An unscrupulous passion

Inverted Commas 17: a Lust for Books

Freddy recognised the truth of what he said. She herself was a victim of that lust for books which rages in the breast like a demon, and which cannot be stilled save by the frequent and plentiful acquisition of books.

Freddy is the 14-year-old Fredegonde Webster from Robertson Davies’ 1951 novel Tempest-Tost, the first volume in his Salterton Trilogy. She has heard that the late Dr Savage’s library of “4300 volumes of Philosophy, Theology, Travel, Superior Fiction and Miscellaneous” is to be offered gratis to clergy of all denominations on a particular day, with the proviso that they must remove books personally. And now her lust for books has been fired up.

As well as being the date of Tove Jansson‘s birthday every 9th August is designated Book Lovers Day. I cannot let any further time pass without belatedly marking the occasion with further relevant quotes from the sixth chapter of the Canadian writer’s novel.

Image Penguin Random House

Solomon Bridgetower has just ventured the opinion that the deceased scholar’s shelves will be stripped. “Free books to preachers will be like free booze to politicians; they’ll scoop the lot, without regard for quality. You mark my words.” The author adds his commentary:

This passion is more common, and more powerful, than most people suppose. Book lovers are thought by unbookish people to be gentle and unworldly, and perhaps a few of them are so. But there are others who will lie and scheme and steal to get books as wildly and unconscionably as the dope-taker in pursuit of his drug.

I’m almost sure I’m not in that second category. Almost sure.

They may not want the books to read immediately, or at all; they want them to possess, to range on their shelves, to have at their command.

Now this may well be me.

They want books as a Turk is thought to want concubines—not to be hastily deflowered, but to be kept at their master’s call, and enjoyed more often in thought than in reality. Solly was in a measure a victim of this unscrupulous passion, but Freddy was wholly in the grip of it.

Although this was written in the mid 20th century, when political correctness was not yet a thing, I’m pretty sure Davies is being tongue-in-cheek here, though I gather that elsewhere — in letters and essays — he displays unPC prejudices aplenty. But his reference to a lust for books as an unscrupulous passion is certainly a deplorable trait I recognise in myself.

So, on this day following Book Lovers Day, I pose this question: do you see yourself reflected at all in these descriptions?

32 thoughts on “An unscrupulous passion

    1. I thought it might. 🙂 Watching A Suitable Boy on television (brilliant, if you haven’t watched it yet) makes me muse that “An Unscrupulous Passion” is ripe for plucking as a book title, if not as immediate as The Book Thief was to grab the attention.

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  1. I confess to recognising some of this, too. What a wicked post to share with other book-lovers/addicts.

    I’m not going to tell you which parts of these truths are uncomfortable, or to what degree.

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    1. Thank goodness this isn’t the equivalent of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting — we’d have to start with that infamous self-identification, wouldn’t we — but I suspect we’re both prime candidates for Bookaholics Anonymous…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Er yes – I *do* have an unscrupulous passion for books I’m afraid – although I’ve not yet stooped to lying and cheating and stealing!

    And incidentally 9th August is also Philip Larkin’s birthday, so that’s another interesting connection!

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    1. Larkin is another writer I’ve yet to do more than be aware of; it’s the burden late developers like me have to bear that there is not enough time to adequately cover the fiction and poetry ground that other readers have explored early on. But, like you, I shan’t be stooping to the antisocial acquisition of such books any time soon!

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    1. It would be fun to compare responses to Tempest-Tost, even if I’ve stolen a march on you! However, I may leave gaps between this and the remaining works in the trilogy — just as I did with the Deptford books last year –the more to savour each one, otherwise it’s like gorging on a box of quality chocolates!

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        1. Ah, she isn’t the only individual Davies focuses on, despite initial impressions, but I will say nowt more, Gert! Nearly finished now, and already have ideas I want to put down in a review.

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  3. I don’t really recognise myself – I’ve never had a passion for owning unread books, although I do. A shelf full of unread books to me feels like a to-do list – a shelf of read and loved books is far more satisfying. And the unloved ones go quickly off to either charity or recycling depending on whether I feel like inflicting them on some other unsuspecting reader… 😉

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    1. Isn’t variety the spice of life? I’d hate to think we, book lovers all, thought the same! A shelf of unread books is less a ‘to-do list’ to me, more a promise of adventures to come … and they often look good ranged together. But that’s personal taste, isn’t it; and we at least agree on a collection of read and loved books being satisfying!

      I like the notion of a personal library which I can browse, filled with books I can not only reread or refer back to when I like but also anticipate for when the mood takes me.

      But I can see that to others they would be unwanted clutter, a constant accusatory reminder nagging one to either read them or recycle them. Mind you, I feel the same about overstocked wardrobes and shoe collections to rival Imelda Marcos’ legendary accumulations…

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  4. Hi, I’m Jeanne, and although I do recognize myself in some of this description I have always objected to the term “bookaholic” (even as an instagram tag).

