Skip to Content
Search Icon

The Publisher's Desk

The Publisher's Desk


When I was a freshman in college I made a pledge to myself that I would get an education outside the classroom by keeping a simple rule: I would read on book every week. The plan went well for the first month; I read a book about the C.I.A. by a disgruntled case officer, then two books about the United States in Afghanistan and a book about the Navy, and rounded it out with C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man. I kept my rule for most of the year, but I permitted myself to make amendments to it. Some very long books were counted as two, and I gave myself credit, and time, for two weeks. Sometimes I would have extra time, finish two books, and tell myself this could be used to pay my reading schedule forward. And of course, on many more occasions, I simply couldn’t get through whatever book I had chosen on time and gave up for the week. 

From the beginning, I saw in this task a second, more material purpose: as I was reading, I was building myself a library, too. I liked owning the books that I read and seeing them on my shelf. This brought with it a new experience: online book-hunting. I had been to bookstores and book fairs while growing up, but I had rarely done any internet shopping at all, to say nothing of looking for books online. Amazon’s third-party sellers, AbeBooks, eBay, and Biblio put within my reach every used book I could ever read and then some, all priced at barely the cost of shipping. It became my own sort of treasure hunt. The searching was as enjoyable as the finding. (For Clare Coffey’s meditation on the subject, see page 56.)

For several months I read old journalism. I started with the articles, many good and some painfully bad, that Chesterton used to write for the Illustrated London News in an edition collected and reprinted by Ignatius Press. I developed a taste for the genre and moved on to Mencken, Dickens, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Samuel Johnson, Gore Vidal, Thomas de Quincy, Philip Guedalla, and forgotten double-initaled writers like G. S. Street, E. V. Lucas, and J. B. Morton.

From here it became necessary to pull myself up sharply from antiquarian interests and to acquire The Canon. Yes, Plato, Aristotle, and Thucydides, but also Bede, Aquinas, Montaigne, Conrad, Tasso, Virginia Woolf, Alfred Duggan (for Minoo Dinshaw’s appreciation, see page 27), four or five editions of the Complete Shakespeare, David Foster Wallace, and whatever else in between seemed reasonably well acclaimed. There are dozens of lists available to the interested young reader, each purporting to set down for good (some form of) The Best Books in History; I read every list I could find, looking for books I hadn’t already purchased. Of course, while this gave me an easy excuse to expand my library, it also defeated the purpose of the “canon.” Why seek out the omissions if you’re looking for a common set of core texts?

Respondeo, because it’s fun. It also serves the real aim of every book collector:
inventing plausible obstacles to reading your books. “Collector” is not the right
word for what I do, exactly; when asked I refer to myself rather as an accumulator. John Sparrow, the English bibliophile and Warden of All Souls’ College,
Oxford, devised a list of rules for bibliomaniacs which runs as follows:

   i. Never lend a book;
   ii. Never sell a book;
   iii. Never give a book;
   iv. Never read a book.

    Such is the real attitude of a book-buyer, and before I ever read Sparrow’s rules I had already internalized them. It is one of the ironies which outsiders will never understand that reading books is to the bibliomaniac only an act of desperation, the kind of thing resorted to when one is attempting to avoid conversation with nosy library patrons, or, as I was when I read Jacques Maritain, locked out of one’s apartment for the fifth time in a single month. (Andrew Kuiper’s exposition of a little-known essay of Maritain’s can be found on page 23).

    It is perhaps not entirely my fault that I have not made more progress in reading through my library; I dislike desks and tables, and so many other places suited to reading are even better suited to sleeping. I believe I fell asleep four times in my efforts to read After Virtue, with the fourth and final time ending when I prodded awake while dozing supine on the library floor. Many people seem to enjoy reading in bars, though I never could; there is too much noise, too much conversation, and I will always prefer whatever game is on TV to the contents of my book. (Chris Arnade’s reflections on watching sports in bars across America are not to be missed on page 34.)

    I regret that I have not been able to maintain the purchasing pace I described above. First I ran out of space, and then out of budget. There are only so many rows of books you can stack up on the floor in front of your shelves before you are forced to use them as furniture, and I did for a time have a nightstand composed of books stacked four feet high. Now, married, recently moved, and living in a New York apartment, my books are all in storage. I have a few lonely boxes of late acquisitions in the corner, but no new purchases have been made (or permitted) for months. I miss my library terribly, but it is a good time for me to take stock of what I have and to winnow my list of books someday to-be-purchased. Or it should be. My Amazon “Saved For Later” section is full to capacity.

    To continue reading, subscribe to The Lamp.

    Get unlimited access to our complete archive when you subscribe.

    Already a Subscriber?