July 2002

Sonia Pereira


A Passion for Books: A Book Lover's Treasury of Stories, Essays, Humor, Lore, and Lists on Collecting, Reading, Borrowing, Lending, Caring For, and Appreciating Books, edited by Harold Rabinowitz and Rob Kaplan

Here's a quiz for all you booksluts:

1. Do you wake in the middle of the night, heart pounding, suffering from recurrent nightmares of friends asking to borrow your most cherished books?

2. Have you ever murdered / maimed / locked away / bankrupted / defrauded / committed arson / burglarized to get your hands on that prized second edition of Tedium Insufferable by Obscure M. Author?

3. Do you have secret mansions scattered around Europe and the Pacific Isles, every room lined from vaulted ceiling to hardwood floor with books and more books?

Did you answer "No" to any of the above? Then, Harold Rabinowitz and Rob Kaplan might scoff at the depths of your zeal because you don't meet the standards they set for bibliophiles in A Passion for Books.

If, like me, you have simply been reading since you could focus your little eyes, have had to be forced out of bookstores at closing or spent unmentionable dollars carting your stash of books across countries, they do make a reluctant gesture toward your far lesser devotion.

And that is the crux of the problem I have with A Passion for Books. It reflects less passion and more insanity with many references to bibliomania itself. The editors include essays on infamous bibliomaniacs across time and contemporary bibliomania. But you have to search hard to find the few articles dealing with the pure exhilaration that is reading. The collection's emphasis falls almost entirely upon celebrating form rather than content.

A great exception is "Potch," a memoir by Leo Rosten recalling his boyhood willingness to turn a blind eye to his friend's stealing so as to be allowed to read his books.

Most of the other essays glorify collectors, barely touching on the supposed reason for said collection: reading! Obviously no collector reads all his or her books and there are many who collect books for their financial value alone.

But reading is still an important function of the book. A bibliophile myself, I expected A Passion for Books to celebrate that inexplicable love of books and reading; I expected to feel some camaraderie with the authors and editors. Instead, bibliophilia and book collecting come off in this anthology as superficial, unduly materialistic indulgences that deify the printed page rather than the knowledge that books impart.

At the same time, it would be unfair not to mention of some of the more enjoyable essays included.

"The Book Action" by Solly Ganor is a moving chronicle of a Jewish ghetto in 1941 Lithuania where books have been banned on pain of death. The courage of its characters in pursuing their love of books is tempered by a reminder of the basic insignificance of papers and words when held relative to the scheme of things.

"How to Get Started in the Book Business" by Stuart Brent is essential reading for anyone who's ever fantasized about opening a bookstore as a terrific excuse for being constantly surrounded by books.

Another fascinating memoir is "A Good Time to Start a Book Club" by Al Silverman who takes us through the inception and teething of the Book of the Month Club. It definitely has a more populist tone, missing from many other articles included.

But sadly, much of the rest reeks of elitism, hinting at a completely self-absorbed world without breadth or scope. Through their selection, the editors imply that book learnin' (or maybe more aptly, book-collectin') is limited to a select class which alone is qualified to judge its merits.

So if you're reading this ensconced in your leather armchair, toting your walnut pipe, relaxing in your very own New England library, go for it. Otherwise give the bland Passion a miss.

A Passion for Books edited by Harold Rabinowitz
Published by Three Rivers Press
355 Pages