11/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Coping With Book Guilt in London

As a man prone to bearing heavy guilt, the last thing I needed as my next trip to London loomed was a New York Times article about a bookseller brouhaha brewing there. It seems that second-hand and used book dealers, particularly one in Salisbury, are exercised about the chain of Oxfam charity shops that deal partly or entirely in used books.

Apparently, the Oxfam stores, which have lower overheads because their books are donated, are siphoning sufficient trade from other merchants that going-out-of-business signs are popping up. The Salisbury shopping-strip store about which the Times item centers is already shuttered.

Full disclosure: I review books, even occasionally on this site, and receive many reader's copies. Nevertheless, I'm an inveterate book buyer, one of those people who can't pass a book shop without entering. Once inside I'm not like a kid in a candy store, I'm like a book lover in a book store. I rarely exit without having purchased something I'm convinced was sitting on the shelf just waiting for my arrival.

Second-hand and rare book dealers are valuable to people like me: They have no end of out-of-print books. Even more meaningful to me, they have editions of books -- like Harvard Classics or Oxford Classics or Everyman Library--that you don't see anymore, palm-sized books with sturdy covers, ribbon book marks and damnable, lovable small print.

Yes, London, famous for its bookshops, is an unending lure -- but not an untroubled enticement. I'm ready to admit that books -- the same books that have given me such pleasure over the decades--will likely be my undoing. My apartment is laden with books. No one comes through my front door without immediately saying some version of "So many books!"

The cursed things are two deep on many shelves; they lie around in precarious stacks. I'm fully aware that books may be the death of me. Literally. My demise could well resemble the end suffered by whichever Collyer brother tripped a wire that brought an avalanche of books down on him, Or my final chapter might conclude like Leonard Bast's in E. M. Forster's Howard's End. Poor, unfortunate Bast met death by toppling bookcase.

You've picked up, then, that I'm confessing to an ambivalent attitude towards books. I love them, but they foment torrents of guilt in me. I feel guilty about: the amount of money spent on them; the space they take up; the ones that rest unread while more come in as competition; the ones that get reread while those not yet read lurk idly near, the ones that remain unfinished when I'm distracted by others. Case in point: I've been halfway through a rereading of Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain for about four years.

Therefore, that diabolical Times piece feeds my incipient guilt pangs about browsing in my favorite London book emporia unable to resist the temptation of still more books. Do I need even more guilt because I value Oxfam as a supplier for my fix? No, I don't, because I hasten to declare it's Oxfam along with my affinity for the venerable G. Heywood Hill on Curzon Street or for the established bookstores on, for example, Charing Cross Road? Honestly, I do split my custom between Oxfam and the others--or between Oxfam, the low-overhead booksellers under Waterloo Bridge and the others.

While anticipating my trip, I decided that this division of loyalties would continue. I wouldn't -- I couldn't -- deny my debt to Oxfam, where on separate occasions I found, respectively, Anthony Trollope's Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux. Locating them at such intervals struck me as nothing less than book-hunting magic. Then again, I've never failed to locate something I wanted at Charing Cross Road's Henry Pordes Books either.

Once in London, where I'm writing these anxious words, I figured I'd do my best to support both Oxfam and the dealers out of whose mouths, and from whose children, Oxfam is evidently taking sustenance. (Remember: Oxfam's mission is feeding the deprived. Irony?) In a day-long book-buying tour, I found one volume (Hanif Kureishi's Black Album) on the groaning tables underneath Waterloo Bridge and three (Henry Fielding's Jonathan Wild, Oliver Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield and C. P. Snow's New Men) at well-lighted stores where books are bought as well as sold. I also visited my favorite Oxfam but, atypically, found nothing I wanted.

When I began my search, I wasn't certain whether I'd be expiating my guilt or compounding it. In terms of putting booksellers out of business I did fine: I made impartial rounds. So now I'm only guilty about: 1) the money spent proving my buyer's thoughtfulness; and 2) the strong possibility I may never get to the books I've added to my bloated collection.

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