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  • I Suffer from Karnacitis
  • Brett Kahr

A year or so ago, I read an obituary in The New York Times of the American author, intellectual, and critic, Susan Sontag, who died on December 28, 2004, from leukemia, at the age of seventy-one, after a multi-decade battle against cancer. Although sad to hear of the great suffering endured by this creative writer, I did breathe a little sigh of relief and recognition when I discovered that, at the time of her death, Sontag reputedly owned some 15,000 books in her Manhattan apartment. Although I do not have a New York apartment, I do nonetheless possess a ridiculously large amount of professional books (15,000 would not be an unreasonable estimate), and I thought to myself, just as the chronic dipsomaniac must do upon sitting down at that first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, "Hooray, I am not alone."

I first discovered Karnac Books at 58 Gloucester Road, London S.W.7., in either the latter part of 1982 or the early months of 1983, shortly after commencing postgraduate studies at Oxford. I must have seen an advertisement for the shop in The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, and no doubt wended my way to London to investigate this mecca of psychotherapeutic books. I do recall that upon entering the rather unprepossessing premises, I saw no psychology volumes at all—only the usual selection of cookery and gardening fare. I staved off my rising sense of disappointment as I walked towards the very back of the shop, wondering whether I had in fact come to the right location; but then, happily, I spied a bust of Sigmund Freud perched near a dimly lit and unmarked staircase, which led [End Page 81] to the basement. As I emerged into the underground cavern, I felt as though I had discovered Ali Baba's magical cave: an entire room filled to bursting with multiple copies of every psychoanalytic book imaginable. I immediately regressed to an infantile state, surrounded by too much milk, not knowing which nipple to choose. I suppose I must have spent twenty pounds or so (a small fortune to a student in those days), though I regret I cannot remember which books I actually purchased. It really did not matter, because I returned again and again, and again, eventually striking up a rapport with the charming owner, Harry Karnac, who had first begun to stock psychoanalytic books many decades earlier at the suggestion of psychoanalyst Dr. Clifford Scott, who had a nearby consulting room, and who suggested that Mr. Karnac ought to sell the popular books of Dr. Donald Winnicott. From such modest beginnings, Karnac himself became quite expert about psychoanalysis, and he soon turned his ordinary bookshop into the world's first specialist psychotherapeutic bookseller.

As a struggling student, working part-time as a Research Officer in a backwater psychiatric hospital, I had no idea at all what a crucial role Karnac Books would come to play in my life in the decades that followed. By the time I had moved to London in 1986, Harry Karnac had sold the shop to Mr. Cesare Sacerdoti, a brilliant businessman, a lover of fine books, and a passionate advocate of psychoanalysis, who expanded Karnac Books from a bookshop into a more substantial force still by creating the publishing arm for which Karnac Books has since acquired an international reputation. Harry Karnac did reprint some classic psychoanalytic titles during his tenure, but the bulk of the publication work became the special project of Cesare Sacerdoti. Not only did Cesare expand the commissioning and printing of new titles, but he opened a second branch of Karnac Books at 118 Finchley Road in North London, only a stone's throw from the Freud Museum, where I worked, and from the Tavistock Clinic and Portman Clinic, where I had become, once again, a student. I also had my own personal psychoanalysis on Fitzjohns Avenue in North London, and in order to get there from my flat in Pimlico, I alighted at the Finchley Road underground station, just across the road from the new branch of Karnac Books. So, for a decade, I passed Karnac's...


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