Yet at no point did Jefferson’s financial plight slow his spendthrift ways. Faithfully, almost obsessively, he kept recording every purchase and expenditure, but it was as if somehow he could never bring himself to add up the columns. At home, in his voluminous farm records, he never in his life added up the profit and loss for any year, and perhaps for the reason that there was almost never any profit.
…Paris booksellers soon found they had an American patron like no other. In the bookshops and stalls along the Seine were volumes in numbers and variety such as Jefferson had never seen, and his pleasure was boundless. To Madison he would describe the surpassing pleasure of “examining all the principal bookstores, turning over every book with my own hand and putting by everything related to America, and indeed whatever was rare and valuable to every science.” There were weeks when he was buying books every day. In his first month in Paris, he could not buy them fast enough, and ran up bills totaling nearly 800 francs. Nor was the book-buying spree to end. The grand total of books he acquired in France was about 2,000, but he also bought books by the boxful for Washington, Franklin and James Madison.
— David McCullough, John Adams
That image of Jefferson trying so hard to balance his books, only to lose heart right at the final tally, struck me as endearingly poignant. Good thing he didn’t have Amazon.com to tempt him. Who knows how many modern Jeffersons have been diverted from what could have been a glorious political destiny into a pitiful existence as lonely book hoarders?
In the household budget, I keep a fraction of a percent of the quarterly gross revenues for my own selfish hedonistic pleasure, which invariably means buying books. Last week, as I began planning which books to buy with the first quarter’s allotment, I was struck by a strange, lethargic sadness. I had whittled my wish list down to about nine or ten books after the holidays, but then I discovered a rich vein of intellectual ore that I wanted to mine, which led to another twenty or so being added during the last couple of months. Suddenly, it all seemed futile. So much still to be read, and more coming all the time! I can barely make a dent in it with this paltry amount of money! What’s the use? Why suffer the torments of Tantalus over books I’ll never have time or money for? Why not just resign myself to checking out romance novels from the library from now on?
Thankfully, the spell of madness didn’t last long. And thanks to a budget review, a little extra money was trimmed from other line items to be allocated toward monthly book purchases. I wish I could reach back in time to put a consoling arm around Jefferson’s shoulder and encourage him to face that bottom line without flinching. The only way out is straight on through, Tommy, old buddy. A little austerity up front makes the pleasure so much sweeter afterward.