Shelf Life: The Fate of a Personal Library
What is it that compels some of us to love books? What is it exactly we love and how do we demonstrate our affection? For the purposes of this paper, I’ll severely limit the size of this society of bibliophiles. I’ll exclude the religious—those who seek the presence of the divine between bindings. And, for similar reasons, I’ll also exclude the bibliomaniac—those slaves of their books, as the German bibliographer, Hanns Bohatta described them. I will also ignore some of the usual suspects: academics, arrivistes, biblioklepts and booksellers as well as those who have inherited their libraries.
In fact, I will only seek to understand, and with some luck explain, something of my own bibliophilia. Toward that end, I will ask only a few simple questions:
- What does it mean to own books?
- At what point does one’s books constitute a library?
- What are the principal uses of a private library today?
I will also look at relationships with individual books—at the relationship one has to a body of books—and, finally, at notions of how one’s relationship shapes one’s participation in the public and private spheres.
Before I began my research, I had not really thought about my books besides the fact that I was encouraged as a child to read and I have never stopped. When asked about my library (and I am asked, particularly by younger colleagues who visit my home), I generally respond: They give me pleasure.
But of late I’ve begun to question if they really do, or if owning books relates to a sense of self and a sense of place in the world that’s now too late for me to shed.
So, I’m forced to ask: What do my books mean? Do they represent a promise of continuity in a life that has proceeded not according to plan, but according to no plan? Do they still confer membership in a privileged society? However ill defined, but a society nonetheless, and one more substantial than that of my dissolving family—the Sawyer line ends with this generation.
At present I cannot answer. What I do know is that I continue to buy, read and keep books. I don’t keep count of them as Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), did (keeping his collection to a sensible 3,000 volumes). I don’t paste ex-libris in them, as Susan Sontag did—I know this because I have her copy of Illness as Metaphor. What’s more, I feel a sharp pain when asked to lend a book, although I don’t feel the degree of animosity, expressed by Charles Lamb, towards those who intruded on his hospitality: “…borrowers of books—those mutilators of collections, spoilers of the symmetry of shelves, and creators of odd volumes.”
What I hope to find in these pages is some better idea of why books are special to me, and perhaps, along the way, be in a position to make a general statement about what compels others to flirt with, pursue and, ultimately, love books.
1. You Can Judge a Book By Its Cover
A book as dazzling as an Indian handkerchief or shawl.
Charles Baudelaire, “L’Art romantique” (Paris)
And you have read all these books, Mr. France?
Not 1/10 of them.
Anecdote told by Walter Benjamin in “Unpacking My Library”
I own books. I’ve a “collection” consisting of some two thousand volumes. In my living room, against one narrow wall, I have a three-tier, glass-fronted, barrister’s bookcase, filled to capacity with books of poetry. These volumes include my Robinson Jeffers collection of first- and limited-edition books, as well as works by other poets, living and dead, that I admire and who have influenced my own work. I also have “stored” there, twenty-seven volumes of the slender literary magazine Kayak, edited by George Hitchcock. (Not books, per se, although printed and bound and read and, at one time, discussed with pleasure.)
Along another wall are four wide bays of bookshelves, running roughly the length and height of the room, approximately 18 feet long and 8 feet high. Over time, I’ve made some half-hearted attempts at organizing the books they hold—one shelf dedicated to Greek tragedies and commentary on the classical world; another occupied by works of Freud, battered and faded paperbacks (The James Strachey Translation), which have been on my shelves since I was a Freshman at UCSC in 1974, shared with a diverse group of philosophers and essayists.
But for the most part, my attempts at a more methodical bibliographical system can best be described as haphazard but not indiscriminate. (Henry Petroski, author of The Book on the Bookshelf, offers twenty-five ways to order a library—ranging from authors’ names and dates of acquisition to the color of bindings. I hope someday to adopt one of them.)
I believe Petroski would be pleased to know that my books are, for the most part, arranged in an upright fashion, with only a few dozen stacked horizontally. The latter sit either on top of books resting in sleeves, or on a shelf between a wire sculpture of the Minotaur and another of Zeus, in the form of the bull, made for me by the street artist Tai Varik, now deceased. I mention the sculpture to note that while books dominate the shelf space, they do not monopolize it. All the books share space with framed photographs of my wife, Charlotte, family and friends, as well as a chaos of objects from Shaker wooden toys to Meiji-era Japanese copper lanterns.
