The Solitary Vice: Has Reading Really Made You a Better Person?

Excerpted from The Solitary Vice: Against Reading, Chapter II. In the Stacks: Of Human Bondage” (PopMatters/Counterpoint, April 2008)

See also The Solitary Vice: You Can Always Watch the Movie, Instead

And The Solitary Vice: Remove the ‘Guilt’ from ‘Guilty Pleasures’

Dreams of death among books are perhaps less common than fantasies of a life among them, but then, not everyone who loves books loves them in the same way. In the wide and varied world of readers, you occasionally come across a type of man (rarely, in my experience, a woman), usually over 40, who appears to be, let’s say, “overly involved” with his books. Perhaps you know the type. He’s often associated in a peripheral way with the world of books — he may be an author, critic, bookseller, or librarian — but he may just as well be someone you’d never suspect: a farmer, engineer, accountant, or taxi driver. For this man, the love of reading has been overtaken by the love of books as things, just as, for the sexual fetishist, erotic desire is displaced from the person to one of their parts or possessions — shoes, buttocks, hair. Upon first acquaintance, the book fetishist, or bibliomaniac, as he’s also known, may give every appearance of being a real man of letters, a devoted reader, but if you come to know him further, you’ll soon discover that he is, in fact, little more than a barren hoarder of books.

Author: Mikita Brottman

Book: The Solitary Vice: Against Reading

US publication date: 2008-04

Publisher: PopMatters

Publisher: Counterpoint

Formats: Paperback

ISBN: 1593761872


Length: 233 pages

Price: $14.95

Affiliate: (Counterpoint)

Image: course, not all book collectors make fetishes out of their books, and there can be biblio maniacs with very small libraries. The vital difference is this: that, to the bibliomaniac, owning a book is more important than actually reading it. As with similar conditions, bibliomania occurs in a variety of forms, from the very mild to the crippling and incurable, but once it’s set in, the sufferer tends to go downhill fast, so it always pays to keep your wits about you if you know someone who might be showing any of the following signs.

In its mildest forms, which are not always malignant, the bibliomaniac is inordinately fond of the object’s physicality. He may love the way a book looks and feels; he may sniff its pages with a glint in his eye; he may fondle its dust jacket lovingly. He may have hard and fast rules about the way books should be treated. He may, for example, strongly disapprove of underlining and marginal notes (especially in ink), dog-eared pages, coffee stains, or worn edges. The refusal to lend books is a common symptom, as is the tendency to constantly rearrange them according to different systems, some more or less logical (alphabetical or Dewey Decimal), and others idiosyncratic (according to color, size, series imprint, or publication date). Bibliomaniacs often have a special interest in collecting volumes in a particular set. They generally favor hardbacks and first editions, and can be sneeringly dismissive of cheap versions, new imprints, or translations they deem “second-rate”. They’re irrationally preoccupied with what they refer to as “authenticity”, and can be proud Luddites, often expressing disdain for the Internet and computers in general, as well as for e-books, self-published texts, graphic novels, and other literary forms that — in their minds, at least — simply don’t “count”.

Author and booklover Nicholas A. Basbanes, who’s been described as “the Pied Piper of bibliophiles”, refers to book collecting as “a gentle madness”, presumably in contrast to the more violent forms of insanity, but I’m not sure it’s always the harmless eccentricity Mr. Basbanes considers it to be. In an interesting article published in 1930 in The International Journal of Psychoanalysis called “Some Unconscious Factors in Reading”, James Strachey, Sigmund Freud’s English translator and a psychoanalyst himself, drew attention to a number of cases he’d dealt with in which ordinary reading habits became pathological. These include the case of a book-loving patient who talked at great length about literature and “constantly interlarded his conversation with quotations”, yet Strachey believed that this man “had scarcely ever read a book through, and had never read more than a dozen consecutive pages at a single sitting.” In my experience, bibliomania is one of those rare conditions where the sufferer’s placid exterior can conceal a pathology so ingrained as to make the occasional burst of psychosis seem like a mere tic in comparison. For a classic example, get to know Peter Kien, the protagonist of Elias Canetti’s bleak and depressing novel Auto-da-Fé (1935); alternatively, check out some bibliomaniac “porn”, like the documentaries Book Wars (2000) and The Stone Reader (2002).

