For the love of books

The curse of being a bibliophile

I grew up surrounded by the books of my father’s library. It wasn’t as big as Umberto Eco’s library, but it was enough for me. I never managed to have a very large one myself. Not for lack of books or interest, mind you. I simply moved too much around the world and, regrettably, had to donate several of my books when I left. Others, even more regrettably, were lost when changing residence. So many books, all gone!

Sure, today I could fit all the books I want in my computer or my phone. But one of the reasons I don’t like ebooks very much is exactly that they won’t do for a real library. You know, one with physical shelves and all. Another reason is that reading in paper is just more comfortable and relaxing. We already spend too much time in front of screens as it is.

I also love bookstores, and in particular small bookstores. The big chain ones won’t do for me. There used to be quite a lot of dusty, smelly used book stores in my home town when I was growing up, but I heard most of them closed because of Amazon or big chain bookstores. Those that had barely survived for decades received the coup-de-grace with Covid.

In Leipzig, there is a small old-style bookshop called “Polylogue”, in the upcoming neighborhood of Lindenau. It sells books not just in German, but also in English, Spanish, Italian and French. The owner is a charming French lady who moved to Germany 14 years ago. While the bookshop has been there for seven years, she said that they are struggling now because of inflation. People just don’t have that extra money to buy books. Covid, she says, was not so bad in the end: people were locked inside and had nothing to do, so they still bought books. But the current economic problems in Germany, in particular the huge increase in the utility bills, worries her.

While I am worried about the economy too, I did buy some books on my last visit, including a used book called “Traditional Aspects of Hell (Ancient and Modern)”, by a certain James Mew. It is actually a facsimile edition of a work published originally in 1907, although this particular edition was from 1972. It includes illustrations from ancient sources, and it deals with a very interesting, if a bit macabre subject.

I liked in particular the description of the Buddhist Hell, which, you might be surprised to learn, has the most terrible torments, rivalling the worst of Dante’s Inferno. Will I ever read the whole book? Probably not, but some books are nice to have just for reference or to look at the illustrations.

Some people say we shouldn’t judge books by their covers, and that illustrations are unimportant. I am more in Alice’s camp: “And what is the use of a book… without pictures or conversations?” Once I bought an Italian version of Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” simply because it was a very nice edition with wonderful illustrations by Gustave Doré.

When I was young, I wanted to be an editor or to have my own bookstore. I never did, in part because I was always very bad at business and marketing. But I actually do have a small publishing house, Contrarium, although perhaps calling it a “publishing house” is way more than it deserves. Still, I do publish a magazine of literature and art, Geist, now in its fifth number, and I also edit and publish small editions of new or public domain books. The last one is an annotated version of “Cautionary Tales for Children”, the humorous classic book of caustic poems for children by Hilaire Belloc. (I wonder what current “sensitivity readers” would think of that one).

Yes, “sensitivity readers”. Nowadays, almost all book publishing in the world is controlled by only 5 large international conglomerates, the so-called “Big Five”. Two are planning to merge, so perhaps soon they will be the “Big Four”. They have so much power that they can do whatever they want, and one of the things they have been doing lately is hiring “sensitivity readers”. These are people who are paid to review books in order to find instances or “racism”, “sexism”, “trans-phobia”, “fat-phobia” and other modern sins, and rewrite them to accommodate for the modern politically correct urges.

Recently there was some backlash when people discovered that the work of children’s author Roald Dahl — who is published by one of the “Big Five”, Penguin Random House, and whose copyright is now totally owned by Netflix — had been rewritten to remove language deemed offensive. Even complete lines of dialog were changed. Women were no longer called “fat”, and, in fact, in some cases they were not even called “women”, as these days, defining “a woman” as — well, a woman — is a very dangerous affair.

But Dahl’s case is far from being the only one. Ian Fleming’s James Bond series, as well as several other books, are being surreptitiously changed. In some cases, even the original illustrations are revamped to make them more multicultural or politically correct. And, in the case of ebooks, Amazon or other companies can change the content even after you already bought them. Which means, you don’t really own your ebooks, Amazon or Google or Apple do — another reason to prefer books in paper.

As for me, I will continue going to small bookshops and buying old books, and one day I hope to manage to have my own huge library at home, a veritable labyrinth of books, old and new. Hopefully, none of them proofread by “sensitivity readers”.