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An idea in hand

There is really very little to justify the fact that I love books. They are heavy, cost money, tend to smell musty, and take up a great deal of room. Not to mention the fact that they are often useless, lying moldering in some corner cupboard until they are auctioned at an estate sale. Yet these I love.

Sure, I love them for their ideas. Ideas are the essence of all things - the ruby at the root that makes the tree grow. But there is something in my bookish love that goes beyond that. I also love books for the physical book itself. After all, a red leather binding is a marvel to behold. And that is the sign of the true bibliophile - one who loves books for more than just the ideas they hold; one who loves the bindings, loves the paper, loves the choice of type and ink.

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Smell a book - here is the spice of knowledge. Hold a book - here is the weight of an idea. Feel a leather binding - here is the pliancy of thought. To stand in a bookstore and gaze on row after row of crisp, new spines or time-loved volumes, is a joy. A pure, undiluted joy. These volumes hold promise - promise of ideas, promise of discovery, promise of hour after hour of enjoyment to come. There is an almost tactile pleasure involved, an almost physical excitement that sets the adrenalin aflow. I can appreciate the care and thought involved in choosing the proper lettering to emboss on a raised spine. I can appreciate the quality of the paper so bound. To open a new tome and turn crisp pages of virgin white only recently perfumed with the clean smell of rich ink is lovely, and to carefully cradle an elderly volume and let the smell of its ancient leather waft around your head, is to enter the true booklover's paradise. I'd rather browse in a used bookstore than in Tiffany's or Saks.

I will admit, though, that there is sometimes a darker side to all this. To creep through a dusty corridor full of the rotten smell of time, dusting off mildewed volumes, squinting in the poor light to distinguish the barely discernible titles, is nothing short of disagreeable. But it is, I suppose, a sort of penitence with hope of reward. By passing through these purgatories of must and age, one can (one hopes) find a rare treasure, even when the outer veil shows little of what lies within. Many battered exteriors hide the natural wisdom of a Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, or Huckleberry Finn. And many scarred shells hold joy and love and honest thought. Dust jackets deceive.

In England recently, I stopped into a small cranny of a bookstore off a well-worn street in a little Cotswold town. The shop was dark, the ceiling low; there was barely a foot of an aisle between opposing shelves. The shop looked as if it had been waiting for renovation since Cromwell burned the manor nearby. Yet here was an elegance and an aura reminiscent of the higher accomplishments of mankind. An undefined presence filled the air, similar to that of a great man pausing before a speech. The elderly owner of the shop reflected the threadbare grace of his surroundings, his old cravat neatly tied, his gray goatee impeccably trimmed. As he talked with another customer, a wealth of well-earned knowledge and self-assurance emerged from him. Here, I told myself, was the heir of impoverished aristocracy.

I told him of the day before in Cirencester when I had stopped in the new bookstore looking for a play of Shaw's. They had told me they didn't carry drama. My sensibilities were stunned. An English bookstore without drama or Shaw? ''They don't love books anymore,'' he said. ''They don't know them. They don't care. They're nothing but grocers and supermarkets trying to make a fast pound, and that's all there is to them.'' That's what he said.

I hope he's wrong.

Because, as long as there are bibliophiles in the world, we'll want books that delight the eye at the same time as they feed the thought. A paperback copy of War and Peace can't do that very well. Yes, as long as there are booklovers like me, we'll have sore need of booksellers like him and of books that please in more sense than one. And a six-volume, illustrated War and Peace pleases very well. It does indeed.

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