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Saturday, November 1, 2014

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Book collecting – a passion

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I donated 7,000 books to a Canadian university library several months ago. It was emotionally wrenching, but less traumatic than anticipated. After all, I had contemplated the move for some time. It was inevitable; who can stem the tide of advancing years?

It had taken me more than six decades to assemble my collection. Three efficient and deft packers, hired by the university, needed only three days to utterly denude my once crowded shelves.

Where did my cherished books come from? Over the years I haunted antiquarian and second-hand book shops in Canada, the United States and Europe. I pored over bookseller’s catalogues and spent anxious moments at book auctions. Now and then I was able to pluck unusual and unexpected items from neighbourhood garage sales. The quest for rare and desirable titles – books to fill gaps in my collection – was unending.

There is an unbridgeable gulf between accumulating books and collecting them. Popular and widely read books usually end up on a few sparse shelves in the living room. They may be regarded as fine literature, but they command little attention and have limited commercial value.

To collect books, on the other hand, demands time, knowledge, energy – and for many enthusiasts, the husbandry of limited resources.

I was surprised and disappointed how few of my friends and colleagues shared my passion. They dutifully and respectfully surveyed my cherished volumes. They asked questions such as these: “Have you read all these books?” or “If this book is 400 years old, how come it is such good condition?” or “Who does the dusting?” Finally, some benighted individual, out of his depth, would blurt out “Thank God for the public library.”

What about subject matter? Mainly books about books, the history of printing, books from private presses, books illustrated by notable artists, unusual Judaica and books from the 17th and 18th centuries concerned with occultism – especially the terrible witchcraft mania.

Fortunately, I never fell victim to the notion that the truly dedicated bibliophile will never waste time in reading books, which should instead be spent in collecting them.

Are rare books expensive? You can purchase the most significant and famous collection of Jewish books and manuscripts in private hands – the Valmadonna Trust Library – for about $25 million. This is a lot of money. But consider the numerous paintings sold annually at auction for sums far greater – many of them to Jewish collectors of art.

It is possible and even likely to grow tired of a single painting, but not of 200 manuscripts and 13,000 books. The Valmadonna Collection will always retain its value, beauty and importance. Not so works of art that suffer the vagaries of changing tastes and financial speculation.

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