‘You can easily spot the bibliomaniacs among the readers, and we tend to egg each other on’
There are important points of gradation among book lovers. Obviously “readers” form one group—perhaps the largest: people who are happy to read away, engorging in the pleasure of the act and with no necessary veneration for the object in their hands. These people often pass on their books to friends or local charity shops once they have read them. “Bibliophiles” are a different matter. Bibliophiles not only love the contents of the books, but also the thing itself. Technically it is possible to be a bibliophile without being a reader, though it’s hard to think of many examples. Still, it is when we enter this realm—which finds its demonic end-point in bibliomania—that we get to one of the truths about books.
You can easily spot the bibliomaniacs among the readers, and we tend to egg each other on. Some years ago I spotted a lovely four-volume set of Alexander Herzen’s My Past and Thoughts (Constance Garnett translation, Chatto & Windus, 1968) in the window of one of the crack-dealers on Cecil Court. I already owned a paperback of the abridged version. Fate was that later that evening I bumped into David Pryce-Jones at a drinks do and made the mistake of mentioning my dilemma. “Oh no, you need that,” he said without a pause. It was like asking a drug addict whether they thought I ought to score.
My first recall of the instinct was Agatha Christie paperbacks. As I saved up pocket money and made the trips to W.H. Smith to buy each one I would dream of the day I would have the whole set in a beautiful row on my bookshelf. The habit grew, not always healthily. I still bought paperbacks, but I began to prefer hardbacks.
Eventually I got into the terrible habit of “upgrading”. That is, if a book had made a particular impression and had been read in paperback (or in a library copy) I would acquire a hardback copy of the treasured work if I spotted it in a bookshop. Which brought further problems. For the pencil marks I habitually make on the title page of even the trashiest book would be in the first copy I had read, which I could not then dispose of. So a hardback acquired became a book owned twice.
Worse depredations follow. For ineluctably—once there is any money to spare—comes the Class A drug for bibliophiles. I refer of course to first editions. This is a morally contested area. Among much else, first edition hunting is often a search for a copy of a book which has hardly, if ever, been read. There are complex questions in here about where the value of a thing resides. Twentieth-century editions are a particular case-study, with the ideal copy having the perfect dust-jacket (generally covered in protective wrapping itself), no foxing or price clipping, and preferably looking as clean as the day it was born. For this, prices obviously rocket. But if the value of the item is not to be diminished, then the new owner ought really to leave it unread too. At which stage, what is the point? Serious sufferers will know the answer: which is that you treat yourself to occasional, carefully-handled re-readings on special occasions.
The final stage is signed editions, though here is another ethical conundrum. For the collecting of signed editions is tantalising, not always too expensive and yet uncomfortably close to the religious habit of relic-veneration. I am always slightly impressed by those puritans who have no temptation in this direction, though even they can be found genuflecting on occasion. Christopher Hitchens had little care for editions and the like, once showing me a first edition of a book which (when he saw my forehead sweat) he said he would happily re-gift if it hadn’t recently come from a mutual friend.
Christopher always professed to have little care for signatures and the like (unless they came from friends), but even he could be tempted. I once mentioned to him that I had acquired a signed first edition of Myra Breckinridge by his ex-friend Gore Vidal. The inscription, I bragged, not only referenced Ken Tynan as a model for Myra but was inscribed to Princess Margaret. There was a brief pause and then, “Oh, well I’d like that.”
In my twenties and early thirties, I arrived at the book-buying equivalent of a 60-a day habit and slowed down, not just for reasons of financial health but through a realisation that I was acquiring far faster than I was reading. But that habit which W.H. Smith’s first started in me has not gone away. What causes it? A search for completeness, obviously. But also that instinct which drives some people to acquire works of art. As you wander through the world you discover that whenever you encounter that particular artist, or writer, you feel as if you know them, or knew them, however long-dead. So much so that you sometimes have to stop yourself from claiming them as an acquaintance.