December 9, 2011
Other things to do with books
by Dan O'Connor
The veneration of books has always laid traps for the reckless and unwary, and it has frequently mutated into perversity. Many young lovers of books, for instance, have awakened to find themselves clerks in retail shops, standing behind cash registers, or moving digital bytes around on screens in publishing offices. The most often studied of these afflictions has the ancient name “bibliomania” (coined, according to Nicholas A. Basbanes in his A Gentle Madness, by Lord Chesterfield in 1750), today de-glorified and subsumed under the popular diagnosis, “hoarding” —a disorder with its own television show and a shelf of diagnostic volumes which will become compulsory reading (and collecting) for bibliomanes. See: Collections of Nothing; Collecting: An Unruly Passion; and The Cultures of Collecting, all must-reads or, at least, must-haves.
Hoarding is also likely to have its own entry in the forthcoming fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which will no doubt help us to define how many is too many. I once read that Umberto Eco owns 30,000 books. Professor Eco can no doubt provide a more plausible need for such a hoard than can the average “book lover” but—30,000?
One dishonored cult has acknowledged the power of books by destroying them. The Nazi book burning of May 10th, 1933 is the most notorious modern instance, but regimes of all kinds have found their example expedient. Kurt Vonnegut’s lett
er to the concerned citizens of Drake, North Dakota—who burned his book Slaughterhouse-five—reminds us that it has not been unknown among the American people. Stranger than the violence of governments is the work of individuals. Bad boy playwright Joe Orton defaced a small shelf of books at his local library, purportedly in protest against an unenlightened selection (all of the books have been preserved by the Islington Local History Centre).
For much of the past year the city of Edinburgh has hosted an eccentric wave of mutilation in the form of ten sculptures created from the shredded entrails of books. The sculptures, some of them referencing the work of native son Ian Rankin, have been left anonymously—and without raising any security alarms—at the Scottish Poetry Library, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and the National Library of Scotland. All have been accompanied by scraps of poetry and a whimsical note recommending the gift as “in support of libraries, books, words, ideas…” —the sort of support a taxidermist might give a wildlife preserve. The works seem to have been given ecstatic local welcome and most are on public display.
Dan O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Melville House.