Return to Articles / Essays

You Are What You Read
On Building a Personal Library

Published in Canadian Notes and Queries, Number 101.

In our grandparents' time, any professional who looked beyond the profit motive as the reason or meaning of it all would have been expected to have a private library, and I still maintain that any civilized person who values the written word should have one.

Of the many private libraries I've seen in my many years of bookselling, the most impressive are invariably those created by people whose passion for reading and learning led them to amass and retain what amounts to an intimate record of their own interests. I'm not referring here to a collection acquired according to a set theme, or one valuable for its individual contents, but to a single person's acquisi tions over a lifetime. A. N. L. Munby, one of the twentieth century's great librarians and a lifelong book collector, summed up this particular passion, also his own, succinctly and beautifully: "To be thought a lunatic by one's fellow men [ ... ] is a small price to pay for a lifetime of the enjoyment of books."

Building a personal library is a lifetime project, but it is ill-understood by many. Like any serious long-term undertaking, more is necessary than just space, money, or careless accumulation.

Those in the early stages of building their library often follow a predictable path. First the cheap, disposable paperback by a new, untested author. Then, when a book demands to be permanently owned, the seeking out of a nice hardcover edition. Some graduate from the nice hardcover to the attractive, illustrated edition. Heritage reprints of classic literature from the expensive Limited Editions Club and the Folio Society, which copy the style of the earlier, more ambitious Nonesuch Press editions, are both lovely and affordable. (I refuse to stock the FrankIin Library's "limited editions" or Easton Press' faux-leather plastic books, however. Their pretensions insult our intelligence and taste and they are not allowed in my store.)

For some people, this path will lead to first-edition collecting in the same way that a serious attempt to educate one's taste in food, wine, or any other aesthetic pursuit beyond a superficial interest will result in greater sophistication. This, in turn, leads to increased pleasure commensurate with the new depth of knowledge-a point people often miss. Others discover, often to their own surprise, that they are born collectors.

Most dealers and collectors I know are constantly amazed that there exist serious readers who take pleasure in educating their senses in the areas of music, food, and drink, but see no reason to admire and own finely printed and bound books. They don't seem to understand that they are boasting about their ignorance when they say things like "It's only the content I care about." These are the same people who go to wine tastings, gourmet cooking classes, or purchase intricate sound equipment and expensive appurtenances to impress who-knows-who.

As I have said many times, a bookseller can tell as much about your personality and character from your personal library as your doctor can tell about your eating and drinking habits (and see through your lies) by scanning your face with their educated eye.

I had some friendly dealings with the publisher and philanthropist Avie Bennett in the years before he died. But even though I never met him, it was his father I considered a friend: I bought the elder Bennett's library after his passing, and for a bookseller there's no better way to get to know someone than by examining and assessing their book collection.

When, in my early years, clients began to invite me to their homes to view their libraries, I noticed that some exhibited anxieties about certain parts of their collection. The first couple of times I experienced this syndrome I didn't get it. While leading me to his or her treasures, the client would hurry me past a wall of books that tended to be next to a light and an easy chair.
"Don't bother looking at those - they're just crap."

After a couple of repetitions of this scenario, I began to catch on. These were ordinary books, the ones that were read and kept because they were loved. The clients assumed that I, a professional, would snobbishly sneer at such ordinary books, that I would only be impressed with their perfect,
dust-wrappered treasures. Their "serious" books.

When I figured out what this behaviour really meant I was offended.

Book lovers should no more deny the books they love than they should deny their children. Your son might be a psychotic, anti-social junkie, but he's still your son, and your loyalty and love cannot, should not, change. A book you love and would never part with shouldn't be denigrated no matter how sophisticated you believe the professional viewing it to be.

So, the next time it happened I was ready.

"Don't look at those," said my collector. "They're just ordinary books - junk."

"I'm sure they are," I quickly responded. "That's why I want to stop and look at them. You know, eighty percent of my personal library is crap too, but it doesn't matter, because it's my crap. I wouldn't sell those books at any price. They're the ones I love most - that's why I keep them, so
they're always at hand for when I want to reread or consult them. I'm sure you wouldn't sell these books either."

Never apologize for owning a book that you love just because you think someone else might despise it. That's akin to denying a friend, one of the most despicable human sins.

Once an old friend of my partner, "the reknowned Canadian rare-book dealer" Debra Dearlove, visited us for a few days. He was a most civilized Irishman, a professor of literature who'd written a
few books, a couple of them important. We put him in the guest room, where I kept a few of my sentimental collections. Of course, being a bibliophile, he exarnined my books and, over pre-din-
ner drinks the next day, essayed a comment on what he'd seen.

"There are some rather interesting books in that room David," he said, but inquisitively.

It was his way of voicing his surprise that they weren't, as he'd expected, pristine first editions of Trollope, or Hardy, or Kerouac, or Henry Miller, or even Mailer, all writers we had been discussing. They were books he couldn't figure out, and he was simply trying to find a nice way of avoiding saying something that would express his bafflement about why I would give shelf space to such undistinguished crap.

Because he was such a civilized man, I tried to explain.

"Those are my sentimental collections," I said. "They afforded me enormous pleasure when I purchased them for a buck or two each, and when I look at them now. They take me back to the
emotions I felt when I first read them as a naive, unschooled kid and found my imagination and my spirits lifted by new insights and new understanding of the human condition. Looking at them
reminds me that we all started with the same thing, an unformed character. A kind of innocence as a result of a lack of experience and sophistication.

That's the one essential gift we all have: an ability to become lost in imaginary worlds, to feel excited when we first encounter the magnificence of the human imagination."

I asked our guest if he'd read the author of one of those collections, fully aware not only that he would not have read him, but that he almost certainly wouldn't have heard of him. This was an adventure novelist of the sort who wrote what the Victorians called "Romances." For me he was a twentieth-century version of Robert Louis Stevenson or H. Rider Haggard. That my beloved author, Edison Marshall, had mostly been published by the Book of the Month Club and was not considered to have written anything resembling "literature" meant nothing to me. Our guest didn't respond, but from his look I knew he understood, and I felt he even approved, perhaps remembering some venerated hacks from his youth.

Marshall, when I first read him at thirteen or fourteen, astounded me with his view of life. Sixty years later, I still revere him and what he's given me through his books. To deny him would be to deny my own humanity, to dismiss that timid kid who, despite his ignorance, had the spirit and sensibilities of the greatest discoverers and creators our race has brought forth. We aren't born or presented with wisdom and sophistication, we have to earn them, just as we have to earn respect. And those who introduce us to the way must never be betrayed-not through misguided snobbery and certainly never by forgetting that, no matter the prestige of a professor of literature, or famous historian, or Nobel laureate, each of those men or women started as you and I did: as a naive, unschooled, ignorant young fool. When a book ignites passion in us, no matter how ordinary or even puerile the author, we must respect it. To deny this is to deny our common humanity. And to deny our roots is to betray what we are.

-David Mason

Quick Search

News & Announcements

eList #52 - Now Online NEW May 2018 
Click above for details.

Science: A Miscellany, Catalogue 94
Click above for details.

David Mason reflects on 50 years in the book business. 
Published in CNQ 100. Click above to read.

60 Items Relating to Medicine  
Click above for details.

The Pope's Bookbinder available. 
David Mason's memoir of the book business in Toronto can be purchased here.