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Bibliophilia is bollocks

13/01/2014

The Victorian art critic, John Ruskin, said, " If a book is worth reading, it is worth buying". I wonder if he would say now, "If a book is worth reading, it is worth a trip to the public library to get it out on loan"? Book-borrowing is perhaps the western world's first carbon-neutral, least valued and most portable pastime. In these days of user-pays-for-just-about-everything, the local library stands for a time when rate-payers actually got a fair deal. To this day people without loads of dosh to spend on books and time to lounge in book-lined studies can read to their heart's content for absolutely zilch. I use the expression "heart's content" on purpose; a visit to the public library to browse the bays, read the daily papers and latest magazines, and take home a bag of reading matter for the whole family, is good for the soul. It is satisfying to imagine the readers before us who have enjoyed the very same book, rather like having a vintage car or coat and wondering about the lives of its former owners. Another good reason to use the public library is we can be experimental in our reading choices and abandon a book guiltlessly without wasting time or money. 

Bibliophilia of the type Ruskin encouraged is bad for you. In Maurice Gee's novel, In My Father's Den, the main character shows what can happen if you place too much importance on surrounding yourself with books. As the novel suggests, it's a kind of neurotic fetish, rather like Imelda Marcos's shoes.  As Henry James (another nineteenth century sage) proposes, the novel is a tool for showing us how not to live, and we should take note. From a less philosophical and more practical perspective, few people have limitless spending money and shelving. 

Fortunately these days, most fathers do not need to retreat to their well-stocked private libraries to escape their 12 children, wives and servants. Reading for pleasure is now much more democratic. One can download or buy just about anything online (although there is something soulless about that). I go back to the carbon-neutral argument. Surely it's better to recycle books than to buy something we might never read again and haven't got room to store anyway.

There are, however, instances when Ruskin's advice is applicable. It's lovely to treat ourselves to a title from our favourite author, or buy a book as a gift, or invest in a tome like War and Peace, which is - let's face it - a life-long reading project. Bibliophiles do not love books more than non-bibliophiles; they just like owning them more. I know this is hypocritical, but it is handy to have a bibliophile in the family to borrow the latest fiction from.