brighten the very book we’re reading, his Sixpence House. Umberto Eco, quoted in Basbanes’s book, has a similar strategy, collecting antique semiologica, curiosa, and pneumatica for the cabalistic weirdness they may supply to his novels. You’d call this biblio-… what? It is use, that’s unarguable, and it is probably love. Collins’s memoir is both amused and despairing of the world’s literary residuum as it floods into Hay in Biblical amplitude—the sense is that once a book finds itself deposited on Hay’s crowded shores, it has truly nowhere left to go.

*

Collins never admits to stealing, though he does confess, bibliotaphically, to squirreling books into bookstore crannies so no one else will happen upon them and he may buy them later. (He also, having to deal with nosey roommates, took to bike-chaining his notebook to his dorm bedframe in college, just like the pre-movable-type librarians of yore.) But I stole, and I’m hardly unique. Book thieves are everywhere. Notorious bibliophile, seasoned proto-modernist and grand, crazy polar bear of linguistic sport Harry Mathews admits, in his new essay assemblage The Case of the Persevering Maltese, of having been, like me, an inveterate adolescent bookstealer and going me one better by deciding to rob a giant, two-volume edition of D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form when he was a married adult, because Mies van der Rohe had, a decade earlier, recommended it to the teenage Mathews at a Long Island dinner party. Mathews reveals no angst about it. In contrast, here is author Martin Scott, who descended into a bibliokleptic:

But who was I? I stole Buddhism, Baudrillard, Ezra Pound, Chomsky, the Hermetica, Barry Gifford, the prophets, De Sade, shamanism, Strand, Robbe-Gillet, the Kabbalah. I stole texts modern and postmodern, poetry and prose. As my library grew, I had time to read less and less, as if the weight of the past undid the ability to understand it. It was the physical pleasure of possessing the books that drove me to steal them as much as the desire to know what was in them, since there is a kind of repetitious disappointment in the hall of mirrors we call gnosis: the more you know, the less you understand, as if the vast web of complication only led the mind’s spider off to empty threads, hopeless corners.

True enough: The book thief who robs in quantity violates the high-culture compact of author-reader for the sake of books he cannot possibly have the time to read. Scott knows Laurel to be correct in this, but I’ve never disagreed in fact, just in spirit. For other varieties of literary heister, reading is thoroughly beside the point. In February of 1997, Cambridge resident José Torres-Carbonnel was arraigned on charges surrounding the theft of $750,000 worth of rare books, plates, maps, manuscripts and prints from Harvard University Libraries. According to The Harvard Gazette, the Cambridge police traced two of the stolen books from a dealer in Granada to Cambridge resident Torres-Carbonnel, who is a Spanish national. The detective in charge of the case told the Gazette that he felt “very confident that if we went to trial now we could secure a conviction.”

Likewise, according to the London Daily Telegraph, in 1998 British rabbi Casriel Kaplin was “terminated” by his synagogue after getting snagged robbing the British library of Beth Din, and selling the books in Israel. The titles included a circa-1500 AD kabbalistic text written by a Spanish rabbi; Spain is, apparently, the epicenter of ancient book theft.

These are books that exist essentially beyond the value judgments of market trade, of course. Most books are more tangibly quantifiable, and there are no shortage of people, like Scott, who still steal them. On National Public Radio in 2001, author/raconteur Ron Rosenbaum recounted how he discovered that Gotham Barnes & Noble outlets had taken to shepherd books by certain authors off the shelves and behind the counter, because, the clerks said, they were frequently shoplifted. Supposedly Charles Bukowski led the pack, but the authors included Raymond Chandler, Italo Calvino, Paul Auster, Michel Foucault, Jack Kerouac, and Jeannette Winterson; all of these writers just happen to sell briskly off of sidewalk tables downtown, and so we’re talking now of a particularly repugnant stripe of book thief that steals only to resell—who boosts books for profit only. A press officer for the American Library Association attested, on the other hand, that in a nationwide book-theft poll of seventy libraries, one author whose name never came up was Charles Bukowski (“Personally, I’ve got to admit I didn’t know who that was,” she said with amusement.) From prison libraries, the most stolen book is the dictionary.

*

Remarkably, I’ve never stolen a Bukowski book or a dictionary. Nor did I ever steal Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book. Amounting to over ten years all tolled, my years of thievery netted me thousands of books; I’ve held onto only some of the pulp, but every wedge of classic lit, “literary” fiction, and non-fiction of all persuasions. Looking back, there were a few memorable coups. From the mall store I once smuggled a huge coffee-table volume of Sappho (complete with black-and-white photos of nude pubescent girls, which of course were my prevailing interest), measuring a full square foot-and-a-half, under my coat and out the door. (One summer I later sold the ghastly thing, along with novelizations and other effluvia, to a used book store nearby in Patchogue, for beer money.) From the town store I bootlegged Spellbound in Darkness, a landmark collection of historic cinema journalism that must be two inches thick and weigh two pounds. I remember fondly coming home with the huge-format manuscript facsimile of “The Waste Land,” complete with Poundian annotations, as well as James Merrill’s redoubtedly thick The Changing Light at Sandover, which I read as straight narrative not even realizing most of it was written in sonnets and sestinas. So then I had to read it again.

It’s been twenty years since I’ve stuffed a book into my briefs. With the ubiquity of large-format trade paperbacks today, my contemporary counterpart has a considerably more hazardous and strenuous project ahead of him. Instead, I buy, sometimes heedlessly, more often scrupulously at remainder tables and library sales. Sometimes I go weeks without buying a book, and then embark on a binge—this happens, I’m beginning to realize, whenever I grow overwhelmingly, but semi-consciously, ashamed of the accumulation of books I have not written. So, I acquire others’, in much the same way a lonely spinster will spackle her woe with Ben & Jerry’s. Indeed, I attain substantial pleasure in the absurd act of simply finding a place for the new volumes on my shelves. Sometimes this requires a major shift and rearrangement in my very roughly chronologically organized fiction wall (from Cervantes to Sebald), or my running shelf-space argument of biography/memoir (also chronologically mounted, from Boswell to Ellroy), or my cinema bookcases, which aren’t organized at all, and this rearranging also musters a private, meditative joy. It’s a sickness.

Indeed, common sense is an inexorable force, and someday it will surely quell my bibliomania. Sooner or later, as I age, I will become appallingly aware that I do not, as my wife and Martin Scott have maintained, have the time to read all of my books (Noam Chomsky has mentioned how he eyes his six-foot stacks of unread books during dull phone calls and tries to calculate the centuries he would need to read them), I cannot take them with me to Purgatory, I have wasted risk and money and time and trees in my pursuit. None of my books, nor the grotesque entirety of them in toto, will keep me alive. That they will outlast me, in the hands of descendants or not, is a wounding factoid rather than a salve. No consolation can be had, of course, from the thought that a great-grandchild may 80 years hence pick up my large-format paperback of Ben Hecht’s Fantazius Mallare, or the oblong Ballantine edition of The Illustrated Blake, or the classic Penguin copy of The Mabinogion, and think my great-grandfather stole this, for the love of the word, the paper and the spine, for the love of it belonging to him and he belonging to it, for the outlaw love of thieving not for profit but for love itself. That’s a stretch, I know. I know I can expect no thanks or rewards for my striving, only a house of books which, if it were to catch on fire, would day-brighten the inkiest January midnight.

Michael Atkinson writes about film for The Village Voice. He is the author of Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema (Limelight Editions, 2000).

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