Wednesday 28 October 2009

So Many Books

I know I've read Simon Savidge's post on Gabriel Zaid's So Many Books, because I commented on it, but when I saw the book in a local charity shop, I came upon as a new friend. Just goes to show - there must be hundreds of blog posts out there that I've written "Oh, I must keep an eye out for this!" - and I always mean it - but somehow the book slips from my mind. What I *did* note was that a) it was called So Many Books, and thus was likely to be my sort of book, and b) it was published by Sort of Books, the wonderful people behind the Tove Jansson translations. And so I bought it...

Like Simon S, I wasn't expecting quite what I got - I was in HEiotL-withdrawal mode, and was hoping Zaid had written something about his own book collection, and his relationship with it. What he *has* written is actually much more about books as commodities. I suppose this has the bonus that it can't deter anybody with unheard-of tastes and obscure favourites, but equally So Many Books can't rouse my love and affection much.

You can Simon S's thoughts, best bet, because he sums up so well the topics covered in Zaid's book. Zaid looks at the production of books - how people are reached, cost differentials, how it works as a commodity in the marketplace. He compares the book to speech, and wonders how a conversation can be had. He approaches the topics of electronic reader, public library, and ancient manuscript with the same investigative mind, facts falling out of his head onto the page, always keeping his love of reading peeping over the parapet of economics and functionality. And there are occasionally nice little phrases:
And how many college classes are no more than the tortuous reading of a text over the course of a year? Is anything more certain to make a book completely unintelligble than reading it slowly enough? It's like examining a mural from two centimetres away and scanning it at a rate of ten square centimetres every third day for a year, like a short-sighted slug.
Well, quite. The point Zaid returns to again and again is, in fact, the title - so many books. If no books were ever published again, it would take me 250,000 years to read all the ones already published. Even reading a list of the titles and authors would take fifteen years. He comes back to this point throughout the book, it seems to haunt his life. But not with the wry smile I expect of a bibliophile, as they cheerfully take Pride and Prejudice off the shelf to read again, but with some sort of panic that he can't get everything into his mind at the same time... it was a bit off-putting, to be honest.

And that sums up my lack of enthusiasm for So Many Books as a whole, actually. If all these topics I've touched on fill you with interest, then this might be the book for you - but I must confess, I found it a little dull. I don't think of books as commodities - I think of them as acquaintances and friends. I love the sort of bookish book which feels the same. And this wasn't it... So, a word of warning - before you spot the title and buy this for all your bibliophile friends, check first to see if they're the sort of person who also thrives on facts, figures, and ref. fig. 1-ing. If not, perhaps I can recommend Susan Hill's Howards End is on the Landing...


  1. Oh yes, Simon, books are my friends - that was a lovely description/hommage at the end of your post. They are my comfort, my passion, my escape, my tonic. And as Verity has recently mentioned, they build mental health. I think So Many Books sounds like it would probably be of great interest for editors, for booksellers and for publishers though...

  2. I read So Many Books a couple of years ago, probably not very long after I first read Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris, so I definitely remember my reaction to it being rather like yours. Just not quite what I was looking for.

  3. Books are both. It is only because they are also commodities that we can afford them! I think you should recommend Zaid to all who only have a romantic view of books.

    This reminds me a lttle of the Linux/MS Windows "religious" argument. I am a keen supporter (and user) of Open Source software, but it is only because of the domination of Microsoft that we were able to have such cheap computers on which to run the alternatives.

  4. Maybe not one to bother looking out for - I do have Ex Libris mentioned by Anna out of the library at the moment and am looking forward to that.

  5. Good to have this review so I won't reflexively buy it just because I love the cover. However, knowing what it is about, I do think it sounds kind of intriguing.

    And for the others commenting here about Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris. For me it ranks up there with The Uncommon Reader in terms of sheer bookish joy.

  6. Oh, see, I quite like the sound of that! I have some Armistead Maupin coming up, but, next..


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