Not long ago, I popped into a Salvation Army store in suburban Maryland to check out the used-book section. I’d unearthed plenty of gems in similar places, so it wasn’t surprising that the visit proved similarly productive. Home came copies of William Safire’s On Language and the novel Van Loon’s Lives, an 890-page tome written in 1942 that imagines what dinner parties featuring some of history’s most famous people might look like — Torquemada dines with Robespierre, Saint Francis with Mozart, and so on. Or, at least, this is what Wikipedia informs me Van Loon’s Lives is about. The thing is, I probably won’t read Van Loon’s Lives. Actually, I may never again crack open Van Loon’s Lives. Yet there it sits on my bookshelf between well-worn copies of A Short History of Byzantium and A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton — and, if I have my way, there it will sit for the next 30 years.
This kind of bibliophilic overindulgence has caused me plenty of angst over the years. The last time I moved my family — and we’ve moved multiple times — there were many more boxes of books than there were of clothing, utensils, dishes, and all other household items combined. So, unsurprisingly, every so often, mutiny breaks out and domestic forces prod me into scaling back my collection. This typically entails frivolous protests about the amount of “space” my books take up or equally unpersuasive arguments about how stacks of “messy” books scattered across the house are aesthetically disagreeable. Other shaky arguments include: “You’ve already read them.” “You’ll never read it again.” “Why don’t you get a Kindle like a normal person?”