Thursday, April 30, 2015
Why we need physical books
The committed bibliophile is cousin to the obsessive, an easily seduced accumulator frequently struck with frisson. Cram your home with books, and you’re lovingly called a collector; cram it with old newspapers, and you’re derisively called a hoarder. But be honest: The collector is a hoarder, too—a discriminating and noble-minded hoarder, perhaps, but a hoarder just the same.
Not long into George Gissing’s 1903 novel The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, you find a scene that no self-respecting bibliophile can fail to forget. In a small bookshop in London, the eponymous narrator spots an eight-volume first edition of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. “To possess those clean-paged quartos,”
Ryecroft says, “I would have sold my coat.” He doesn’t have the money on him, and so he returns across town to his flat to retrieve it. Too broke for a ride on an omnibus, and too impatient to wait, he twice more traverses the city on foot, back and forth between the bookshop and home, toting a ton of Gibbon. “My joy in the purchase I had made drove out every other thought. Except, indeed, of the weight. I had infinite energy but not much muscular strength, and the end of the last journey saw me upon a chair, perspiring, flaccid, aching—exultant!”