A Point of View: Is there still any point collecting books?

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A lifetime of collecting books has left the writer Howard Jacobson with back injuries, a lack of living space and a sense of sheer pointlessness. But he'd do it all over again.

I can't remember how old I was when I began collecting second-hand books. I'd like to say eight or nine, but that's because I want to be thought of as bookishly precocious. In fact, going by the purchase dates I bothered to write in the oldest volumes in my collection I can find, I must have been about 12. I'll settle for that. Twelve's good. There are worse things to do when you're 12.

My father wasn't so sure. He objected to my bringing books home before I'd read the previous lot. He didn't understand that books could just sit on shelves, unopened, and still satisfy whatever need drove the collector to collect them. Though he was no reader himself, an unopened book drove him to madness. "It would be like me ordering a meal and not eating it," he said. An eventuality that was, indeed, inconceivable. "I'll open them all one day, when I have to," I told him. But by his reasoning they would, by that time, have gone cold. And the truth is there remain hundreds I haven't opened yet. Cold on my shelves, they stare out at me, with chill reproach. But who's to say the hour won't yet come when they are needed?

My mother was a reader and understood my passion, but she too had her objections. The books I was bringing home stank the house out. Hardly surprising, given where I found them - on market stalls and junk shops, thrown away in alleyways or on bomb sites, floating in public drains, tied up in bundles along with old copies of the Radio Times and Reveille waiting for the dustbin men to collect. I don't recall going so far as to root around in people's dustbins, but I might have done, had someone told me there was a set of Walter Scott's novels in there, or the plays of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, or the poems of Thomas Hood.

"The smell's so bad people have stopped visiting us," my mother complained.

I reminded her that she didn't like people visiting us. No, she agreed, she didn't. But she didn't want them not visiting us because they thought we were concealing a body.

In my view this was a lot of fuss about nothing. The books were on the damp side, that was all. Some people love the smell of wet leaves in an autumn garden. The smell of rotting bindings and suppurating pages - slightly foxed, I called them - was not much different. Not wanting trouble, I would spread out the most sodden books in front of the electric fire in my bedroom, but that smell, as of burning shoe leather, was no better received. I have called my zeal for laying hold of second-hand books "collecting", but that's too grand a word for what I did. Collecting suggests knowledge, purpose, selection, even system. A collector knows what he's collecting. I just wanted to own all the books in the world that could be called literature without yet having any distinct idea what literature was.

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Anything published as an Oxford World's Classic I had to have. Similarly anything in Morley's Universal Library, anything in the English Men of Letters series and, of course, everything in Everyman's Library. "Everyman I will go with thee and be thy guide" was the rousing promise, and so I bought every volume I could find - and that included multiple copies of the same title - because I needed all the guidance I could get. Outside of these great educative series, however, I was on my own.

Poetry presented no problems. Poetry was literature so I bought, for a few pennies a time, every book of poetry I stumbled upon. Not just Matthew Arnold but Emma Tatham. Not just Christina Rossetti but Isa Craig. One day, I thought, there wouldn't be a line of poetry I didn't own.

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Novels were more problematic because more people seemed to have written them. I knew Dickens was literature. And Charlotte Bronte. And William Makepiece Thackeray. But was F. Marion Crawford? Was George Manville Fenn? Did the fact of a writer's having been published in many editions, with illustrations, count for him as literature or against him? At this stage all I had to go on was the mustiness of the volumes. The more mildewed they were the more protective of them I felt. It was me against the world. Those who cared nothing for literature mistreated it, kept great works of long ago in the meanest corners of their houses and then threw them out with the garbage. I was their rescuer. The keeper of the nation's heritage. The guardian of the flame. Now, when just about everything's available online, the question sometimes arises whether I wouldn't be better off consigning them to that flame.

I don't of course mean that. You don't burn books. Not even books whose pages have been stuck together so long they are in effect just a single page - my complete De Quincey, for example - 14 volumes, not a one of which I can take from my shelves without its falling into dust like the cerements of the corpse people thought we were concealing in our house. A dead book is still a book. But my library is the cause of exasperation to me now that many of my old justifications for having it have been taken from me. I once pictured myself as a reverend professor reaching for a book to illustrate the virtues of this writer or that style to a group of students who fed on my every word, but I haven't been a teacher for decades, and students don't look up to professors any more anyway. The novels by George Manville Fenn I once thought I would read in my serene old age I now acknowledge that I never will, not least as old age might have arrived but serenity hasn't. And as for the idea of a library as a scholarly research resource ("Books I might want to quote from, Dad, regardless of whether I read them from cover to cover - you just never know"), the internet has well and truly stymied that. All the Isa Craig I am ever likely to need, available freely on Google, complete with finder and search engine.

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  • F Marion Crawford (1854-1909) - popular US novelist who made Italy his home, and wrote in a range of genres including romance, crime and horror
  • George Manville Fenn (1831-1909) - prolific writer of short stories for boys, with more than 160 titles including Dick O'The Fens, Trapper Dan and Marcus The Young Centurion
  • Isa Craig (1831-1903) - Scottish writer and feminist campaigner (also known by her married name, Isa Knox) - she wrote several volumes of poetry and the novels Deepdale Vicarage and Esther West

What compounds my exasperation is the thought of the energy I have expended carting this monstrous collection of damp books around the country and indeed the world - for they have twice been to Australia and back - pulling muscles, ruining my back, trying the patience of friends who have stored or stood guard over them, and spending small fortunes not only on chiropractors and physiotherapists but on cardboard boxes, transportation, shelving and yes, divorce proceedings.

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Well, my library has served its purpose and, as with a child, there's no point in regretting all it has cost me to keep. But what about the future? I'm not talking about selling to turn a profit. I bought these thousands of books for pennies each and I'd do well to get that number of pennies back. Most of them haven't dried yet anyway. But I could save a little space. I could stop climbing ladders to get to the highest shelves where Tristram Shandy and elaborately un-amusing novels influenced by it are kept. I could replaster the walls and hang paintings.

Yet I am unable to. The truth is, their presence alone remains vital to me. Books breathe as trees breathe. When all the books have gone our mental climate will have changed. It's a question whether we'll survive. Technology cannot replace a book. No matter that I can quickly find a digital version of a novel I'm looking for, I still fly into a rage when I discover I no longer have it, and remember who borrowed and didn't return it, five, 10, 20 years ago. For it is irreplaceable. It has my scribblings in it. The marginal expletives. The turned-down pages. The bus ticket or taxi receipt or even billet doux employed as a bookmark - not just the marginalia of an intellectual life but the detritus of the heart. And that you don't get on a Kindle, or a free e-book courtesy of Project Gutenberg. What you can't bend or throw or write on isn't, in the end, literature.

My books stank the house out years ago, and have been a nuisance to me ever since, but I did the right thing buying them. Funny how much a boy of eight or nine knows.

More from the Magazine

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The city of San Francisco is home to some of the world's best bookshops, including one which specialises in obscure political tracts and another which has become synonymous with the Beat literary movement.

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