How can I resist sharing Roger Ebert’s essay on the books in his life? Not only will it set off sympathetic vibrations in anyone who loves owning books (I don’t understand you “I can get it at the library” people—what do you do when it’s late at night and you suddenly have to read Pound or Hammett or Tolstoy right now?), but it has illustrations of many of the items he mentions, not only editions of Shakespeare and Shaw but his student housing from the ’60s, Hob Nobs (plain and chocolate), and above all, bookshelves overflowing with books. A sample:
My books are a subject of much discussion. They pour from shelves onto tables, chairs and the floor, and Chaz observes that I haven’t read many of them and I never will. You just never know. One day I may — need is the word I use — to read Finnegans Wake, the Icelandic sagas, Churchill’s history of the Second World War, the complete Tintin in French, 47 novels by Simenon, and By Love Possessed. That 1957 best-seller by James Could Cozzens was eviscerated in a famous essay by Dwight Macdonald, who read all the way through that year’s list of fiction best sellers and surfaced with a scowl. It and the other books on the list have been rendered obsolete, so that his essay is cruelly dated. But I remember reading the novel late, late into the night when I was 14, stirring restlessly with the desire to be by love possessed.
I cannot throw out these books. Some are protected because I have personally turned all their pages and read every word; they’re like little shrines to my past hours. Perhaps half were new when they came to my life, but most are used, and I remember where I found every one. The set of Kipling at the Book Nook on Green Street in Champaign. The scandalous The English Governess in a shady book store on the Left Bank in 1965 (Obelisk Press, $2, today $91). The Shaw plays from Cranford’s on Long Street in Cape Town, where Irving Freeman claimed he had a million books; it may not have been a figure of speech. Like an alcoholic trying to walk past a bar, you should see me trying to walk past a used book store.
I must say, though, I’m shocked and a little abashed that I have more books than he does… and that’s after culling my collection as ruthlessly as I could for the last few moves. I’m hopeless, and my wife is a woman of superhuman tolerance.
In googling for more information on Cranford’s, I found Alf Wannenburgh’s reminiscence of old Cape Town bookstores, which has several paragraphs on Cranford’s (ending with this sad note: “When Mr Simonawitz retired, the shop was taken over by Irving Freeman, a booklover whom it was difficult to separate from his books. He had more than a million of them when he was obliged to close in 1993 – when 6000 cartons of books weighing 195 tons were auctioned off for a song”) and is well worth reading in its own right.