    While it’s terribly hard for an alcoholic to live without alcohol, I don’t think it’s possible for a person who recognizes herself in these descriptions to live without books.

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    1. I hear what you say, Jeanne, and I agree. I’m not a drinker — am to all intents and purposes now a teetotaller — so have always felt uneasy about terms like chocoholic and bookaholic. Chocs and alcohol, while lovely, are not essential for existence but books are if one is to retain mental health. (In early societies no doubt the book’s role would be played by a shaman or designated storyteller.) Books are a necessity, not an addiction, to those who live by and for stories — a requirement for one’s essential humanity, I believe.

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  5. Totally. Plus, I have the same with cds.

    What maybe lacks a bit is that I won’t take in any book or cd just because they are a book or cd. Curating is a big part of the game, just as getting rid of things that turned out not so good after all.

    The thing that lacks a bit in the description is that I don’t actually have the time the enjoy past reads/listens, because so many new concubines are added.

    It’s a bit different for cds, as they are less time consuming to revisit, but with over 5000 items: who am I kidding: even my kids won’t listen to it all when they grow up.

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    1. Ah, you’ve touched on another of my, uh, peccadillos here, Bart. While I appreciate some sing the praises of vinyl, and others iTunes or Spotify, I too have a soft spot for CDs — for their convenience, their relative indestructibility compared to tape or vinyl, their sheer physicality, and for the insert designs and their informative commentaries.

      I only keep music I get pleasure from — classical, Latin, some folk, crossover genres, some world music, some pop — and anything that doesn’t please goes. That said, I keep finding stuff I do like… But I can’t compete with you, with a mere 200-ish discs.

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      1. I think cds are the best format too. I’ve had a significant part of my liberary in iTunes, but I’ve found out I don’t like the shuffle modus, I just want to listen to the full album. Also, sound quality is often not as good digitally, you’d have to invest in hardware. For me the time cost of getting all my discs on a harddrive is too big, plus you have to manage it, etc. I do use Spotify & Bandcamp & YouTube to listen to albums I don’t have, to check out whether to buy them.

        As a kid I used to love rock & pop, and in my teens I started to listen to metal, that has been my main interest for years, but I branched out to classical, lots of jazz & experimental music, and a bit of world music too.

        I’ve been collecting music steadily for over 25 years, to the point of being a completionist about my favorite artists/bands, but the last few years less voraciously, I feel I’m a bit saturated, and I also have the feeling most genres I like have reached dead ends, innovation seems slow, so I just stick to the classics. I did just discover Albert Ayler recently, I obvioulsy knew of him, but somehow never listened to him, and that was a huge blindspot it turned out. There’s nothing like finding some new music that you truly love, that even trumps books for me – probably just because the time investment is easier, and you can press replay countless of times.

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        1. Just checked out Albert Ayler and it looks like I’ll have to explore his work as I’m not at all familiar with it. I’m not a completionist like you, which probably explains why my collection is so miniscule! Despite having a music degree and four decades of music teaching I still feel a dilettante, even have a touch of imposter syndrome at times; but in current times I just miss accompanying musicians, particularly as I enjoy sight-reading. https://www.pianoaccompanists.com/profile-christopher-lovegrove

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          1. Doesn’t everybody feel like an imposter?

            Yes, these days must be very hard for performing artists. In Belgium the sector is beginning to protest.

            Ayler is very free, but as he still retains easy melodies, it’s both more wild and more accessible than most other free jazz – but atm I’ve only heard 66-67 stuff, so I can’t attest for what’s considered his peak in 64, with the band from Spiritual Unity (plus trumpet at times).

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            1. Thanks for the further info on Ayler, Bart, I will investigate further. And, yes, many of us feel like imposters, but a significant number are indeed true imposters — they’re often, weirdly, in government…

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  6. Oh dear, yes, here I am, revealed within those quotes. After several attempts to write more, which all threatened to turn into entire posts on my reactions to books (which are quite different to my reactions to the tales contained within them) ) am falling back on the less is more maxim and saying naught. (I’m also squirrelling this subject away for an indulgent post of my own one day…)

    😊

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  7. Ok I’m pleading guilty to this: “They may not want the books to read immediately, or at all; they want them to possess, to range on their shelves, to have at their command.” I can’t resist buying even when I know I am not likely to read the book for a long time and when I already have hundreds of unread books at home. It’s my squirrel mentality I think – stocking up in case there comes a time when there is a desperate shortage….

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    1. “Squirrel mentality” is spot on, Karen, it’s saving for a hard winter, or at least that rainy day. I thought with lockdown that time was here and all my squirreling wasn’t in vain — until I volunteered to help out parcelling for the local bookshop to help stop it going out of business … and had to buy a few of the stock at a discount… Well, that was a good idea while it lasted!

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