Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 29 Mar 2017

Bookaholic or bibliomaniac? I think I know where I stand.

My name is Terry and I’m a bookaholic. There, I’ve said it. But I’m not telling you this because I’m resolving to take some kind of 12 step cure to end my dependency on books. Quite the opposite in fact. If I had my way I’d spend even more time accumulating, reading and generally pawing over my collection. To me it’s not just ordinary, it’s necessary; a socially desirable trait that if followed by others would make the world a whole better place.

A casual conversation recently with a work colleague, however, did make me pause to consider how my love of books was viewed from the outside. Without any hint of spite or malice this person referred to me as a ‘bibliomaniac’ – he had, he said, never known anyone who cared or knew so much about books. I was rather pleased with that except for the ‘bibliomaniac’ tag which seemed to me to have overtones of, at best, the distinctly odd and, at worst, something pathological.

So I thought I’d just spend a bit of time reassuring myself that I’m not a maniac ( of any kind hopefully) and I went off in search of some definitions. The compulsive collecting, appropriating, stealing and hoarding of books for their own sake seems to be an affliction that was recognised as long ago as the 18th century. There are well documented cases of librarians building their own secret stashes and of people compelled to get hold of books even though they don’t have the kind of income that would allow them to purchase what they want legitimately. The idea of ‘bibliomania’ as an aberrant condition was first developed – albeit in an eccentric way – by Thomas Dibdin in his book Bibliomania; or Book Madness (1809) where he tried to categorize the obsessions in a pseudo-scientific or quasi-medical fashion.

Others, including Flaubert, have followed in Dibdin’s footsteps seeking to describe the way that books can, for some people, become an irrational focus of their hoarding instinct. I think that what we understand today is that this desire to accumulate irrationally, to just have more of a thing for the things sake, isn’t confined to books and can manifest itself around almost any object however valueless or worthless.

So, I’m pretty sure I’m not in that territory. I do love books and desire to have them and I’ve pretty much accepted that there’s no upper limit to that. But, and I think it’s quite a big but, I keep it as a cast-iron law that I will only take home those books I have an intention to read. However beautiful or desirable or cheap a book is, if I don’t want to read it, I don’t want it. You will have spotted a small chink in that argument: just how many things can I convince myself I’m interested in reading about? Well, quite a few but I think there’s a whole lot more out there I’ve no interest in at all.

So, yes, I’m a bookaholic or maybe I’m better described as a book connoisseur – someone who loves and appreciates the printed book not just for its contents but for its own sake, as an object. I fundamentally believe books are special things and that the physical book is more than the sum of its parts.

This does, however, quite often make me feel, if not a maniac then at least a bit unusual. One of the odder things about working in a university over the past decade has been the discovery that so many of my teaching colleagues not only have little regard for or knowledge of books but they themselves don’t read. I found this to be genuinely shocking – a university in which a good percentage of the staff only read under duress and then only in their assumed area of expertise isn’t something you’d intuitively expect to find. It seems, though, that my institution isn’t unusual and from casual conversations I’ve had elsewhere, this is quite normal.

Maybe we’ve been thinking about this the wrong way around. It seems to me that we have a society that sees those who love books as the deviant ones – the cohort of people that needs to explain and defend their commitment to the value of books and justify why they have a house full of them. Instead we should be asking what is wrong with those people who don’t read and who don’t have books – get them to justify their behaviour instead.

From this point on I’m offering an alternative to Thomas Dibdin’s bibliomaniac – the Biblioanorexic : the person who dangerously starves themselves of books and the pleasure of books and by so doing deprives themselves of the life enhancing contents of those objects.

Maybe I’ll start a new charity……


Terry Potter

March 2017