In the same room, squeezed between two armchairs, is a four-sided revolving bookcase, on top of which are stacked fifteen oversized art books. Opposite the wall-length bookshelf is a narrow, six-shelf case that holds, among other books, my collection of New York City-themed books (fiction, non-fiction and reference). To conclude this survey, I will add that books occupy the seats of a 200-year-old stool and three of my wife’s Queen Anne-style dining room chairs. I won’t bother to describe in detail the bookshelf, formerly a baker’s bread shelf, in the bedroom, or the buckling, three-tier shelf in the little “study” I’ve “squatted” between the back of the couch and the room’s windows. My wife has repeatedly asked that I not bring home any more books, but I find myself unable to comply with this very reasonable request.
Books continue to find their way into the house, to inch their way into spaces on shelves, or to climb on top of existing stacks, with the nonchalance of our two cats. This kind of accumulation is quite common, as Petroski observed, “The house or apartment with too many books seems always to acquire even more.” Which brings to my mind not so much Samuel Pepys returning from Kirton, his bookseller, but Disney’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Yes, I have books—leather-bound, cloth-covered and paperback books. There are first editions as well as second- and third-hand books. I also have a few rare books and books autographed by the author—the first of this collection, Working, was given to me by Studs Terkel in 1973, when he visited the Brentano’s Bookshop in Beverly Hills, where I worked as a clerk. (His inscription: “To Robert, Take it easy. But take it.” It is advice I have consistently failed to take.)
In all, I possess a modest collection of books, lovely and eclectic, but what I don’t have is a library. A library is something I dream of possessing one day. This distinction leads me to ask, what exactly is the difference between a collection of books and a library? Certainly there’s a great deal of overlap. Benjamin, in “Unpacking My Library,” doesn’t tell us how many books he’s unpacking, but he does say he started at noon and was emptying the last crate “well past midnight.” Faith Baldwin, the popular and prolific writer of light fiction, wrote that she tries to keep her library down to 4,000 by giving many books away during the course of a year. She also informs her reader that books can be found all over the house: “on tables, window seats, floors, even in the bathrooms.” It seems, then, in the case of Benjamin and Baldwin, that a library need not designate either a particular room or even a “permanent” collection of books.
Mine are not idle questions. If the word library can be used to describe Benjamin’s book-filled crates, Pepys’ impeccably assembled presses, as well as the East Room of the Pierpont Morgan Library, it seems to me a word that offers its user tremendous latitude. But in my use of it, I want to be certain I’m not using the word custodian when janitor will do, or mortician where undertaker would be more appropriate. And if a library is a room that contains more ideas than books, what does this room and the relationships it implies, require of the owner? Here, too, the bibliophile enjoys a wide range of options, from stewardship, as exemplified by Richard de Bury, to manic increase, as in the case of the possessed Richard Heber. (As for Heber, the only explanation I can give for his indifference to the condition and to the fate of his library might be found in Freud’s famous observation regarding the uncanny, “Our unconscious is still as unreceptive as ever to the idea of our own mortality.”)
I thought a good place to begin would be to make an inventory of my books. Unfortunately, the due date of this paper precluded this radical step, but assuming I had the time, this audit would enable me not only to know what books I own, but also which of them mean something special to me and, just as important, which among them I could do without. From there, I could follow Henry Miller’s lead and record the following: Books that I’ve read and never opened again—Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman.
Books that I’ve read and return to with some regularity—Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. Books that I’ve bought with the intention of reading but probably never will—Shadows on the Hudson. And, finally, books that I have not read but have every intention of reading some day— Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson and Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? In regard to the nature of the relationship I have with my books, I find myself agreeing with the rather bold statement Miller made in The Books in My Life: “Many of the books one lives with in one’s mind are books one has never read.”
The more I consider the nature of a library, the more it seems to me that the books themselves are less important than one’s knowledge of them. Which is to say, knowledge of why one acquired a particular book in the first place, and how one will live with it in the future. One thing that has been widely documented is that to bibliophiles, from Petrarch (1304-1374) to Thomas Prince (1687), the quality or the quantity of these books might prove second and third to one’s feelings for them. If this is true, then my dream of a separate room to house my library may be less important than my willingness to commit to an intimate relationship. Although I don’t believe one needs to go as far as George Gissing, the late-Victorian writer who claimed to know every one of his books by its scent.
