The Pleasure of Scavenging Through Mouldy Heaps

I’ve always been intrigued by readers who underline vigorously passages in a book or jot impressions or reactions on the page margins. Those who affix Ex Libris stickers or sign their names on the front pages of a book equally puzzle me. I don’t know why I can’t ever bring myself to do that. I slip bookmarks in places where I think I might need them for references. At most, and this is most assuredly my only sin, I earmark them ever so slightly on the tiny triangular edge of the pages, only when I can’t get hold of a bookmark. Whenever a book soiled with coffee stains or in one instance when the book is splashed with splotches of wine from the burst of a decompressed bottle on a flight back from abroad, I become restless and find every opportunity to replace it with a new one.

You would assume then from the statement I’ve just made that I buy only books in mint condition, which will be furthest from the truth. I love ransacking old books in secondhand bookstalls. I don’t mind if the books have been burrowed through by worms or turned grimy with mildew through time. I pick them out carefully from the forgotten piles and bring them home. I keep them out of my library for a few days to ‘clear’ them out of all different kinds of insects before installing them among the heaps of secondhand books on the stacks of secondhand books on my sofa. These books that I’ve picked are mostly free of inky scrawls. But in some cases where I find myself unable to resist the temptation to obtain certain books, which have been underlined or signed by the owners, I shove them into the black plastic bag along with the others. I’m, as you can see, more flexible with experienced books. I find them less demanding of my care and precaution. Their grubby appearances clearly display their survival over time and banishment into debris. The fact that they’ve been retrieved and read again is proof of their strength in renewing their own dignity and worth. Thus, reading them is truly liberating. There is no courteousness required between us; they’re the true equals.

In consequence of my repeated visits to secondhand bookstalls, I have now in possessions a whole collection of Alistair MacLean’s thrillers, almost all of Morris West and Han Suyin’s novels and Guy de Maupassant’s complete works. Among these precious relics salvaged from dusty oblivion are a few prize possessions. A Foreign Languages Press, Peking 1973 edition of Wu Ching-Tzu’s The Scholars, a Commercial Press, Ltd, Shanghai 1923 illustrated edition of Shu-Chiung’s Yang Kuei-Fei, The Most Famous Beauty of China, and a Black’s Readers Service Company, Roslyn, New York 1925 edition of Honore de Balzac’s rare collection of novelettes.

Walter Benjamin describes a book collector’s psychology as a ‘dialectic tension between disorder and order’. What sets out as an orderly urge to purchase a book, over time with unremitting frequency of purchases, turns into an unruly passion. The unread acquisitions turn into chaotic piles that don’t serve a utilitarian purpose: they just sit there. The chaos often puzzles a visitor to the private library. Of all the things the visitor could say, he often chooses the most annoying question. “And you’ve read all these books?” Luckily, having read enough books, I have always on hand a reply from Anatole France, the 1921 French Nobel Laureate. “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Royal Doulton china every day?”

You must naturally be warned about the many excuses, for they are mostly well-defined excuses for an unwieldy passion, that book collectors might try to pass over to you. In all honesty, they are as befuddled about the whole business as a ten-year old child. Walter Benjamin in fact makes an attempt to explain this symptom as akin to a child’s obsession to collect things. He reasons that there’s a kind of thrill that comes with ownership of objects, which might arise from the magical sense of fate in the encounter. Another explanation from the renowned American literary critic Harold Bloom might well warm to the truth of the matter. He says that a book collector’s obsession to acquire books could be his need to maximize his potential. As for me, I just wallow unabashedly in this most delightful of all passions.

A version of this article appeared May 23, 2009, in The Jakarta Globe.

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