Should he give free rein to his desires, the bibliomaniac can ruin his life, along with the lives of his loved ones. He’ll often take better care of his books than of his own health; he’ll spend more on fiction than he does on food; he’ll be more interested in his library than in his relationships, and, since few people are prepared to live in a place where every available surface is covered with piles of books, he’ll often find himself alone, perhaps in the company of a neglected and malnourished cat. When he dies, all but forgotten, his body might fester for days before a curious neighbor grows concerned about the smell.

A perfect specimen of the bibliomaniac is Art Garfunkel. Yes, that’s right, Art Garfunkel. You remember — the fuzzy-haired part of Simon and Garfunkel. Or, at least, that’s how most of us know him; but then, most of us are blindly oblivious to the existence of the Garfunkel Library, a chronological online list of every book the erudite songster has read over the last 38 years — almost a thousand of them — including the month and year of reading, the date of first publication, and the number of pages they contain. As the Web site boasts, Garfunkel is a “voracious reader”, who gets through, on average, around twenty-five books a year—a lot more than most people, without question. For example, between June 1968 and April 1970 — golden years for Simon and Garfunkel, remember — he got through forty books, including War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov. And these were the ’60s! You’d imagine, at the height of his fame, Mr. Garfunkel would have had more exciting things to do than staying home with his nose in a depressing Russian novel, but apparently not.

If you’re already thinking of poking around in the Garfunkel Library for a cheap snicker at an aging hippie’s Carlos Castaneda collection — think again, friend. The Garfunkel Library is not to be sniffed at; indeed, its shelves are positively groaning with heavyweight tomes. There’s no pulp here; there’s not even any popular fiction. Well, almost none. No more immune to hype than the rest of us, it appears Art couldn’t resist checking out Jaws in August 1974; Interview with the Vampire in July 1981; Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in December 2001, and The Da Vinci Code in February 2004. Apart from these rare off-notes, however, the Garfunkel Library consists mostly of classic editions of literature, history, and philosophy, including numerous volumes of Shakespeare, Freud, Proust, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. No Carlos Castaneda (though he does admit to reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull in 1972).

As a matter of fact, rather than giving you a cheap laugh, your first visit to the Garfunkel Library might leave you humbled, ready to doff your hat in shame. The more time you spend there, however, the more curious it all starts to seem. Most people, I think, tend to read eclectically, one book leading to the next in peripheral but connected ways. Mr. Garfunkel, on the other hand, seems to be following some kind of system that permits him to read only books that have been critically esteemed. He never seems to have given up any book halfway through, when he got sick of it, or when he misplaced his reading glasses — or if he did, he doesn’t mention it. And then, what are we to make of the fact that in April 1984, he read Strunk and White’s Elements of Style cover to cover — twice? Or that in March 1993 he claims to have read through the entire Random House Dictionary of the English Language — all 1,664 pages of it? Or that, according to those who’ve conducted interviews at his New York home, each book in the Garfunkel Library, after being read, is wrapped in protective plastic and shelved in the order of reading?

Who says prolific readers are necessarily civic-minded people? Hitler was a great reader, after all, and so was the Unabomber.

Without venturing to psychoanalyze Mr. Garfunkel’s unconscious fixations, I’d say there are times that you can, in fact, tell a book by its cover — and one of them is when it’s covered in protective plastic. And while it’s not impossible to understand why someone would want to keep a careful record of the books they’ve read, why would they keep note of the number of pages, rather than, say, the edition, or the translation, or, oh I don’t know, what they thought of it? This isn’t just rigid, it’s anal (and Garfunkel might even agree — after all, in August 1973 he read Irving Bieber’s Homosexuality, a Psychoanalytic Survey, and in June 1987 he read Freud’s The Ego and the Id).

