Bibliophile or Bibliomaniac?

too many books

Forced to move house, Daniel was facing the dreaded prospect of a book clearout. Luckily he managed to find a novel solution…

This week I have been moving house, as my landlord decided to sell the building I was living in. It’s been a major pain in the neck, especially as I haven’t found another place yet and will be staying with relatives until I do. But the forced move has also been illuminating, at least insofar as I had no idea I owned so many books until I started boxing up my library.

The job took me about a fortnight. Of course it wasn’t the only thing I was doing, and I was packing other things as well, such as my prized machete from a tribe of Filipino headhunters with a monkey skull lashed to the sheath. But even so, boxing up the books took a long, long time. I knew I was really in trouble when the row of volumes I keep on the desk where I work filled a box of their own.

Hm, I thought, do I have a “problem” with books? Do I own too many? Some people have told me I do – my dad for instance. Back when I was a student he used to panic that all the books in my upstairs room would one day come crashing through the floor and land on his head while he was sleeping.

Of course I scoffed at such fears, but as I packed up my umpteenth box I did start to wonder if buying books wasn’t some sort of compulsion for me: if not yet totally unhealthy, then possibly slightly out of control. The problem is that I live within driving difference of four second hand bookshops, one of which is huge and usually full of interesting stuff. It’s difficult to resist the urge to step inside and browse …and then buy.

For instance, a few weeks ago I stopped by the big one and discovered a first edition of the journals of the last official court magician of the English monarchy – a snip at $6,000. For a moment I contemplated selling a lung to raise the funds, but then I decided I liked breathing too much.

It is level-headed decisions like that one which reassure me I am not yet completely out of control. On the other hand I did buy a huge collection of old American newspaper comics, so I can’t say I left empty-handed either.

Meanwhile boxing up my books was just the first phase of my move. I also had to find a place to store them. Luckily for me, Americans generally have far too much stuff, and so a whole storage industry has sprung up to service the consumer goods overflow.

I’ve always been curious about these long rows of garages with corrugated iron doors you see along the freeway, and now this was my opportunity to enter that mysterious world. In fact there was nothing very mysterious about it; and soon my limbs began to ache as a friend and I heaved box after box from my truck to stack them in the storage unit I had rented.

Again, I wondered about the wisdom of my book collecting. Was I ever going to read all these books? Did I really need to keep the ones I had already read? Why didn’t I sell some of them?

Nah, I thought, my taste is just too good. I had bought all these books because I found them interesting, and most of them still were. I did manage to toss out an anthology of plays by Eugene O’Neill, bit that was about it.

But now I had another problem. I couldn’t pack up all my books; I needed to keep some of them close to hand, for writing, or just because I like them. I filled six boxes with “essential” titles.

Wow, I thought. Six boxes? Essential? You’re definitely out of control now.

Naturally I ignored these voices of doubt. But then I remembered that my relatives collect antiques and have two great Danes: space was at a premium in their house. With great regret, I reduced my essential list to two boxes: what if I need them, and they’re buried under furniture in my storage unit?

But then I had a brilliant idea.

I could put four of my “essential” boxes in the trunk of my car.

Why not? I thought. I’d heard of people living out of their cars, so why not read out of my car? The space is there, so why waste it?

So I duly tossed four boxes of books in my car. And I have to say, that it feels pretty good. It’s not just that I can access my collection of Stalinist books any time, or that I can crack open my luxurious collection of psychedelic French cartoons whenever I feel like it, or dip into one of my books on the apocalypse in the supermarket parking lot if I want to.

No, it’s the transformation of my car into a vessel for some of history’s greatest and weirdest and worst thoughts that pleases me. I like that nobody knows that my car is full of so much wonder, so many ideas…although I’ll admit it also feels pretty ludicrous when I go grocery shopping and wind up balancing a loaf of bread and some milk atop my copy of The History of the Communist Part of the Soviet Union (Short Course).

