Thursday, March 06, 2008

Christopher Hitchens Understands Me

I'm always relieved when I find out that there are others out there like me. Book addicts. We are those who have piles of books all over the apartment, in odd places, in the car, and most often, piled on top of other books on the bookshelves. They breed while we sleep.

If one is lucky, like Hitchens, people send you good new books just because your name is Christopher Hitchens. No such luck for the rest of us -- we have to buy our books. No problem, though, we know all the good used bookstores around the country and online (but actually visiting the books is better -- sometimes you have to hold it in your hands before you know you want to take it home).

Anyway, here is Hitch riffing on his bibliomania (from City Journal).

I live in a fairly spacious apartment in Washington, D.C. True, the apartment is also my office (though that’s no excuse for piling books on the stove). But for some reason, the available shelf space, which is considerable, continues to be outrun by the appearance of new books. It used to be such a pleasure to get one of those padded envelopes in the mail, containing a brand-new book with the publisher’s compliments. Now, as I collect my daily heap of these packages from my building’s concierge, I receive a pitying look.

It ought to be easy to deal with this excess, at least with the superfluous new arrivals: give them away to friends or take them to a secondhand bookseller. But the thing is, you never know. Two new histories of the Crusades have appeared in the past year, for instance, and I already have several books on those momentous events. How often, really, do I need to mention the Crusades in a column or a review? Not that often—but then, it suddenly occurs to me, not that seldom either. Best be on the safe side. Should all these books sit on the same shelf? Or should they be indexed by author? (“Index” is good: it suggests that I have a system.) Currently, I pile the Crusades books near titles on the Middle East—an unsatisfactory arrangement, but I have no “History” section as such, because then I would have to decide whether to arrange it chronologically or geographically.

Bibliomania cripples my social life. In order to have a dinner party, I must clear all the so-far-unsorted books off the dining-room table. Either that, or invite half the originally planned number of people and just push the books temporarily down to one end of it. In the spring, my wife and I host the Vanity Fair party that follows the White House correspondents’ dinner, and this means that I can get professional help with rearranging the furniture and the books. This past year, the magazine’s omnicompetent social organizer, Sara Marks, gave me some ingenious vertical shelf units, allowing me to stack books on their sides. Alas, there wasn’t time before the festivities to sort these useful display units by author or subject, so I’ve only been able to alter the shape of my problem, not solve it.

The units also make it easier to read the titles on the spines and thus to suffer reproach for their randomness. And let’s say I did decide to organize these books: Should I start with A for Kingsley Amis? But wait, here’s a nonfiction work by Amis, on language. Shouldn’t it go on the reference shelf with the lexicons and dictionaries? And what about the new biography, and the correspondence between Kingsley and Philip Larkin?

Read the whole article.

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