Churchill and Books

“What shall I do with all my books? was the question; and the answer, “read them,” sobered the questioner. But if you cannot read them, at any rate handle them and, as it were, fondle them. Peer into them. Let them fall open where they will. Read on from the first sentence that arrests the eye. Then turn to another. Make a voyage of discovery, taking soundings of uncharted seas. Set them back on their shelves with your own hands. Arrange them on your own plan, so that if you do not know what is in them, you at least know where they are. If they cannot be your friends, let them at any rate be your acquaintances. If they cannot enter the circle of your life, do not deny them at least a nod of recognition.”

– Winston Churchill, “Hobbies” in Thoughts and Adventures

There’s an awful lot to like in this quote, which I found in A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books by Nicholas Basbanes (his books are must-reads for all bibliophiles), but I think my favorite is the first sentence. I get asked all the time by people who see my book collection whether I’ve read them all, whether I’m going to read them all, what I am going to do with them, why I have them.

It’s always kind of fun to reply that yes, the ones on the main shelves, I have read. All of them. Many more than once. Then I always point out my to-read shelves. That’s fun, too, watching people’s eyes widen in comprehension as they realize that I own more books I haven’t even read yet than they own books at all. With some of them, it’s more books than they’ve read in their lifetime.

Some folks just don’t seem to get the voracious appetite for reading that bibliophiles of my stripe tend to have. I’m always reading at least one book in my spare time, usually more. I have a stack next to my bed, and others scattered around my apartment, in my field bag, in my car. Every so often I go on a simplifying spree and try to get down to just one or two books at a time, but the number invariably climbs back up.

I suppose it’s a crazy concept for some folks, but I buy books in order to read them. As a voracious collector, I can kind of understand people who collect books they never read — it’s like collecting action figures and keeping them in their packaging — but it is so not my style.

The other thing I love about the quote up there is the way he talks about books — they’re an ocean, a group of people, items to be held and touched and opened so that the eye may fall upon the page. The ocean bit in particular strikes me, since I’m one of those people who falls into books the way you might dive off a cliff into the sea. If I’ve been reading long enough, getting me to stop reading and come back to regular life is a little like hauling a drowning person through the surf and doing CPR on the beach until they cough up all that water and sit up. I come up from books confused and bedraggled and tired — and wanting desperately to dive back in.

It’s kind of a masochistic thing, being a bibliophile. But we can’t help ourselves, any more than a rock’n’roll fan can help going to shows that leave her battered, with ringing ears and a huge smile.

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