A version of this post previously appeared at RIA Novosti.
Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist. Visit him online at
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Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist. Visit him online at

15 thoughts on “Bibliophile or Bibliomaniac?

    November 11, 2013 at 09:31

    Well DK, if you have to be a ‘phile or a ‘maniac I think you must be the latter – but you are not alone in dabblerworld as my guess is that Nige and Worm, and surely Jonathon Slang are fellow inmates in the paper nut-house – and count me in too. My ‘little problem’ began over 40 years ago when I married and, shortly afterward, met an uncle who suffered from a variant of my condition; he hoarded newspapers, stacking them up in his bedroom. Until I had seen these mountains of newsprint with my own eyes, I had imagined that this condition was genetic, passed down over generations; but I was wrong. Soon after leaving my uncle I developed the early symptoms of what turned out to be a full-blown case of newspaper-retention. In the same way that you can pick-up a virus from taking a ‘plane journey or licking a toilet-seat, I had come away from my uncle’s house with an ‘infection’ that, like herpes, stays with you for a lifetime. In a vain effort to cure me, or at least dilute the effects, my long-suffering wife bought me a little device that reduces newspapers to small briquettes. You immerse the papers in a vat of water for a few days until they become a soggy pulp, after which you decant the pulp into a metal box, and compress the mass into a size roughly similar to a house-brick. A Sunday Times, with all sections (minus Colour Supplements) can thus be reduced-down to 8 x 4 x 2.5″, and dried-out, ready for ‘burning’. But you’ve probably guessed the punch-line. So appealing were these little briquettes that I discovered I preferred to keep them rather that use them as fire-lighters; and there was a bonus. If I woke one morning and decided to do something useful – like cleaning the fluff out of the filter on the front of the drum on the spin-dryer, say. Instead, I could quickly divert my attention to the pile of briquettes, and search the long-side of the item for interesting bits of information from the past – ‘……killed in Paris car crash’ or ‘Sons of toil, killed by tons of soil’. Who, in their right mind, could resist such pleasures?

      November 11, 2013 at 11:54

      Well, it says here (, a very useful way of keeping count with titles, authors, pub dates and beyond that all sorts of trainspottery stuff that I manage to resist) 5,332. As in books owned. As of today. There’s a couple on order even as I type and I am off to meet a publisher later so that should be good for a couple of freebies… Then there’s the occasional review copies. And the ones, albeit few in number but definitely chunky in dimension, that I write. Still, a minuscule library compared with some, but far too many of course. And being limited as to space it’s becoming a one-in-one-out situation. Out? Well, into that box over there. Whence they never seem to leave.

      November 12, 2013 at 02:34

      I like the sound of these bricks. In a vaguely similar vein, I amassed a large collection of Nat Geos from the 50s through to the 80s while helping an old lady clean out her house. I was fascinated by the regimes and countries which had ceased to exist, but which were presented as being more or less eternal by the journalists. I had a grand idea of taking this material and…. doing something with it. Instead the mags spent 3 years in a cupboard. Those I did manage to part with, though partly because silverfish had eaten half the spines.

  2. Worm
    November 11, 2013 at 12:40

    guilty as charged! Luckily my parents have a sitting room with a bookcase that covers an entire very large wall, and which still needs filling up – so I keep my ‘essential’ titles in my own house and every six months or so I offload another few boxes of the less essential ones onto my parents.

    One thing I will note though – your admirable carboot library is costing you in the region of 3-4% loss in fuel efficiency…

    November 11, 2013 at 13:17

    I’m working abroad for a year and could only take four of my many hundreds of books with me. (Or else endure fees of Ryanairesque proportions.) To choose them was a bit like selecting one’s favourite child.

