Conan the Librarian

I have to confess it: I can't get rid of the addiction. The cold turkey cure never works. Today I'm a mass of aches, pains and assorted grisly symptoms, because (just like certain supermodels) I've been doing too many lines. Not lines of strange white powder, but of books. Books, books, books, books, marching up and down again ...

One of the odder entries in the Encyclopedia of SF is called COLLECTIONS. Although this mentions notable SF libraries like the Science Fiction Foundation's, it seems to be mainly an opportunity for the editors to brag about the size of their own research collections: "John CLUTE with 12,000 items, Peter NICHOLLS with 7,000 items, and Associate Editor Brian STABLEFORD with 15,000 items."

The current Langford count must be higher than any of those, but no doubt the other figures have also risen hugely in 14 years of intensive literary hoarding since that edition of the Encyclopedia. John Clute has collections in two countries and rents a cavernous London cellar to store his overflow; the vast lobby of Peter Nicholls' Melbourne house awes visitors with more bookshelves than many a public library; and Brian Stableford dwells in a book-filled labyrinth every bit as complex and probably almost as perilous as the one in The Name of the Rose.

My own household crisis of Spring 2007 was brought on by family visitors. I'd been keeping the ever-growing book mountain under control by an elaborate piling system that made ingenious use of chaos theory, all our unused floor space, and – most daringly – the spare bed. Which worked perfectly well until Mrs Langford unfairly insisted that our visitors needed that bed and should be granted the luxury of being able to get to it without dodging vast toppling stacks as in Peter Jackson's Mines of Moria. It was a time for desperate measures.

My credit card went all limp and runny like one of those soft watches by Salvador Dali, reduced to impotence by paying for over 130 feet of new shelves. How we managed to fit them into the house is a state secret. All right, there are certain places where I have to walk sideways and won't be able to penetrate at all if my waistline grows another inch ...

Then came the joyous task of hauling massive heaps of books up and down three steep flights of stairs, to juggle everything into alphabetical order. This naturally brings on a whole slew of occupational diseases like tennis elbow, housemaid's knee, alphabetizer's squint, archivist's lung (you wouldn't believe the amount of hideously toxic dust that collects on "temporary" book piles in mere years), Donaldson's Toe – caused by dropping the complete Chronicles of Thomas Covenant on your foot – and Baxter's Back.

All right, it's unfair to blame nice Stephen Baxter for my current backache, but he must shoulder (because my own shoulder hurts too much) his share of responsibility. Now the library has been shuffled into order, the Baxter section extends over about three and a half feet of increasingly massive tomes. That's practically the same shelf space as Brian Aldiss, who has been producing books steadily for fifty years, as opposed to "Slayer-of-Trees" Baxter's sixteen.

You may not have heard of him, but there is also a fellow called Pratchett who has a lot to answer for.

Other pangs during this long and brutal toil were caused by guilt, as when I shelved Richard Morgan's novels for the first time – from Altered Carbon to Black Man – and realized that he'd built a whole writing career in the gap between spring-cleanings of the Langford library. There was also the irritation of discovering that, all too often, I'd paid good money for a book that I already owned but had mislaid.

Right now, although I'm totally shagged out and surrounded by the kind of giant mutant dust-bunnies that must have evolved after that major library accident at Chernobyl ... the whole collection is on shelves. A brief victory against the forces of entropy – until, tomorrow or next week, all those kindly publishers and SFX review editors start sending stuff again, and new stacks begin to grow in every corner. Well (hoping fervently that my wife doesn't read this column), at least there's now plenty of room on the spare bed.

There is a saying they have in SF fandom: "Who dies with the most books, wins." Wish me luck.

David Langford is still waiting for a visitor who doesn't ask, "Have you read them all?"