2. Intimacy Versus Possession
There was once a bibliophile who said that a man could love only one book at a time and the darling of the moment he used to carry about in a charming leather case.
Attributed to Victorian self-help book by Henry Petroski
You have all heard of people whom the loss of their books has turned into invalids, or of those who in order to acquire them became criminal.
An intimate relationship with one’s books is exactly what Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) confides to his audience and recommends in his talk, “Unpacking My Books.” Here he does not so much talk about his library as offer insight into the affinity that exists between a genuine book collector and his collection. This makes perfect sense as the specifics of Benjamin’s library would make sense only to Benjamin in the way Benjamin’s hat would fit only on his head. Toward this end, he distinguishes between the collector of books and a collection of books. A library, then, begins with a collector. Begins with a point of view. With specific intellectual or psychological needs.
A library is never just a particular room, or a quantity of crates filled with books to be opened at some future date, or a collection representative of a particular quality, but is always the consequence of a collector’s nature, mania or avarice. (This is the theme that runs through Nicholas A Basbanes’ A Gentle Madness, and from Alexandria to the founding of the New York Public Library.) Benjamin’s special rapport with his books can best be understood as an intimate friendship—a relationship that transcends purely functional or utilitarian value, that is, its immediate usefulness. In fact, Benjamin goes beyond this to suggest one may actually enter into a mysterious, even magical, relationship with one’s books.
“The most profound enchantment for the collector is the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed and, as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them.”
Here the man seems to be saying that the text or authorship of a book, the generally “accepted” measure of a work, may not be as interesting as other less quantifiable attributes. Rather it is the totality of a particular book that adds up to a “magic encyclopedia,” whose quintessence is the fate of the object. According to Benjamin, the “fate of the book,” is what excites the real collector. If I follow Benjamin’s logic, what should be thrilling about my copy of The Odyssey of Homer, newly translated into English by T.E. Shaw (Lawrence of Arabia), is not Homer’s tale, or even Shaw’s skills as a translator, but the fact that I found it in on a dreary Sunday afternoon, in a used bookstore, in a depressed river town in New Jersey. Sixty years old and not a blemish; its previous owners treated it well. But what I should perhaps find most pleasing is a tiny sticker stuck on the inside front cover that reads: Wyman & Sons Ltd., 30 High Street, Exeter, Devon. The most meaningful question: How did this book find its way into my hands, and why?
This charming conception of relationships may be unique as Benjamin was himself unique. Still, the joys of acquisition that Benjamin enumerates—an adventure, a hunt, a conquest—are true to the nature of collecting in general. But does it also have a dark side? The notion of a “real” collector suggests an evil twin—the “false” collector, the architect of a counterfeit library. Perhaps the false collector is the one Petroski describes as owners who “believe that volumes on a shelf are like paintings on a museum wall, there to be seen but not touched.”
Roger Chartier, the editor of A History of Private Life, includes in his own article, “The Practical Impact of Writing,” a reproduction of a satirical print engraved in the 17th century. Its caption reads: “The greatest of nature’s fools is he who likes his books all gilt, well covered, well bound nice and clean and dust free, and who never looks at anything but the cover.” The object of this derision was the “bibliophile,” a man who was passionate and sensuous but disinclined to either intellectual or moral instruction. I suspect Benjamin might not have a problem with this man.
Benjamin, a great and original scholar, distinguishes between a scholar and a collector and between a collection and the act of collecting. Lord Chesterfield also made these distinctions but in another context. In a letter to his son Philip, Chesterfield advised, “Buy good books, and read them, but take care not to understand editions and titles pages too well. It always smells of pedantry.” He ended with a warning of the risk of “Bibliomanie.”
John B. Yeats, father of the poet William Butler Yeats, admonished his son, “You don’t fall in love with a woman because she’s beautiful or clever, you fall in love with her because of the way light falls on her hair.” In much the same way, Benjamin’s collector finds himself enamored with dates of publication, place names, formats, previous owners, types of bindings, etc. These details speak to him and not as “dry, isolated facts, but as a harmonious whole.” It is the quality and intensity of this harmony that enables the collector to recognize whether a book is for him or not.