  4. Gaw
    November 11, 2013 at 13:26

    I’m a fellow book hoarder, as are many of my friends. Funnily enough, just this morning I came across this on a friend’s Facebook page:

    been going through endless boxes of books trying to find any to get rid of. [name redacted]’s comment to me when I suggested eliminating a particularly dusty book, “if you think we’re getting rid of a book on Ming dynasty furniture designs, you’re quite clearly insane.”

    I’m proud of him.

  5. Brit
    November 11, 2013 at 13:45

    The number of books accumulating chez Brit is constant source of household tension, which has accelerated since publishers started sending review copies to The Dabbler. It’s got to the point where even I’ve had enough of them – and I find I’ve made the transition to Kindle much more easily than I expected.

    November 11, 2013 at 14:02

    Over at, I mention the book by Jacques Bonnet, who claims to have reached the point that moving becomes more than inconvenient, more nearly impossible. I would quote the book further, but appropriately enough it has vanished from the shelf where I thought it was. It is possible that I lent it to one of my son’s more bibliomaniac friends, a young woman who thinks that a library like the one at Trinity College (Dublin, not Hartford) would about suit her.

    Dave Lull
    November 11, 2013 at 14:23

    Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (New York: Random House, 2007), p. 1:

    “The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with ‘Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?’ and others—a very small minority—who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real estate market allow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call the collection of unread books an antilibrary.”

    Bjørn Stærk, “Lessons from the anti-library”:

    “Taleb introduces the Hayekian and almost taoistic metaphor of the anti-library: A library of the books you haven’t read, of the things you don’t know. A massive collection of unknowledge, the anti-library contains all the books that may still change your life. Most of your favourite books are there, hidden and forgotten. It has facts you need to know, authors you’d worship. Only people who read very little can think the anti-library doesn’t matter. To book-lovers, and especially generalists like me, who jump all over the place without focus, the stacks of the anti-library loom higher and darker for every book we read. Every book that changes me reminds me of the ones that still might.”

      November 11, 2013 at 16:14

      This is a magnificent and true concept, which I shall use to allay the “household tension” of which Brit speaks. Don’t think it will work, though.

    • Worm
      November 11, 2013 at 16:39

      yep, this is very cool!

    November 11, 2013 at 22:27

    More than 5000 books? Check. Household tension? Check. Concern about the physical and emotional demands of biblio-downsizing as retirement approaches? Check. Boot library? Check. One in, one out? No — compromise at one in, five out.

    November 12, 2013 at 09:09

    Occupying the ground floor flat at Knockholt Mansions we had contemlated our nieghbours, upstairs was an accountant who lived with Beethoven, or at least shared his abode with Ludo at full volume. Above him was a couple who worked for Danish Bacon (we called them the rashers.) The top flat was occupid by a guy who wrote childrens TV stories, Fergus the Fish etc, he was gay and had a crush on me, much to amusment of frau m. Parked outside the front entrance on the un-adopted road was a maroon coloured MG Magnette, pre Farina. The windows were so dirty viewing it’s interior was impossible, we did not know who the owner was and, as the old mansion was mainly occupied by southerners, communication was at a minimum, except for the blown kisses from the top floor of course.
    The accountant left, he has found a bigger concert hall and the day he departed offered me the keys of the motor “you have it” he said, “I have no further use for it.” Dumbfounded I took the offered keys and opened the doors.

    The interior was packed to the roof lining with every copy of the Times going back as far as Agricola. “no thanks” I said, Daily Mirror man meself.

    Mike, Ohio
    November 12, 2013 at 23:30

    I can relate. Kept behind my driver’s seat (not the trunk…I fear that could get damp) are Boswell’s Johnson, and several books picked up at library sales. Frequently I’m waiting in the car, and always have a read ready at hand.

    Joseph Epstein said that he’s stopped going into used book stores, “those pool halls for the bibliophile.”

      Michael Smith
      November 13, 2013 at 22:48

      Boswell’s Johnson

      Mike, do you mean that in the American sense, because if so I’m wondering if it’s now as shrivelled as Napoleon’s?

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