“I cannot get enough books”

Do you think you have too many books? Is your library overflowing? If this worries you, consider the words of Petrarch, the great medieval Italian poet. While he knew that he had too many books, he still wanted more.

Francesco Petrarch was a 14th-century writer whose poetry would make him famous in his own time. He travelled widely around Europe, and was always taking with him big chests filled with books. Around 1346 he wrote to his friend Giovanni dell’ Incisa in a plea to help him find more books.


In the first part of his letter, Petrarch says that while he is usually free of the cravings that most people have, there is one that remains: “I am still in the thrall of one insatiable desire, which hitherto I have been neither able nor willing to check.” He then explains what it is and why it is for him:

I cannot get enough books. It may be that I have already more than I need, but it is with books as it is with other things: success in acquisition spurs the desire to get still more. Books, indeed, have a special charm. Gold, silver, gems, purple raiment, a house of marble, a well-tilled field, paintings, a steed with splendid trappings—things such as these give but a silent and superficial pleasure. Books delight us through and through, they talk with us, they give us good counsel, they enter into a living and intimate companionship with us.


Part of the reason for Petrarch is that one book will lead him to another. He explains how he reads the works of one classical author, such as Seneca, which will reference another like Cicero, and he will want the books by the latter. Petrarch reveals that this whole process is exciting “they made my mouth water.”

Petrarch is often depicted holding a book, including in this 15th-century image. Rimas y Triunfos de Petrarca – BNE Vitr. 22/1

Finally, he gets to his request – Petrarch hopes that Giovanni can search for more books. But he adds that he is not only just asking Giovanni:

Now do you, as you hold me dear, commission trustworthy and competent men to go through Tuscany for me, examining the book-chests of the religious and of other studious men, searching for things that might serve to alleviate or to increase my thirst. And although you know in what streams I fish and in what woods I hunt, nevertheless, to avoid error I enclose a list of the things I chiefly desire; and that you may be the more eager, let me tell you that I am sending similar requests to friends in Britain, France, and Spain. So then, in order that none may surpass you in faithfulness and diligence, do your best—and farewell.

So if you feel that you have too many books, keep in mind that this was the case for one of the greatest writers in Italian history.


You can read this letter and many more by Petrarch in Petrarch at Vaucluse: letters in verse and prose, translated by Ernest Hatch Wilkins (University of Chicago Press, 1958)

Top Image: Petrarch depicted sleeping (dreaming?) in this early 16th-century manuscript. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Fr.594 fol. 3r