Most revealing, however, aren’t the books that are listed, but those that aren’t. According to the site’s author, “We are pleased to present a listing of every book Art has read over the last thirty years.” That’s right, every book, do you hear? This means that, although he’s a poet himself, Garfunkel has only ever read four or five volumes of poetry — one of which, read in October 1989, was his own (Still Water—Prose Poems by Art Garfunkel). It means that when his wife, Kim, was pregnant in 1990, he read nothing in preparation — no What to Expect When You’re Expecting, no Official Lamaze Guide. It means that, when he walked across America in 1984, and later on across Europe, he did so without the aid of travel books. It means he read nothing he could share with his son, born in 1991 (unless you count Louise Ames’s Your Five-Year-Old in 1996). It means he read no books about healing and forgiveness in the buildup to his much-vaunted reunion with Paul Simon (unless that explains You Just Don’t Understand, in August 1996). More recently, in January 2006, Art and his wife had a second son, born to a surrogate mother. You’d think he could have found something more pertinent to read in preparation for this emotion-laden event than Henri Pirenne’s Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe.

Garfunkel’s completism suggests a tendency toward pompous self-importance reinforced by the site’s stuffy tone, in phrases like: “We also present the following list of books which have been designated by Mr. Garfunkel as his favorites.” In short, Garfunkel seems to have reached the advanced stages of “Sir Elton Syndrome”, characterized by the insistence that a pop star is oh so much more than that. Far from being merely a pop star, why, Mr. Garfunkel is a poet, a composer, a philanthropist, a humanitarian, and, above all, an intellectual — certainly not a balding man-child with too much time on his hands.

Still, we shouldn’t be too hasty to judge. There’s a big difference between a bibliomaniac and an ordinary book collector, and while accepting that some book lovers can go to extremes, you also have to realize that, if you’ve been a reader all your life, you can’t help feeling that books have a symbolic value. Plenty of people who are far from full-blown fetishists have developed private rituals around the reading process, including very careful rules about what they can and can’t read. My friend Neil, for example, enjoys listening to audio books on his long drive to work, but has a rule that he’ll only listen to books he’s read before, because he feels that listening to a book is a very different thing from reading it, and “doesn’t count”. Some people think that reading a book in a modern translation “doesn’t count”, either; others will only read books in the original language. These people remind me of those cinephiles who won’t watch films on video or DVD, and can’t concentrate if the film is in the wrong aspect ratio, or if the print has been dubbed, or altered to fit the screen.

If you’ve been a reader all your life, your reading habits are probably so ingrained as to be virtually unconscious, so it can be an interesting experiment to foreground them for a moment. To do so, consider the following questions. Do you read footnotes as you go, when you’ve finished, or not at all? Do you read the introductory essays and all the back matter, or do you consider the “book” to be the text itself, which ends with the final chapter? Do you try not to “contaminate” your experience by avoiding the synopsis, blurb, or praise from critics on the back cover? Perhaps you won’t read anything at all until you’re familiar with the critical consensus. Do you have a number of books on the stove at the same time, so to speak — a work of fiction, another of philosophy, another of religion, and perhaps some poetry? Do you feel uneasy if you haven’t spent at least a few minutes reading everyday?

Rituals around reading can be as personal and as private as saying your prayers. I have my own habits, like everybody else, though I’ve tried to discard the more irrational, time-consuming, and judgmental ones. In the past, for example, whenever I found myself in somebody else’s home, like many people, I’d always have a brief glance at the shelves, and I’d feel a bit disturbed if they contained not books, but family photographs, whimsical knick-knacks, or porcelain figurines.

I remember once being particularly bothered by a visit to the home of an English professor, a colleague who was terribly proud of her new house, which she’d just finished decorating in a rustic style, with old-fashioned agricultural implements lining the walls. Let’s call her Miss H. At the time, I couldn’t help feeling that Miss H. was typical of a common type of academic in that she saw her books as tools of the trade, for use in teaching and planning courses, as well as for easy reference at work. Her living space, on the other hand, was a Better Homes and Gardens showpiece model whose ersatz farmhouse theme had no room for shelves of clashing, modern textbooks. As many people do, she divided her work from her home life. Miss H. didn’t need her books around her. She may have been a dedicated reader, but she clearly never had the urge to dip in and out of her books on a daily basis, reread a favorite essay, or follow up a footnote just for fun. I tried not to, but I used to feel a streak of contempt for those like Miss H., for whom teaching literature was a career you “trained” for, the way you might train to become a lawyer or a car mechanic — something you might have an aptitude for, perhaps, rather than a vocation, a way of life. I used to feel, rather smugly, that an English teacher with no books at home was like a vicar whose Bible was kept for show on the church altar, not for use, at home by his bed.

