Saturday, December 19, 2009

Crazy Like a Fox

[Nicholas A. Basbanes: A Gentle Madness (1995)]

-----Original Message-----

David Howard
Sent: Wednesday, 16 December 2009 8:32 p.m.
To: Jack Ross
Subject: booked

Dear Jack,

I have just visited your library catalogue. Of course, I love you - and part of what I love in you is your precision. But you are certifiable.

Please offer my sympathies to Bronwyn.


It's hard to deny the logic of David's remarks. The whole thing seems pretty crazy to me, too, some - even most - of the time. Hence ( I suppose) my choice of title for this bibliography blog: A Gentle Madness.

Interestingly, in the 1999 paperback reissue of his fascinating account of "Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books," Nicholas Basbanes mentions that at least one of his featured collectors, a retired psychoanalyst, had expressed a certain disquiet over his choice of title: "We take madness very seriously in my line of work." [xxv].

Is it mad to collect books; and then, once you have them neatly ranged in bookcases, to catalogue them by location and category? Surely not. Professional librarians would be in a lot of trouble if one were to resort to such facile diagnoses. Like most manias, it's clearly a matter of proportion.


  • When you find yourself going in to debt to buy new books, even though you don't have enough space to display the existing ones, I think you could be said to have edged over from Bibliophilia to Bibliomania. It is, I have to say, a terrifyingly easy step to take.

  • When you no longer read the books you buy, for fear of damaging them, or because their contents no longer interest you as much as their bindings, fonts, paperstock and other physical traits, you've ceased to be a book-lover and have become a mere collector.

  • When you're forced to buy multiple copies of the same book, or even of the different impressions of a particular edition of a book, you've become a bibliographer, not a reader.

I'd like to believe that I'm still a bibliophile rather than a bibliomaniac, a reader rather than a collector, and that I acquire them for use rather than for show. You may think otherwise when you check out the online catalogue, though.

I hasten to say that it's very much a work in progress. In the geographical section, mapping the locations of the various books, 7 out of 26 bookcases, containing an estimated 6,000-odd books, remain to be catalogued - which might be seen as overshadowing the 8,562 already listed.

The 30-odd classificatory categories, too, are by no means complete. I haven't yet had time to reconcile them all with one another, and the larger pages are already starting to groan at the seams.

Why am I even bothering? Well, first of all, it's nice to take out every book and take a good look at it (discovering little treasures which one had forgotten ever getting is a lot of fun, too). Secondly, it's useful and (ultimately, I hope) timesaving to know where everything is. Thirdly, it saves one the trouble of rewriting out the bibliographical details of a book more than once, when it's being repeated in a number of different contexts.

That last one sounds a little unconvincing, I suppose, but when your book collection shadows your professional interests as closely as mine does, it really does make sense to have a complete catalogue.

Strangely enough, even though my reasons for putting this slowly-evolving print catalogue up online were purely practical - it enables me to access it wherever I happen to be working - I've found that it seems to be attracting a certain amount of interest. The blog has no fewer than five followers already, though I can't think what satisfaction they obtain from watching it slowly grow.

Maybe they just like to look at the pictures. I have to say that finding appropriate images to attach to the various entries is the only really fun part of the whole monstrous drudgery. When it's all finished, though, how I shall gloat and preen myself! Perhaps I really will run mad ...

[Charles Wysocki: Max in the Stacks]


Giovanni said...

The blog has no fewer than five followers already, though I can't think what satisfaction they obtain from watching it slowly grow.

Man, have you been paying attention to the Internet at all? Of course we're interested. Avidly so.

Speaking of, it doesn't seem possible that you don't know Bibliodyssey, but it's not in your blogroll so I'll mention it in passing. This post of theirs on the World Digital Library is as good an intro as any. But I was even more impressed by John Ptak's Science Books blog, which was recommended to me yesterday by the formidable Stephen Judd. I think you'll find it very much to your liking.

Richard Taylor said...

Jack - have you read The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel? I read it twice - the part especially about Aby Warburg fascinated me and his strange but interesting way of organising libraries. Manguel is writer himself and has his own library and also as you may know knew Borges. (I don't own a copy I get it from the library from time to time...) Regards, Richard.

Jack Ross said...

Thanks Giovanni. No, I didn't know about either of those, though someone did tell me there was a site ( something like that) where you could list your books in the hopes of finding others with the same interests. When I heard that you had to pay for the privilege, though, I kind of lost interest. I'll certainly check out the two you mention.

& Richard, no, I haven't read that particular one, but I am a big fan of Manguel's Dictionary of Imaginary Places. I'll certainly put The Library at Night on my to-be-read-asap list ...

Bronwyn Lloyd said...

Or when your wife comes home to discover that you've alphabetised and catalogued her cupboard of recipe books in the kitchen - what name do we give that kind of biblio-madness?

Richard Taylor said...

Jack will eventually catalogue everything. Bronwyn, you should have consulted me. Now I would have told you about Jack and his strange ways. I mean a man who writes a dissertation on Masefield is indeed certifiable.

As to recipes; ...hmm.... is this a case of cooking the books? Or cooking the cook books?

As long as Jack doesn't resort to eating the books...there is some philosophical reason here...what is the terminology? It is like those worms Gabriel talks about who gain memory of the other or what they eat or devour...Jack, deep down, wants to, and indeed eventually will, "consume" all his books. [Hannibal Lector = Cannibal Reader? (But not a hypocrite perhaps...)] Eating-reading will become literal...the endlessly chasing nearer to the goal signifiers and the signifieds may scream or squeal in pathetic protest as long and as loud as they can, but they will be part of the wonderful, new, and total transformative and transforming reading experience. The words shall have died not in vain - they will have worked (and nor will age weary them); in their constitution they will be reified. Reified. Good word that. He will "eat [his] way through" and BECOME his books...

A living book, as in 'Fahrenheit 451' by Bradbury. All the living talking books.

"The Battle of the Books" ... ah Swift, where art thou? Jack has need of you...or Bronwyn does.

Of course Jack was /is a member of "Slightly Foxed" hence perhaps the title here.

Jack Ross said...

Or it could just be that my interest in cookbooks as a potential consumer inspired me to celebrate them in the only way I knew how ...?

I just throw that out there as a complement to Richard's more comprehensive (and baroque) diagnosis ...

Richard said...

Perhaps all the books are conspiring about you! Oops the C word!

BTW - in his interview Richard von Sturmer gives the idea of all the books in a library somehow communicating with each other!!

(And this creating a dialogue that is a 'complex' of the various so on and so on... (to use a device of Vonnegut...

Jack Ross said...

I'm pleased (or terrified) to report that my bibliography blog is now (more or less) complete - or as complete as I can make it at present.

And the grand total is:
15,399 books, recorded on 2328 pages of text, in over 600,000 words of text. Makes you think, doesn't it?

Jack Ross said...

"Now", as of 9th July, 2010, that is ...