Another theme that may help us to understand this relationship is the notion of books as mementos—objects with the power to transport the collector through time and over space. Benjamin’s books return him to the places of their first happy encounter:
Riga, Naples, Munich, Danzig, Moscow, Florence, Basel, Paris, memories of Rosenthal’s sumptuous rooms in Munich, of the Danzig Stockturm where the late Hans Ghaue was domiciled, of Sussengut’s musty book cellar in North Berlin, memories of the rooms where these books had been housed, of my student’s den in Munich, of my room in Bern…
Compare his recollection with another happy memory, shared by the poet Bill Costley, on finding and acquiring a poem of Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962):
I found the poem in a badly worn, Scotch-taped second-hand copy of the Penguin Signet (first edition, 1948) of Selden Rodman’s “100 American Poems” at Eddie’s Junk Shop in Lynn, Massachusetts’ Brickyard ghetto, around the corner from the New York Model (Jewish) Bakery where my father and I bought Danish pastry and bulkies Sunday mornings after Mass.
Collecting was for Benjamin a competitive sport, and winning a particular item—in a particularly cunning way—added to the thrill. However, the consequence of acquisition was something subtler, “The bliss of the collector, bliss of the man of leisure.”
For me to recall the same thrill—an important acquisition, where I got the better of the seller—would require some thought. Perhaps this comes close: Some time, in the mid-1990s, while trolling the Gotham Book Mart, I picked up a copy of The Poets of the New York Schools, edited by John Bernard Myer. The book, lovely and intriguing, deserved more than a glance. It was the cover that caught my eye.
No words, just a wide-angle black and white photograph of the middle floors of midtown office buildings, their horizontal stories suggesting the bars on a flag. The starkness was irresistible, it made me shudder. It was an image of the city I knew too well from twenty-five years of interviews and meetings. The contributors didn’t excite me—the usual heavily anthologized suspects—John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Barbara Guest and Frank O’Hara. Although here they were photographed by Francesco Scavullo, and different sections of the book were illustrated by gorgeous reproductions of works by Fairfield Porter, Red Grooms, Alex Katz and others. I bought it for $10 and ran out of the store before anyone realized how little I paid for such a treasure.
This memory is true but had to be coaxed out. I cannot explain the lack of emotional commitment with my books. In Basbanes I encountered millennia of feelings for books that run from simple gratitude to intense passion and even the pathological on the part of bibliophiles. While there are poems and lines in poems that have taken residence in my psyche, my attachment to them is something quite apart from my owning the book where the work resides. Here I think of Colette and others referring to the readers at bookstalls along the quais, snatching a chapter or two during their lunch hour. So possession of a book is not a prerequisite to intimacy. Perhaps it’s not that I’m averse to making a commitment; merely I can’t articulate my feelings. We don’t talk about books as people once did. It could also be something else.
To Benjamin, a collector’s attitude toward his possessions stems from an owner’s feeling of responsibility toward his property. From this he concludes that the “most distinguished trait of a collection will always be its transmissibility.”
Two hundred years earlier, John Locke (1632-1704), another collector who considered books his most intimate possessions, demanded that they be passed on to someone who would know how to make good use of them. I don’t know anyone who would be interested in my Jeffers, let alone my copy of Chushin Gura: An Exposition, by Sakae Shioya, even with its Hiroshige’s Coloured Plates.
3. The Library and Study: Real and Imagined Spaces
Chartier also writes of the book as a “companion in a new kind of intimacy” and of the library, “the ideal place for retreat, study and meditation,” as where this intimacy can be explored. He offers an early example of this relationship in the person of Michel De Montaigne (1533-1592), perhaps the most influential literary figure of the French Renaissance. The notion of retreat is especially apt, as Montaigne sold his post as conseiller with the Bordeaux parliament and within a year retired to his father’s château to pursue his own work.
To mark his apotheosis, Montaigne had painted on a wall of his library the following inscription in Latin:
In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, Michel de Montaigne, long since bored with the slavery of parliament and public office but still vigorous, withdrew to lay his head on the breast of the learned Virgins in calm and security; he shall pass the remaining days of his life there. Hoping that fate will allow him to perfect this dwelling, this sweet paternal retreat, he has consecrated it to his freedom, tranquility and leisure.
Retreat is an ambiguous term, and Montaigne’s retreat should not be read as a defeat, exile or aristocratic descent into sloth. (He would later return to serve two terms as Mayor of Bordeaux.) The man retired (another ambiguous word) to engage in private work—to write his “Essays,” for which he is celebrated to this day.
