Bibliomania, a Spiritual Diagnosis

Title page of an obscure but authoritative book on Bibliomaniacs.
Title page of an obscure but authoritative book on Bibliomaniacs.

My Facebook picture is a photo of a closet full of empty boxes, book boxes piled high to the ceiling. For those of you who don’t know, I work in the second sanctuary on the campus of Virginia Seminary – the Basilica of Bishop Payne Library. I am a lowly acolyte at the circulation desk. My ministry at its most basic is to check books in and out. As a pastor, I soothe the fevered spirits of overworked students. Being a Master in Divinity, I point the way to the New Interpreters Bible, commentaries, and the collected works of whoever you are looking for. As a parish priest, I know just exactly where to find the Book of Common Prayer Altar Book, the new Lutheran Book of Worship, hymnals of every kind, and “Rubrics Expanded” (such a fascinating read!). As a preacher, I most heartily recommend the classic sermons of John Chrysostom, John Henry Newman and that handy dandy series, “Feasting on the Word“. And I can show you the app for all that be it on your Mac, your IPad or your IPhone. And yes, we have wireless.

But back behind that desk, I perform two additionally delightful tasks. And as a Bibliophile it could not get any better. The first is that I assist the Head Librarian with the front end of the acquisition process. Sounds boring you think? Well it is anything but. I get paid to read book reviews in the New York Times, The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Review of Books and the Church Times. I get to scour scholarly catalogs from Harvard, Princeton, Oxford and Cambridge. I peruse piles of journals to see what great new books they recommend. Sifting through all those biblical commentaries and latest theological, pastoral and ethical titles is a no brainer. But my favorite discoveries by far are those books that bust out of the “orthodox box” with titles like “Why Hell Stinks of Sulphur: Mythology and Geology of the Underworld”, “Slouching Toward Gaytheism: Christianity and Queer Survival in America”, and “Divine Vintage: Following the Wine Trail from Genesis to the Modern Age.” Spending other people’s money on books is heaven.

My second ministerial duty is to sort through the donated libraries of the saints who have gone before me. Announced and unannounced, loads of cardboard boxes full of books stream through the library’s front doors. These books belonged to clergy who have retired, clergy who now rest in peace, or clergy simply trying to clear some space on their bookshelves. Cracking open and unpacking these boxes is cathartic. Sorting through them is sort of like walking through a labyrinth, a labyrinth of the readers’ appetites and passions. And as soon as  I have breathed in the must and mold of these dusty books, I have caught the donor’s contagion. I discover trash as well as  treasures — but treasures there are and covet them I do — all the while knowing I have absolutely no place to put them. So I steal a few books here and I steal a few there (not actually stealing, they are free for the taking!:)) until they begin to more than just accumulate in the backseat of my car. Three grocery bags full, one day, cleaning out my car, Jacob, my youngest gathered up three grocery bags full.

This is where the Bibliophile turns into a certifiable Bibliomaniac. This is where intervention is needed and that is just what my three grownup kids did. Zach, Colleen, and Jacob sat me down at the dining room table one day, looked me straight in the eye and told me, “Mom, you have a problem. This book thing is getting out of hand. You have got to get a Kindle.”

Now Bibliomania is an actual spiritual diagnosis. You can read (yes read!) all about it in Nicholas Basbane’s masterful tome “A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books.” And as a bipolar book lover and voracious reader, I am verifiably to be counted “among the gently mad”. And I am here to tell you, that in all seriousness, I use books as the measure of my moods. When my world is very, very small I can barely read the words on the back of the cereal box. When I am limping along I can just about make my way through a newspaper article. When I am fully in gear, I read fast and furious – consuming three or four books at a time. But when I am flying too close to the sun, I sit up in my bed into the wee hours of the morning. Encircled and mesmerized by dozens of books, I am both utterly delighted and hopelessly distracted. Flipping pages and flying from one to another, I become totally unable to read. And for me that is a very sad thing indeed. Such is how I measure my madness.

Erasmus, the great Bibliophile of the Renaissance, famously said, “When I have a little money I buy books and if I have any left over, I buy food and clothes.”  These wise words I have taken to heart. When my bipolar brain needs balancing, I check out the balance due on my Amazon account. It’s good for my checkbook and good for my soul.

So friends, what have you  been reading?

Pax vobiscum,



  1. Thank you for sharing openly and honestly from your heart Joani. You teach us all – through all aspects of your life. Some day, I hope you will add “Unfiltered” to your Unorthodox and Unhinged title. I appreciate every post and every word I read. Thank you for sharing the gift of you.


  2. Right now, I am re-reading The Liar’s Gospel by Naomi Alderman (well, really I’m finishing an exegesis paper, but also reading the Liar’s Gospel). The book is a wonderful “what if” about the life of Jesus — what did it look like to those around him…how did they decide to believe or not to believe. We are going to read it together in a small group at church. Here’s my review from a couple of years ago…


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