A pastime for practitioners too: Authors on reading and collecting books

BooksBy Vikas Datta,

They may not flaunt the object of their interest like some do with mobiles or other high-tech devices, but committed and devoted readers can be made out by how their eyes suddenly display a glint of interest when they see a fellow reader, someone who talks about books, or they pass that increasing rarity — a bookstore. But one can wonder what authors, old and new, think of the habit.

It may seem obvious that anyone who actually takes the trouble to write a book — and not just now in the days of easier “vanity” (self-financed) publishing — would be well-read. But even hardcore bibliophiles would be staggered to know the degree of intensity with which authors collected books and pored through them — in all kinds of situations, and whatever their position in life.

British author Hugh Walpole “began modestly as an unstoppable reader but his passion for collecting accelerated exponentially as his income increased” and ended up with 30,000 books, Julia Rugg, who has compiled two anthologies on the topic of reading, tells us in the latter work “Buried in Books”. But that wasn’t all. “The sheer bulk of his collection overcame all attempts to order and catalogue: He simply waded about in books. If he couldn’t place his hand on the title he wanted, he bought another copy.”

On the other hand, late 19th century British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone “bought and sold whole libraries at a time; book dealers were often able to sell his own books back to him, and he didn’t notice”, she tells us.

While collecting books has its own legends — and limitations — the act of reading has plenty of adherents at all levels. “But when I lived much in cow camps I often carried a volume of (English poet Algernon Charles) Swinburne, as a kind of antiseptic to alkali dust, tepid, muddy water, frying-pan bread, sow-belly bacon, and the too-infrequent washing of sweat-drenched clothes,” recalled US President Theodore Roosevelt in his “A Book-Lover’s Holiday in the Open” (1916).

And Roosevelt, who lived a most active life, including hunting in Africa and exploring in South America — after his presidency (1901-09) — fought in a war, reformed the New York Police Department, made US a global power and won a Nobel Peace Prize as well as authoring 18 books on history, wildlife and other subjects, always had time for books.

“I almost always read a good deal in the evening; and if the rest of the evening is occupied I can at least get half-an-hour before going to bed. But all kinds of odd moments turn up during even a busy day, in which it is possible to enjoy a book,” he said in the book.

And then British administrator and scholar Thomas Babbington Macaulay, who is praised or pilloried for introducing English and a Western-style education in India and was also responsible for the Indian Penal Code, was another fervent reader. “Books are becoming everything to me. If I had at this moment my choice of life, I would bury myself in one of those immense libraries that we saw together at the universities, and never pass a waking hour without a book before me,” he said in an 1834 letter to a friend.

He didn’t change. “The evenings are a little chilly out-of-doors; but the days are glorious. I rise before seven; breakfast at nine; write a page; ramble five or six hours over rocks and through copsewood, with Plutarch in my hand; come home; write another page; take Fra Paolo, and sit in the garden reading till the sun sinks behind the Undercliff. Then it begins to be cold; so I carry my Fra Paolo into the house and read till dinner,” he wrote in an 1850 letter.

It also has a calming effect. Sir Walter Scott, in his diary entry for March 29, 1829, wrote: “I wrote, read and walked with the most stoical regularity. This muddling among old books has the quality of a sedative and saves the tear and wear of an overwrought brain.”

And how should we read? “In anything fit to be called by the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or continuous thought,” advised Robert Louis Stevenson in “A Gossip on Romance” (1882).

But there was also a fear that used to surround them. “There are those to whom… having nothing to read is an intense grievance. They instinctively look around for a book wherever they go, and they are often bitterly disappointed. It is a predicament indeed to be landed on a visit where the house is destitute of books,” wrote W. Robertson Nicoll in “A Bookman’s Letters” (1913).

This was in the days before Kindles, but the possibility sends a shudder down my spine. What about you?

(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at


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