Shelf life: confessions of an unrepentant book collector

May 13, 2008|By Charles Kraus

Books collect dust. People collect books. At least, some people do.

I've been one of them for about 45 years. Of course, if my wife has anything to do with it, I've squeezed my last volume onto a shelf. "One more book, and I'll call the folks in the white coats and tell 'em we have a case of bibliomania on our hands," she is fond of saying.

We are just about out of shelf space. It has become necessary for me to cram new acquisitions horizontally into those little spaces between the vertically arranged books and the shelves above. Last year, I lobbied for an additional bookcase. My wife took a slow, theatrical glance around the room, a gesture designed to say, "Where the hell would you put it?" then she smiled the kind of benevolent smile saintly that mothers offer devilish children, and she whispered, "No more, Charles."

She'd made her point, yet we both knew I would continue buying books.

They say that parents who enjoy books end up with kids who enjoy books, so it is possible to fix much of the blame on good old father for my attempt to re-create New York City's 42nd Street library right here in my house. His was an impressive - albeit more manageable - collection, an assortment of science, pseudoscience, history and literature. It was primarily acquired from the Lower East Side secondhand bookshops that flourished from the 1940s through the 1960s.

About the only form of gambling in which my father would participate was the clearance table crapshoot. A table full of discards would be offered for $3 apiece. Next week, the remaining volumes went for $2, and on week three, a dollar. Should you purchase a book immediately, before someone realized what an incredible treasure the bookseller had mistakenly placed on the table? Or should you wait, hoping to pick it up at next week's reduced price?

From time to time, as I accompanied Dad on his book-buying rounds, I'd spot like-minded devotees rummaging through the stacks, calmly at first, but with increased measures of desperation and resignation, while trying to locate the book they now knew they should have purchased the previous week.

I own more books than my dad did at the height of his collecting days - more than I will ever read. Some, though relatively few, are investments: perfect first editions, signed, rare, ancient volumes that may eventually be transformed into part of my retirement fund. The rest, given enough time and decent lighting, I would love to read.

If you enjoy an author and happen to come across more of his work, at prices too good to ignore, or books about the author, given away on Sunday afternoons by flea market proprietors who don't care to lug them home - aren't you obligated to acquire them? If you happen to be perusing stacks of books heaped in the corner of a cluttered, marginal thrift shop, stacks not alphabetically arranged but perhaps organized there by the level of mildew implanted in the binding, should you not rescue the worthiest of the lot? Are you not required to keep one of the last copies of the 1927 first edition of Daniel W. Streeter's Camels! from reaching oblivion? And what about Treadmill to Oblivion by Fred Allen? You going to let them find their way to the trash bin?

I collect books written by those writers who published in The New Yorker during the 1930s and 1940s - Benchley, Thurber, Parker, Lardner, Perelman. Doing so leads to collecting books about The New Yorker, and about other magazines that published during that period, about publishing in general, about the people involved, about the technology. See how this can steamroll?

I collect books, in part, to preserve - for my kids, for myself, for my self-respect and perhaps ultimately for the junk man - a version of what got published: books, phrases, words, concepts, ideas, lies and truths, which, by continuing to exist, make this a better world.

I wonder if a row of paperbacks - you know, old Pocket Book titles, with their noir covers - lined up on top of the refrigerator, could withstand a slam or two, should the freezer door closed rapidly? Like, if I had eating the ice cream on my mind instead of collecting books?

Charles Kraus, his family and his book collection reside in Seattle.

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