Confessions of a Compulsive Book Buyer

Like most wannabe-intellectuals, I buy a lot of books. Rarely a day goes by that I don’t have an open order with one of the major book outlets on the internet (usually Amazon, sometimes Alibris, Barnes & Noble, Half.com, and Ebay). I read about 50% of these acquisitions immediately and the rest get added to my library, where they might remain for several months before I touch them again.

But I have a problem. Occasionally I will hear of a rare out-of-print title that is relevant to my interests and I become absolutely OBSESSED with buying a copy, willing to pay completely unreasonable prices. I’ve had four really bad episodes so far.

The first occurred several years ago when my reading was focused on ancient Rome. I had been studying the role of the Praetorian Guard in Roman politics when I learned of the Scholae Palatinae, which succeeded the Praetorian Guard following the latter’s defeat at Milvian Bridge. Constantine disbanded the Praetorian Guard after his ascension, replacing it with the Scholae which functioned as an elite palace guard that was much more politically reliable than its predecessor. There is one major study of the Scholae in the English language: a 1969 monograph from the American Academy in Rome entitled Scholae Palatinae: The Palace Guards of the Later Roman Empire. I had access to the work via the inter-library loan networks of nearby universities, but that wasn’t enough for me. I had to OWN a copy. So I started watching the major book markets, and finally, after several months, a used copy turned up on Amazon. I snatched it up immediately. I paid way too much, but the copies I’ve noticed for sale since then have been several times more expensive so perhaps it was a good investment after all. And of course, I haven’t read it yet. But it proudly remains on my shelf as a trophy of my indomitable will [or a pathetic token from an undiagnosed case of OCD].

Later on I was exploring the sadly neglected subject of Byzantine military strategy. This is one area of history where there is much work to be done because Byzantine studies generally focuses on society, culture, art, etc. Nevertheless, there are several notable works on the subject, one of which is the unassumingly titled Some Thoughts on Byzantine Military Strategy [which sadly inspires me when I can’t think of witty names for my blog posts]. While I was in D.C. I made a visit to the Library of Congress for the sole purpose of reading this book, but the hassle of that experience nixed any subsequent visits. Copies of the book have since appeared for sale on Amazon, but I have resisted the urge to buy one. It’s been difficult.

In related news, this November Harvard University Press will be releasing Edward Luttwak’s long-anticipated Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire. Luttwak previously authored an excellent study of ancient Rome’s grand strategy. Hopefully, his work on Byzantium will fill in many of the holes that have been left by the neglect of this topic.

My next obsession was Brooks Adams’ Law of Civilization and Decay. Adams purportedly had a major influence on Theodore Roosevelt’s worldview. Very briefly, Adams argues that when a civilization divorces itself from challenge and struggle, it loses the martial virtues that hold it together and settles into commercial patterns of existence that will ultimately corrode it. The book is still in print, but I spent quite some time searching for a 1st edition before I settled for a 2nd edition from 1896.

Lastly, Sir Charles Gwynn’s Imperial Policing. With the possible exception of C.E. Callwell’s Small Wars (which I also own), this is the most famous manual for colonial warfare ever written during Britain’s age of imperialism. After months of searching through every book outlet I could think of, I recently found a tolerably priced copy on Ebay from a seller in the U.K. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this book has reportedly become a must-have for counterinsurgency specialists, explaining its relative scarcity on the internet. I’m not aware of a recent edition, but with its current popularity a new printing run would be a profitable venture. Thankfully I have a legitimate excuse for buying this one because it’s relevant to a project I’m currently working on.

So…of all the hundreds of books that I’ve purchased, why did I become so obsessed over these four? I have no idea.

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2 thoughts on “Confessions of a Compulsive Book Buyer

  1. I strongly sympathize with this post. I became much the same way with a book about the French Foreign Legion titled The Centurions by Jean Larteguy. Originally, it was recommended by Robert D. Kaplan and, being a Kaplan fanatic, I had to read it! After looking for it online for months on end, I was forced to have it checked out for me by a friend who worked at a university library. The copy she checked out hadn’t been read in a long, long time, and was in pristine condition.

    Unfortunately, due to a deployment, I had to return the book before I was able to finish reading it!

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