Montaigne’s ambivalence about his role and place in the world could be seen in the design of his library. On the one hand, it afforded him privacy, and on the other, its orientation enabled him to observe the coming and going at the château. As Chartier observed, “Montaigne’s library is a place from which one can see without being seen.” Montaigne described the room simply as “…round, the only flat side being the part needed for my table and chair; and curving around me it presents at a glance all my books.” The man also had carved on the beams various maxims and aphorisms from Ecclesiastes, Sextus Empiricus, Lucretius, and other classical authors and texts. These sayings interest me as they touch on one of the most attractive aspects of a library, namely, its power to place its owner among the illustrious living and dead—immortals and those who are destined to ascend. Here I’d like to make a distinction between the prepositions among and with, as I think it helps us distinguish between “real” collectors of books and mere owners of them. The word among suggests that the collector approaches his books as a participant, even an equal, in the discourse held between the bindings. The owner is simply a consumer of wrappers, a collector of names, and possibly doesn’t see the need to partake of the intellectual fare contained therein.
I would like to return for a moment to Chartier’s notion of the library as a means and place to withdraw from society. He quotes Montaigne: “There is my throne. I try to make my authority over it absolute, and to withdraw to this one corner from all society, conjugal, filial and civil.” It is a very ambitious ambition. Withdrawal is less an act than a wish, one can never really withdraw—the real King from his real throne can summon; illness can, as it did in Montaigne’s case, compel one back into the world in search of a cure. Still, the desire to withdraw is as telling as the choice of shelter is interesting. The practical implications of Montaigne’s withdrawal take two forms: 1) A retreat from the public sphere, with all its attendant duties and responsibilities, and 2) A withdrawal from the domestic realm, from the demands of the family and household.
Chartier sees in the ability to withdraw a special type of power. He compares Montaigne to Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I think it’s an interesting analogy but problematic, too, as Prospero’s library—like that of the famously powerless Benjamin—is not so much a place but a relationship between a man and his books. Prospero’s actual library was a trap—his enemies knew where to find him just as the King knew how to find Montaigne. In the end, Prospero would find shelter, power and redemption, too, in his books—but he also had to return to the world. Withdrawal enabled Montaigne to become Montaigne; withdrawal caused Prospero to lose his dukedom: “My library was dukedom large enough.”
It’s interesting to me that both Chartier and Basbanes recall Prospero and The Tempest, and use Shakespeare, the play and its characters to relate all that goes into a book—its psychological, cultural, economic and political infrastructure, if you will.
As we know, Montaigne’s retreat was not entirely successful either; hence, his “panopticon.” A library then is a concession—a private wish that serves at the pleasure of the world. This very precariousness is what make a library less a private space—where one is left with one’s own thoughts, in the company of one’s imaginary friends—than a psychological dimension—a third sphere, after the public and the private.
I see now that the reason my living room fails as a library is not only the absence of a tender intimacy between my books and me, but also because it doesn’t allow me to withdraw. There is no door to shut out the world. In one corner is my desk on which sits my iMac and its peripherals and with them a constant reminder of my other obligations.
On the third shelf of the second bay of shelves is a flat-screen TV, a Pandora’s box filled with buzzing spectacles. What’s more, my wife’s books share space with mine, as do pictures of her family. Apropos of this recurring theme of intimacy, one must remember its corollary, privacy. Only within an enclosed space can the illusion of privacy be maintained.
It is for this reason we distinguish between a library and a study. A library is more than a large or especially well-appointed study. And, a study, as we will see from the example set by the inimitable Samuel Pepys is more than a library in miniature.
A study is a place to consider and to conduct business—a home office—while the aristocratic library described by Chartier is ultimately a place of leisure. While Pepys and the industrious men (Locke, Newton, Wren, et al.) around him had their entertainments, they did not particularly value leisure. These were men in motion.
The study first entered the private home during the Renaissance. Petroski tells us that the personal study was originally just a corner of one’s bedroom or a small attached room. He describes such a space as “crowded but secure, ideally located in quiet and remote areas of the house.” For his definition of a study, Chartier quotes from Furetière’s Dictionary (1690): “Study: a place of retirement in ordinary homes where one can go to study or to find seclusion and where one keeps one’s most precious goods. A room that contains a library is also called a study.” Perhaps this is what Virginia Woolf actually had in mind when writing “A Room of One’s Own.”