These days, I try to be less judgmental. What business was it of mine, after all, whether Miss H. kept her books at home or at work? For all I knew, she had thousands of books in the attic, or in her bedroom, or in the garage, or online.

As for the bibliomaniac, of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with collecting books. As habits go, it’s got to be better than smoking, or shopping for shoes, or doing crystal meth. I suppose the major difference is that we don’t assume that somebody who collects shoes is necessarily a great walker, but some of us do have the misconception that owning a lot of books is the same thing as being a great reader, or knowing a lot, whereas the truth is, of course, a love of the physical presence of books doesn’t in itself constitute any form of cultural acumen, any more than wearing a white coat gives you a knowledge of medicine. Most book collectors no doubt came to their hobby through an early love of reading, but as they grow older, they often come to indulge their obsession for its own sake, like all collectors, and it really makes no difference whether the objects in question are books, Toby jugs, porcelain elephants, or Star Trek figurines.

No doubt the bibliomaniac will bristle at this suggestion, arguing that his books are not mere objects for decoration and display, but a genuine working library — a defense that only works for those who don’t have Internet access (although as I said, a lot of bibliomaniacs are dyed-in-the-wool technophobes), since, as everybody knows, it’s so much faster and easier to Google a query than to actually get up and search for a book on your shelves (as Miss H. may have discovered long ago). But genuine working libraries are rare, and though I fight the tendency, I can’t help being a bit suspicious of professionals — lawyers, academics, psychiatrists, consultants — whose offices are lined with shelves of heavy, leather-bound hardbacks, no doubt the classics of their field, whose presence implies the office is used not only for seeing clients, but for writing and researching, away from the hustle and bustle of the family home. I always wonder whether the books weren’t bought for college, years ago, or perhaps inherited, and kept not to be consulted, but to confer status and authority (just look what a clever fellow I am, how much knowledge I’ve accumulated!), like the doctor’s framed certificates, or the banker’s gold-tipped pen.

So you see, here I am knocking one person for having no books on her shelves, and disparaging others for having shelves full of them. But old habits die hard, and it’s about as difficult not to judge someone by the books (or lack of them) on their shelves as it is not to judge a book by its cover. Still I keep trying, and I think I’m getting better at not jumping to conclusions. After all, books can be all kinds of things to all kinds of people — they can be tools, guides, investments, manuals, home décor, work, produce, or just a messy pile of clutter. I try to remember, too, that not all readers accumulate books. Some see no point in keeping books after they’ve read them, and will sell them, or give them away. More and more people are getting into the habit of reading e-books on their laptops or BlackBerrys, and more and more libraries are being converted to electronic form. Though it may well turn out that the portable, private form of the book — the kind we can hold in our hands, and cradle in our lap — continues to provide, for most people, the ideal fulfillment of immersion in another world, this doesn’t mean it’s the only way this need can be satisfied. Deep immersion is a style of reading which, in itself, is a by-product of the growth of the novel—traditionally considered to be a grand, fictional creation to be read at a leisurely pace, and in a private setting. Novel reading is certainly well suited to the lap or the bed, but other kinds of reading require different postures. You’d find it hard to do much active reading in bed — that is, reading that requires a lot of note-taking, or marginal comments. We don’t browse a lot in bed, or survey things, or flick through them. Some books are to be read from cover to cover, without missing a word; others are written for browsing, ambling, or idling in.

Mikita Brottman

I also try to bear in mind that for most people, books have always represented something more like obligation than pleasure, which helps to explain the need for all those national reading campaigns. To the hypothetical “pure” reader, the text justifies its existence in the act of reading, with no ulterior motive, not even that of “entertainment” (since the notion of pleasure is implied in the carrying out of the act). This “pure” reader would look down on those who need a “motive” in order to read — to learn, or apply something, for example — for whom the text is merely a vehicle toward another function. But be warned: This tendency on the part of some readers to feel superior to others, however harmless it may seem, involves two flawed assumptions: first, that the physical presence or absence of books can tell us something very important about a person, and second, that some ways of reading are better than others.