Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Bibliomaniac Amok

He owes $14,000 in back rent, has $14 to his name, he’s been out of work for two years, his landlord is evicting him, he agrees he should be tossed. He’s got a rare book collection of 3,000 books worth, by his estimate, $1,000,000. What’s wrong with this picture?

Irving Leif, 62, the Jersey City citizen whose story hit the Jersey papers the other day, we learn, is a graybeard trust-fund baby. Disbursements to him supplemented his income as Chief Information Officer for the state of New York’s Department of Banking.

The chief missed, evidently, the info on banking and money.

Anytime a book collector is faced with a financial crisis the question arises, Should I sell my books? And most collectors will do anything they can to avoid deascensions for dollars or any other reason, particularly if, as Leif, you’ve spent forty years amassing the collection and insist that it be kept intact.

I have experienced a similar situation. The period 1988-1999 was one of great difficulty and there were times when I had to consider selling my books. It was a wrenching decision - and my collection was no where near the size or value of Leif’s. I resisted, muddling along somehow, finding money someplace else, or just letting debt slide as I hunkered down in my house of books. The books comforted me; they were my friends. I think I also had the inchoate sense that to sell was to admit failure, not as a collector but as an adult. My self-worth was directly tied to the collection.

But there comes a time, and it came for me, when an extremely cold shower and hard slap are necessary to awaken dormant reality. The books have to go. It was, without over-dramatizing the situation, one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make. I made it and began to sell off, a few books at a time, the whole of my collection to a dealer I knew and trusted, William Dailey.

And then the most amazing thing happened: My life opened up. It was as if I had been clinging to a sinking rock to keep it (and myself) afloat. When I let go, I rose to the surface, alive and able to breathe.

I’ve become superstitious about establishing a new collection; I don’t want to mess with karma. The comfort I feel amongst rare and antiquarian books is satisfied by my work in the trade; I’m surrounded by them every day. I don’t need to own them.

I know what Irving Leif is going through. But he has to go all the way through, sell some if not all of his books, and get on with his life before the books completely consume him. He is where no book collector should ever be: In that dark, fragile space where the Gentle Madness of book collecting that Nicholas Basbanes has written so well about gets overwhelmed by full-blown bibliomania.

A potentially homeless person, dead broke yet with $1,000,000 worth of books. This is a psychopathology that needs to be addressed. Mr. Leif has the sympathy of book collectors all over the world; this is a very sad story. But only up to a point.

Mr. Leif could have been saving his trust fund money and living off his income. He could have carefully sold off some of his books when things began to get tight, rather than wait until crisis threatened all. In this, or any, economy, a 62 year-old out of work person faces a rough road toward another job. Downward employment mobility is no party but the world will not come to an end.

There is nothing noble about saving one’s book collection at all costs. We admire the fool for love but not the idiot.


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