The appearance of the study, in an “ordinary home,” suggests a new class of individuals, professionals and technocrats—people who owned books but who read for more than pleasure. The study, as its humble name implies, is not an aristocratic retreat or an “ostentatious” room for the conspicuous display of one’s learning, but a space for activities, some private, others public. Chartier summons Samuel Pepys to illustrate the purposes of a study. Here, it’s important to state that for the modestly born, supremely capable and ambitious Pepys, his books, like his membership in the Royal Society and other clubs, signified both his success and the social and professional obligations necessary to maintain it.
A library like that of Montaigne’s would have been impossible for Pepys to imagine, let alone afford, although I suspect he would have felt at home in one, at the estates of his patrons, Sir Robert Coke, Edward Montagu or Lord Sandwich.
That Pepys loved books, their contents, their materiality and their accumulation is well documented. His famous Diary is filled with mentions of both his books and his acts of reading.
The man read enthusiastically and eclectically, from learned tomes to pornography. He read in his study, in bed, in taverns and while he walked the city. The appearance of his books and the state of his collection of books were matters of great importance to him, and toward that end he spent large sums on bookbinding and constructing shelves. Eventually Pepys acquired a library of 3,000 volumes that he numbered from 1, the smallest in size, to 3,000, the largest. When he acquired more books than he could shelve under this system, he discarded those that no longer interested him. Petroski reproduces in The Book on the Bookshelf a photograph of one of twelve extant Pepys book presses with books arranged in order according to size (Petroski, 280). Their design suggests not only a Benjamin-like pride in ownership, but also an aesthete’s desire for elegance and the executive’s need for control.
Pepys’ friend John Locke also needed refuge for his books and found it in two rented rooms in his patron’s castle. Locke, a scholar and a philosopher, treated his books like specimens, but also with a great deal of respect. While he marked and labeled them extensively—to improve their usefulness—he never wrote or marked pages that contained text. The kind of care for them he practiced—ritualistic, if not fetishistic—speaks of an intimacy that transcends any practical relationship. While I might be able to follow Pepys’ example, Locke’s would prove impractical.
Conclusion: Exit Libris
To Benjamin, a book offered the most intimate relationship that a collector could have with an object. By his own admission he lived in them. He tells us that his library was not a place, per se, but wherever he was with his books. Chartier does not speak so much of Montaigne’s books—although he alludes to his intimacy with classical writers—as his library. For Montaigne, his library was, of necessity, a physical space, not only where he met his books, but also where he sought the books he most wanted to read—his own. Pepys, as worldly as Montaigne but also more extroverted and ambitious, was as enamored with books and with reading. However, his study was not a necessity in the sense that it was to Montaigne. He was content to read in bed or while walking along the Thames.
Up, at least, to Benjamin’s time, books could be discussed with terms such as magic and mystery—as one spoke of a lover. I believe anyone who spoke that way today would take pains to let us know he or she was speaking metaphorically.
Today, as I search to make sense of my own bibliophilic tendencies, have not doubt that my desire to live with books, both as discrete objects and as part of a library, is more than an attachment to passing culture as it is a repudiation of the privileging of digital and social media. In fact, the more accessible the technology, the more generous its offerings, the cheaper it costs, the less it appeals to me.
While Americans continue to buy books—according to Publishers Weekly (January 6, 2017), total print unit sales in 2016 totaled 674 million, including adult coloring books, religious and self-help titles—I suspect many more are bought than read; more begun than finished, and even fewer discussed. This number suggests something ingrained, perhaps residual lives in us, which tells us a book is important in the way that other media isn’t. Accomplished, rich and powerful men and women feel incomplete without a book with their name spelled out on its cover.
Which is why so many of us are enjoy stories like the one told of the discovery, in a bin of waste paper of all places, of William Claxton’s manuscript translation of the first part of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Lost for 400 years, it was, with great delight, reunited with its better half waiting in the Pepys Library.
Yes, there remains the pleasure in discovery, and Benjamin’s joy in acquisition remains part of our psychic repertoire, too. Saying this, I also believe a private library, like the public libraries, will struggle with what Shannon Mattern identified in her book, The New Downtown Library, as “digitization, dematerialization and decentralization.” I would add demoralization to this list, as reading and collecting become increasingly isolated activities, i.e., few know what I read and fewer care.
