Bibliophile or bibliomaniac? Dreamland or dungeon?

Mark Hodkinson, So Many Books So Little Time
a review by Justin Croft

So Many Books, So Little Time, Mark Hodkinson (28 November, 2019, BBC Radio 4)

In this 7digital production for BBC Radio 4, Mark Hodkinson ponders the nature of our personal book collections; why and how we gather books, what it says about us, and how we ever expect to find time to read them all.

Author Mark had just moved house. By far the most difficult task was carrying, storing and alphabetising his collection of 3,500 books. It made him stop to think. If it took, say, four days of solid reading to finish a book, he’d need 38.3 years to go through his collection. He would have to make his way through 315 million words. And that’s if he didn’t take time off to sleep, eat and have the occasional night out.

Clearly, it was a challenge too far.

So Many Books, So Little Time is an autobiographical, impressionistic audio odyssey. The Book Collector will publish a full review of it in our Summer 2020 issue, written by Justin Croft. In the meantime we present you with a small extract from Justin's review, hopefully enough to tempt you to go and have a listen while it is still available online...


Late last year Radio 4 treated us to So Many Books, So Little Time, an enquiry into the world of book collectors, by author Mark Hodkinson. Well worth a listen, it’s partly a meditation on the Hodkinson’s own book habit―he’s been unpacking his own 3500 volumes after a move, in anticipation of reading them all. But it’s laced with a wry humour and mild iconoclasm (another author, Austin Collings, is especially good on throwing books out of the window). It has been quite a hit. Times deputy literary editor James Marriott covered it in Help I’m a Bibliomaniac, his own anatomy of bibliomania (Times, 21 November, 2019) which was widely shared on social media.

Both pieces pay homage to Dibdin for diagnosing bibliomania as a specific complaint, but Hodkinson goes further, citing ‘Bibliomania’, a learned 1943 article by Max Sander in The Journal of Criminal Law and Crimonology (155). Yikes. In my experience it’s quite normal for book collectors to admit that they’ve ‘been bad’, or that they have ‘submitted to temptation’, and so on. It’s part of the game but it’s not (usually) criminal.

So Many Books, So Little Time compares bibliophilia (benign) with bibliomania (not-so-benign) and Joanne Harris (bestselling author of Chocolat) is wonderfully consoling in not regarding the accumulation of books as anything to worry about. She points out the warmth of room lined with books, metaphorically and literally (books as insulation? Surely there must be grants for this sort of thing). She talks about reading and memory, happiness, sentiment and the pleasure of passing books on―at her house even trick-or-treaters are handed ‘a carefully-chosen horror novel’.

The John Rylands librarian, John Hodgson hints at the darker side—when bibliophilia tips into bibliomania, and freely admits to the latter. ‘I’ve studied bibliomania … I know all the symptoms … I’ve ticked all those boxes, I’m afraid’. The itch for the book just out of reach, the sense of incompleteness, the compensation strategies and the construction of the collector’s ‘carapace’ against the world. It’s left to Austin Collings to ask when the dreamland of a book collection, with limitless possibilities for armchair travel, becomes a dungeon in which the collector is imprisoned and enslaved.


Look out for the rest of Justin's review in the Summer 2020 issue of The Book Collector.

You can still listen to So Many Books, So Little Time on the BBC Radio 4 website here >


Justin Croft's review of the 2019 film documentary The Booksellers appeared in our Winter 2019 issue in The Book Collector's first ever CINEMA section. Subscribers can login to read it here>

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