bib·li·o·phile: (b b l – -f l ) also bib·li·o·phil (-f l ) or bib·li·oph·i·list (b b l – f -l st), n.
1. A lover of books.
2. A collector of books.
That covers it reasonably well, I think. You can’t be one without the other, you know, and if you’re reading this then we all know that you’re both, poor thing.
My life-long love of the bound codex is evident to any and/or all who venture into my general environment. There are books in every room; stored neatly on shelves, stacked carefully on tables, painstakingly packed in boxes and bags and piled precariously on nearly every flat surface in the joint.
I come by it honestly. My folks taught me to read at a very early age, and I was surrounded by books as a kid. One in particular was to have a significant affect on me on several levels: The World’s Best Loved Poems, edited by James Gilchrist Lawson for Harper in 1927. About half of it was made up of “inspirational” or “newspaper” verses, which are interesting at this point primarily as artifacts of the time; but it also contained Shakespeare, Poe, Whitman and Robert W. Service, who are still among my favorites.
My sisters, ten years older than I, had school books from their English classes that I devoured as soon as I could hold them. Reading quickly became my favorite sport, replacing dodge-ball at which I excelled. Not. When I was issued my own English Lit books, I ran through them in the first week – I may not have been a straight-A student, but I knew those stories and poems long before the teacher “taught” them to us.
I only had a small bookcase in my room as a kid, and its contents ebbed and flowed weekly as I checked books out of the library, read them, and returned them to get more. This regularity endeared me to the very kind ladies at the public library; so much, in fact, that I was given an extremely special dispensation one afternoon.
I do not recall the circumstances under which this occurred, in all honesty. I may very well have been told, or heard about it on the news, but somehow in the early 1960s the main branch of the Roanoke, Virginia Public Library was tapped to house – however briefly – a copy of the Gutenberg Bible. Even while in elementary school, I understood how important this book was. I suspect, thinking back on it now, that it had been the subject of an announcement in English class (or possibly at my church one Sunday), but however word came to me, come to me it did.
I don’t know how long that magnificent relic stayed in town; it may have been a few days or a week as it awaited transportation to another lucky library, but I know it wasn’t a permanent addition to their holdings. I don’t recall now, almost a half-century later, if I asked about it or if I was invited by a librarian to view it. What I do recall, though….
I recall walking downstairs to the library’s vault, cool and still. I recall the librarian opening the cage with a ring of keys that made a sound I’d never before heard, an overture of sorts to an opera of truly biblical proportions. I recall her pulling on a pair of white cotton gloves, walking me softly into the vault, speaking to me in quiet tones; I have no idea what her religious views were, and frankly, they were then and are now totally irrelevant, as her adoration was almost certainly more for the object in front of us than for its spiritual importance.
She solemnly cautioned me not to touch it, so I put my hands behind my back as I padded into the cage behind her, anticipation making my heart beat faster and widening my eyes so as not to miss a single aspect of this marvel, this relic of more than just sacred consequence.
And there it was. My eyes filled with the sheer enormity of it; I could smell the leather binding and the vellum pages; the very creaking of that binding and the music the pages made as she slowly and gently turned them rang in my ears in a way nothing else had, ever before. I was more than captivated, I was ensorcelled. The age of it, the dignity and brilliance it represented fill me with a reverence that had little to do with the scriptures it contained.
I knew – I knew deep in my innards that here was the single object that had made it possible for me to read about Tom Corbett, and Charlotte and Wilbur, and Alice and the Mad Hatter, and Mrs. Whatsit, and Huck and Tom, and the wonderful mushroom planet, and the Cat in the Hat, and Toad of Toad Hall, and and and….
Those of us who read (and write) science-fiction and fantasy are well-acquainted with the true sixth sense, that of Wonder. I thought I’d known Wonder before that afternoon in that cool, silent basement, but I’d only known wonder; that day I came face to face with it in its fully-capitalized form, a book made by a man who’d been gone from the skin of this planet for more than twice the number of years America had even existed. It was 307mm by 447mm, 1,275 pages long, forty-two lines to a page in double columns.
It was huge. Even now it looms, overshadowing all the other books I’ve owned – hell, even seen – establishing a benchmark along my personal bibliographic highway that no flood or fire can ever destroy. It inspired awe in me that I haven’t felt since, and (at this point in my life) never expect to feel again. My British friends have a word for it: gob-smacked.
Happily, I’ve never quite recovered from that experience; I treasure it, in fact. It stirred in me an even greater respect and affection for books than I already had then, a bibliophilia that transcended the contents and spilled over into the Thing Itself.
“But Bud,” I hear you cry in confusion. “However can you bear to part with these books you claim to love so much, and for mere money at that?”
Well, hoss, I’ll tell you: it ain’t always easy. I’ve sold books that I later regretted letting go of; I think we all have. Sometimes I needed the money, but all too often it was out of sheer ignorance. No excuse.
There’s this, though. What you love, you love to share. You know how, when you get a new Whatever It Is You Collect, you can’t wait to get it home so you can make phone calls, send e-mails, post about it on MyFace? So what if you found two of those Whatevers for the same price? Or bought a whole boxful at a yard-sale for $5?
eBay, am I right? Hey, that way, all those spoons (or Hummels or commemorative plates or Beanie Babies or pogs – remember pogs?) will pay for themselves, and your Spouse will stop tapping his/her feet and looking so cranky about it all.
I love books, I love the very idea of them, and I share them all the time. I give some away (those too rough to sell, or for which I have no buyers); I trade some in for others I can sell; I even sell a few to the bag-boys at my local grocery store. The rest I take to conventions and sell to my customers, old and new, who are looking for something to read and cherish.
I am a bibliophile. I’ll bet you are, too.