MAXWELL:  Confessions of a bibliophile

1/11/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


During my recent travels to southern Virginia, I realized anew that, as surely as some people are addicted to drugs, I am hooked on books.

Indeed, I am a bibliophile, a lover of books. My bibliophilia has driven me to strange places, introduced me to interesting people and forced me to commit acts that might call my sanity into question. I am also a bibliomaniac, one preoccupied with collecting books.

If I had enough money, I would become a bibliopole, a dealer of rare and curious books. Alas, my journalist’s salary will not let me become a bibliopole. Just the other day, I considered buying an autographed copy of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. I left this gem on the shelf because it would have set me back more than a month’s rent.

Of course, I am a bookworm, a person devoted to reading and study. One of the world’s best-known bookworms was author Katherine Mansfield. In 1922, while battling tuberculosis, she described her loneliness in terms of reading, expressing an ambivalence about the urge to read and her desire for human companionship: “Should I be happy with anyone at my side? No. I’d begin to talk, and it’s far nicer not to talk.”

No one should take reading for granted, for it is a complex process. Listen to Laura Furman and Elinore Standard, editors of the book Bookworms, describe book lovers and their obsession:

“For the true bookworm it is sometimes hard to distinguish between what one has experienced and what one has read. We know that this is odd and even a little demented . . . We are uneasy in a void with no book.”

“Reading is a socially accepted form of hallucination. Through words we react to the ideas, memories and fantasies of people we’ll never meet, whom we believe we know.”

“Reading may be the last private act of our lives.”

Reading, moreover, is powerful and inscrutable, so much so that dictators commit unspeakable crimes against writers (remember Russia’s Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was exiled for his books depicting life in the Soviet Union?); powerful enough to cause seemingly normal Americans to ban books from public schools and libraries.

In his book, Read for Life, Joseph Gold cautions that reading is a subversive activity:

“Reading has always been a political act, and the authorities have always known it, since writing was invented.”

“Reading is dangerous to the status quo. To give reading power to the people is to undermine the power of reading authorities, to lose control of classrooms, to expose thoughts, feelings and attitudes to close examination, to challenge authority _ in other words, to change the world.”

“In short, a well-developed, fully responsive, free readership is the most powerful force for personal and social change.”

My love of books also reconnects me with my past. In Exmore, on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, the South Star Flea Market, a barn-like hulk that seemed vaguely familiar, caught my attention. There, among farm implements, cobwebs and military gear, I found Cynthia Pearl Maus’ 1947 book The World’s Great Madonnas, one of the most beautiful books I have ever seen.

Thumbing through it, I became certain that I had been in this building before. More than 30 years ago, it had been a packing house where, as a child farm worker, I had graded potatoes, where, during breaks, I had found quiet places in this drafty structure to read Richard Wright, Ring Lardner and John Steinbeck. The current owner, Tom Carrick, confirmed that the building had been a packing facility.

Here in South Hill, I visited Our House, an antique store, and found a treasure trove of interesting old books, which included The Ropemakers of Plymouth, Travels in the Old World, The Cyclopedia of Practical Quotations.

My best find was Noah Webster’s The Elementary Spelling Book, written in 1886. My schoolmates and I had used this text, dog-eared discards from the white school, during the 1950s in Crescent City.

Jerrie Emory, the owner of Our House, saw my delight and told me that other books were beneath a table in back. “If you feel like crawling around and digging out the books, you’re welcome to do it,” she said.

For nearly an hour, I crawled on the floor, unstacked and restacked old volumes. Leaving Our House, I could barely wait to read Noel Sainsbury Jr.’s Cracker Stanton. This 1934 novel about a young Georgia Cracker baseball player gave me a candid view of the enduring significance of class distinction among poor whites. Cracker Stanton has enriched my life.

Furman and Standard speak for me, a fellow bookworm, when they write: “Through reading, we intensify our capacity for pleasure, for sympathy, and for comprehension. What we read utterly changes our relation to the world. There is a thirst in all readers for stories that teach us about the world and ourselves.”