For the past decade or so I’ve spent a considerable amount of time and money building a personal library. Like a lot of people, I’ve dreamt of having one of those rooms full of books where one can go and escape from the world for a while. I read once, I cannot remember where, that the reader does not so much as shut himself off from the world as he goes inside himself where the world cannot get in. For me, I do not really want to escape the world as much as I want to practice some sort of deep submersion into the self. As a professor of literature I can justify the time and the cost of book collecting; after all and in a manner of speaking, I am in the business of books and have labored hard at making literature my life’s work. I even began reviewing books in order to justify reading contemporary fiction at an alarming rate. I also needed a space where I could go and write without interruptions. Writing demands solitude and quiet, so when you have a house with two small children finding such a place to write becomes invaluable. The house we live in now has a loft that I have made my library. For the past eight years I have been able to enjoy the solitude and quiet of the third floor, cut off from everything and everyone else. Meanwhile, my two children, a boy and a girl, have been sharing a room. However, now that my son is ten and my daughter five, my wife has informed me that it’s time to separate them and give them a room of their own; all of which means that my loft library and study will have to move.
For the last week my wife and I have been dismantling the library and moving books to various places throughout the house. For a while we thought that a great deal of the collection would have to go into storage. I am not ashamed to admit that I did not take this news well and acted badly. For weeks I moped and went around the house like a condemned man, because that is what I felt like: condemned. Not only would I be losing access to my book collection, I would also be losing my writing room. Reading and writing, as well as the thinking that takes place there, are solitary endeavors. Other than teaching and certain administrative duties, the work I do demands large amounts of solitude. I can work fairly well in a noisy house, but I need to be left alone to do what I need to do. Having my library dismantled and distributed throughout the house is not a disaster on a major scale, but it is disastrous nonetheless.
For the past several years I have been actively collecting modern first editions. As anyone can tell you, book collecting, of any type, takes up considerable space in one’s home. Because of my obsessive collecting we have outgrown our current home. Yet the thought of moving is exhausting. Furthermore, I do not have the discipline to curb my book buying. But having enough space for one’s books is only part of the problem when buying valuable editions. One also has to have the right conditions. Heat and humidity are deadly. Dust and the possibility of mice invading and eating through one’s collection are also potential threats. I’ve always been conscious of the fact that with two small children by books would be in constant danger. After all, anything can happen. To date, nothing really catastrophic has occurred. My children have realized that my books are as much a part of me as an arm or a leg. Therefore, they have been respectful when around my books. Now all of that may be changing. The collection will no longer be protected by its designated space on the third floor.
For book collectors, the various electronic readers currently on the market cannot solve the problem of space. I do own an iPad that contains nearly one hundred books, but I use this mainly for travel. Not having to pack a few books for a trip now means that I will have extra space in my luggage for new books to bring home. Also, and perhaps more important, no self-respecting book collector will count an electronic library as a “real” library. As popular as electronic readers are today, nothing can take the place of the look, feel, and scent of a well stocked room inhabited by books. Digital libraries do have their uses, but I suspect that the physical book still has a long life ahead.
Surrounding oneself with books is magical. It’s like being enclosed in a sort of enchanted circle that insulates the reader from the storms and chaos of the outside world. One only needs to open any edition at random and he or she can be transported to foreign lands and meet all walks of life. Moreover, the books themselves tell many stories. I can recall where I purchased almost every book in my collection, as well as the person who sold me the book. Sometimes, when I get really lucky, I will find a receipt or a name of the previous owner inscribed on the inside cover. I used to erase this, but now I think of this as another story the book in my possession is now telling. One of my most valuable books has a stamp on the back inside cover from Librairie Galignani, the oldest English language bookstore in Paris. I discovered this almost by accident and purchased the book for the stamp alone.
The question that is always asked of collectors like myself is “Have you read all of these books?” The answer is more complicated than a simple yes or no. I have not read all of the books in my collection, but then, I do not know every waking thought of my wife and children either. Some books one must own just in case one might need to consult that book sometime in the future. For example, I own a very nice copy of Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. This is a book I purchased not to read right away but to have in case I needed to read it. I’ve opened it and read passages at random, but I’ve yet to delve deeply into the text. Books add something to a room as well. They add character and a collection will tell you more about the reader than almost anything else. The first thing I glance at when walking into someone’s home is the bookshelf. I am not ashamed to admit that I also judge people (sometimes harshly—you readers of Mitch Albom and Nicholas Sparks!) by the books found on their shelves. Books make the person, after all.
Thomas Jefferson famously (or perhaps more accurately, infamously because he went deep into debt on account of his book buying) declared: “I cannot live without books.” It seems fitting to me that the essential part of a president’s legacy is the building of a presidential library. A library, however small or large, does represent a legacy to those who may want to inherit that library. For me, now that my own library is in the process of being scattered throughout the house, as well as a great number of paperbacks going to my already book filled office on campus, I will just have to wait until my kids are old enough to leave the nest, which I am in no hurry for them to do, or start getting serious about searching for a bigger space. So, I hope you will excuse me if I seem more scatter brained than usual, but as my book collection is dismantled and reorganized in various locations, and my writing room moves, so my mind will have trouble keeping itself together.