When I began to assemble my collection of books by or about Casanova (now numbering 27 titles), I could not say if I was actually preparing a course of study or if I were engaged in an act of defiance. As the books arrived in single volumes, or in sets of two, three, six, and twelve volumes, in elegant privately printed and limited editions, in two different Modern Library versions, as well as cheap and tawdry paperback versions of his famous memoirs, I continually asked myself what I was doing and why.
What was the point other than acquisition? Where was the satisfaction promised by Benjamin, and that I had felt in the past?
Practical concerns, which I had never felt before began to disturb my sleep. Casanova? What was I thinking? Most of the people I know can’t say with certainty whether the man existed or not. If if they had some idea of the man, they confused him with Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni. Hollywood did me no favor either, producing joyless romantic comedies that damned the true man to absolute obscurity.
I continued to collect, organize, and prepare a bibliography with the intention of writing something about the man, and the presence of these books whispers encouragement. But my ambivalence toward this collection and my other books only darkens. On bad days I wonder if every hour lived inside a book pushes me closer to the edge of irrelevance. Each hour spent inside a book is an hour away from streaming movies and episodic television, the media that now tells our stories, shapes our perceptions, and constructs our realities.
But before I accept this Manichaeism divide as inevitable, I want to return for a moment to Chartier’s equation of power and withdrawal. Withdrawal is not meant as passive acceptance of conditions imposed on one; it is actually an act of resistance. We readers, we book buyers and collectors compose the real resistance. The real resistance to what exactly? In a word, inundation. The inundation of images, the inundation of noise, and the ceaseless manufacture of spectacle. We are resisting the loss of self in the vortex of multimedia experience; the reduction of the self to a unit of consumption.
There are so many ways to escape from the world—one can live off the grid, seek pharmaceutical transport, or lose one’s self in immersive video gaming.
But only a few means to withdraw. The real purpose of the private library today is not limited to the getting, preservation and dissemination of knowledge—these would be a consequence of time spent among books. The real and good work of a library is to enable one to withdraw. Books are the only form of art that has not been compromised, the only medium that can slow down the accelerated state—quiet its incessant buzz—and, ultimately to overthrow the tyranny of the perpetual now.
Books enable us to disconnect, to unplug, and to step out of the demographic and the psychographic straitjackets that increasingly limit our movements. Books, more than #resistance, say, “No, I do not belong to you. I am not yours to break and bend and use and discard.” There is no better or more tested and proven technology to both close and open one’s eyes than a book.
Is this too utopian a conclusion?
Allow me to offer an alternative ending: Why then do I and do others persist in flirting with, pursuing and loving books?
I suspect for the same reason that, according to John Yeats, we fall in love. We simply do, and any attempt to explain why will sound foolish at best, and insincere at worst.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space, Trans. Maria Jolas, Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.
Basbanes, Nicholas A. A Gentle Madness, New York: Henry Holtz and Company, 1995.
Benjamin, Walter. “Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting,” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Shocken Books, 1968.
Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (a three-volume boxed edition printed in London in 1933, for the members of the Limited Editions Club.
Brooks, Marshall. The Romance of the Book, Birch Brook Press, 1995.
Chartier, Roger. “The Practical Impact of Writing,” A History of Private Life, Trans. Arthur Goldhammer, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1989.
Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny,” First published 1919, in Imago V (5-6), English Translation, Penguin Books, 2003.
Gissing, George. http://ehlt.flinders.edu.au/english/Gissing/Gissing_HomePage.htm 2007.
Mattern, Shannon. The New Downtown Library: Designing with Communities, Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 2007
Meyer, John B. The Poets of the New York Schools, The Graduate School of Fine Arts, the University of Pennsylvania Press, 1969.
Petroski, Henry. The Book on the Bookshelf, New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1999.
Schulberg, Bud. What Makes Sammy Run, New York: Random House, 2002.
Shaw, T.E. (Lawrence of Arabia), The Odyssey of Homer, New York: Oxford University Press, 1932
Shioya, Sakae. Chushin Gura: An Exposition, illustrated with Hiroshige’s Coloured Plates, Tokyo: The Hokuseido Press, 1956.
Singer, Isaac Bashevis. Shadows on the Hudson, Trans. Joseph Sherman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.
Tomalin, Claire. Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, Inc., 2002.
Winchester, Simon. The Professor and the Madman, HarperCollins Publishers, 1988.