In cleaning off my desk just now I found a quote I’d copied down back in 2002, which went as follows:

Even when reading is impossible, the presence of books acquired produces such an ecstasy that the buying of more books than one can read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity… we cherish books even if unread, their mere presence exudes comfort, their ready access, reassurance.

It seemed to be attributed to the bibliophile A. E. Newton (1863-1940), but I thought I’d better google it to be sure. What I found was confusion.
In the first place, many sources had, after the word “acquired,” the phrase “(by passionate devotion to them)”—with or without parentheses—which certainly reads better. But to find what the correct form was, an accurate citation was needed, and there was none to be had. Eventually I turned up page 78 of Newton’s A Magnificent Farce: And Other Diversions of a Book-collector (1921), which has: “…it is my pleasure to buy more books than I can read. Who was it who said, ‘I hold the buying of more books than one can peradventure read, as nothing less than the soul’s reaching towards infinity; which is the only thing that raises us above the beasts that perish’? Whoever it was, I agree with him…” So there we have a portion of the original quote (in slightly different form), but attributed to the mysterious “Who was it.” This could, of course, be a coy way of quoting oneself. But what about the rest?
Next the quest brought me to The Anatomy of Bibliomania by Holbrook Jackson (1874-1948), which seems to be a collection of quotes on the pleasures of books and book-collecting, italicized and footnoted (good man!), stitched together with Jackson’s own commentary in roman type. On page 183 (continuing onto page 184) we find:

Even when reading is impossible, the presence of books acquired by passionate devotion to them produces such an ecstasy that the buying of more books than one can peradventure read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity, and that this passion is the only thing that raises us above the beasts that perish,1 an argument which some have used in defence of the giddy raptures invoked by wine.

The footnote refers us to “A.E. Newton, A Magnificent Farce, 78,” which we have already visited. So far, so good; the italicized bits are from Newton, the rest is from Jackson, and the whole thing at some point got attributed to the former.
But what about the last part, “we cherish books even if unread, their mere presence exudes comfort, their ready access, reassurance”? The internet holds hundreds of instances of it, always attached to the previous quote by ellipses, but Google Books can’t find it at all. Is it from some work of Newton’s not yet digitized? Was it tacked on by some anonymous compiler of Meaningful Quotations who thought it would suit the context? Alas, it is not in The Yale Book of Quotations, nor The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, nor Bartlett’s, so I can only speculate, and ponder for the thousandth time the difficulty of pinning down “famous quotations.”


  1. ’tis very true, though.
    I haven’t found myself able to concentrate on reading more than short blogposts in this past year+ (unfortunate deterioration of cognitive skills as a result of depression), but I have still in that period bought new bookcases and reärranged what books I have.
    I didn’t count the unread ones (and I really should try to make a catalogue …), but I have at some point estimated their number to be more than two hundred – and I believe I have at least one box in storage somewhere as well.

  2. Interesting. Owning more books than I can read in the next year (reference works excepted) makes me uneasy, personally. Like committing to more social engagements than I have time for with people I consider acquaintances and would like to consider friends.

  3. Ah, but acquaintances will get annoyed with you. Books don’t mind sitting there for years waiting for you to get around to them.

  4. Truer words have never been spoken, my friends.
    And I say that as someone with a 28 m2 apartment searching the Ikea catalogue for a desperately needed bookcase.

  5. David Harmon says

    Amen — I’ve got some 10 meters of triple-shelved SF paperbacks, and then there’s the non-SF stuff…. I’ve had to accept that there are some books I’m not actually going to get around to, but it’s good to know that if my priorities change, I could.

  6. Apropos of absolutely nothing, did you folks know about the OUP sale? There’s some great stuff in Linguistics, like this.

  7. I’ve started selling off books I won’t live long enough to read, but I still bitterly miss some books I sold in 1982 that I never would have read.
    At the head of the list: Pierson’s 1967 Japanese-English “Character Dictionary of the Manyoshu”.
    The Manyoshu (one of the earliest Japanese poetry anthologies) was first written down in a unique Sino-Japanese garble. I knew that I wasn’t going to continue my Japanese studies, and even if I had done so I wouldn’t have had time to master this peculiar, archaic writing system, but just walking past it on the shelf made me happy.
    I still have two books about the unique “ideographic”* Xi-Xia script, and I’ll look at one of them from time to time just because it’s there.
    *Not exactly ideographic, but not phonetic, or only partly phonetic. Trust me.

  8. SnowLeopard says

    The real problem is the high-quality non-fiction that warrants careful study and cross-disciplinary synthesis with other things I’ve read — it’s not just a matter of reading everything through once. Time management must be easier for people who don’t feel compelled to learn absolutely everything and then systematize it.

  9. If you’re looking for an Ikea bookcase, you can’t go wrong with Billy.

  10. I cannot imagine buying a book and not reading it.
    I have, however, bought FABRIC and not sewn anything from it (this is a common problem for home seamstresses, this “hanging onto the dream”).
    And so I own more books than I could REread in a year.

  11. The Jackson book is quite lovely, I keep meaning to buy a copy. (And then not read it.)

  12. I second the vote for Billy. It’s what I went for, myself (‘birch’ veneer). They’re a lot more sturdy than I expected, so I expect I’ll have them for years to come – until I move into a house designed a library with built-in shelves.
    You can even get an extension upwards if you have particularly high ceilings. Might come in handy if you only have 28 M2.

  13. Hmmmmm
    m2 <sup>
    m2 <sub>

  14. Yeah, I don’t think the superscript tag works in comments. Sorry.

  15. Gentle folk,
    If you’d like to take a peek at the cover of Jackson’s book, an original photograph I might add, please go here:

  16. Thanks! Here‘s a direct link.

  17. I have way more books than I could read in a few years. First, Im hoping to get to those that I don’t have time for when im retired or at least done with school. Second, there are books worth owning simply because of how they look or how they fit into your collection. For example I collect WWII Armed Services editions of which there are more than 1,000 titles… some of them are how to turn a profit from farming on five acres… ill most never likely get a chance to read it but it is important for my collection. besides you can loan books you’ve never read to friends and just having it means you can read it at any time. The aforementioned quote is so eloquent and hits the nail right on the head.

  18. Dan Goldman says

    A Google Books search today found the earliest citation for “I do hold the buying of more books than one COULD peradventure read…” attributed to “Penmore,” quoted in the Monthly Bulletin of the Pasadena Public Library for October of 1915 or 1916. That’s earlier than the first Newton usage in the Atlantic Monthly in an article by Newton in 1920. I’m unable (so far) to obtain any information about an author named Penmore or Pensmore. Could be a “pen name”?

  19. Dan Goldman says

    More “Penmore” information. According to Wikipedia, “William Hobart Royce [1878 – 1963] was an American writer and bookseller who was an expert on Honoré de Balzac. Royce published poetry under his own name and under his pen name Willie Penmore.” As a bookseller, he very well could have written this quotation, and the dates are appropriate. Royce’s papers are housed at Syracuse University.

  20. Goodness, what enticing information! Thanks for finding and enlivening this thread; I hope more will turn up…

  21. Bibliophiles R Us. When last I moved in the summer of 2014 I was advised by the moving company I had in for an estimate, that I should have a large truck packed by others but I should drive the truck myself. They doubted I would be able to afford to have myself moved because they “guesstimated” I owned roughly 7,000 pounds of furniture and books. Most of that weight was from my library. I am resolved that before I move again I will cull roughly half of that and donate it to appropriate recipients – the local Master Gardeners, libraries, homeless shelters, anywhere they might do some good AND stand a better chance of finally being read.

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