Sheer volumes

It’s a joy. It’s a sickness. It’s an obsession. It’s necessary.

Whatever you call it, book buying is a great addiction. It’s afflicted people since there were books available to buy, and now, with a boom in both real and virtual bookstores, there are more ways than ever to indulge in bibliomania.

Chances are good you know someone who’s got the book habit, although you may not realize it. But those (of us) who are afflicted know darn well what happens when they (we) are faced with books just waiting to be acquired.

Some people do it for the love of literature, some because they can’t pass up a good bargain. And some, well, their reasons are even more complex.

“When I go into a bookstore, the smell of a bookstore, or a library, really gets to me,” says Joy, a 30-something Wayne State English student. “I get excited about the idea of something new to read.”

Joy, who didn’t want her last name used, is a good example of someone who recognizes that perhaps she has a book-buying addiction, but isn’t about to do anything about it. A member of the Quality Paperback Book Club, as well as someone who’s amassed a $1000 wish list on, she’s comfortable with her current habit of spending about $30 to $50 a month on books — usually online or through catalogs. “I try to stay away from actual bookstores unless I know what I want, because I can’t leave empty-handed.”

“Some of it’s an obsession with trying to absorb the information-age overload,” she says. “The more you read, the more you have to read about, and the more you have to know.”

She brings her books home, where some take up residence beside her bed, and the rest end up stacked on huge homemade bookshelves in her basement, awaiting the day when she’ll get a chance to read them.

“I buy all these things I want and I can’t read them all because there’s not enough time.”

Her husband teases her about never getting around to reading her books, but that’s not about to stop her, either.

“I guess my goal is I think I’m going to have this library one day, of all the classic novels … fiction is my big thing, but it’s not limited. If I have a problem, I like to see if there’s a self-help book about that problem.”

That might be one of the following: The Romance of the Book, by Marshall Brooks. Bibliomania, by Bliss Austin. A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books, by Nicholas A. Basbanes. Anatomy of Bibliomania, by Holbrook Jackson. Biblioholism: The Literary Addiction, by Tom Raabe. If they’re not already on Joy’s wish list or in her collection, they may be soon.

But as far as volume of volumes go, Joy can hardly compare to Charlotte, a 50-something Detroiter who buys about 20 books a week (and also didn’t want her last name known).

Of her book purchases, Charlotte estimates about 80 percent are used. “Who wants to go pay $12 for The Great Gatsby when you can go to Value Village and pay a quarter?” she asks.

She keeps her books in a rented garage (stacked on wooden pallets to protect them from the cold concrete floor), jammed in her third-floor attic, and stacked along every wall of almost every room in her house. Plus there are three big boxes of books in the back seat of her car, the trunk is full of books, and recently she’s filled the front seat too.

Charlotte says the literary addiction runs in her family: “My mother’s side was also book compulsive, but I take the cake.”

Sometimes she buys books for friends, and sometimes because she thinks she might need the book at some point in the future. And while she does speed-read or browse through her books, getting a chance to read one cover-to-cover is a rare treat.

“I’m not sure that I can express the intuitive aspect of what I do, or why,” she explains. “Print and books are pleasure, and I fancy that I’m on a hunt to find something special or satisfying … None of us live long enough to live more than our own life, and stories let us share other authors’ and characters’ experiences and feelings to extend our own universe and understanding. Sometimes it’s a less focused hunt for just a ghost of a thought, a feeling, an idea that I want to capture and examine or share.”

But regardless of their (our) reasons, book buying, collecting and accumulating has its bright side too. As Charlotte points out, “It’s one of those passions you never have to be ashamed of.”

Alisa Gordaneer is MT features editor. E-mail [email protected]
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