So the maintenance man walks into my apartment a few years ago, butt-crack and all, ready to fix my air-conditioning, which had just conked out for the third time that summer. He takes a look around at the bookshelves and asks the question everybody always asks me: “Have you read all these books?”
My answer then is the same as it is now: “No, but I’m going to.” It’s funny, but most people believe a full bookshelf represents books already read, a task accomplished, rather than a task being accomplished. My shelves certainly contain books I’ve read that I’m not likely to go back to for a while: The Passage, by Justin Cronin, for instance, or David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet. But my shelves also contain dozens of books I have not read yet, and many books that I dip into only occasionally. Steven Runciman’s great three-volume History of the Crusades still waits for me, years after I bought it. I know it’s great because Runciman hooked me after the first chapter, but I realized then that it was a work which demands an uninterrupted stretch of time to enjoy–a stretch I have yet to find.
The modern-day name we’ve given to the place we put such books is the TBR pile. Amanda Nelson’s recent defense of it over at Book Riot is vigorous, but I think the questions and problems raised by the piles of to-be-read books that we all possess are actually richer, and potentially more satisfying in their solution, than Nelson’s article suggests. We are living in a golden age for books. They are available to us everywhere and in every form: hardback, paperback, online texts, e-books, audiobooks. If we want to read something, by golly, we can find it, and we can often choose how we want to read it. Paradoxically, however, the sheer availability of books in their many forms has led to an increase in the disposability of books, and a corresponding decline in the possession of what used to be regarded as a noble thing: the personal library.
The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, but its starting point was the personal collection of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson had the advantages of wealth and education, of course, in building up his library, but one of the many benefits of extending the opportunity of education to all in this country for the last two hundred years is the freedom anyone has to build a library of her own, enjoy it, and pass it on, if she wishes.
I began collecting books seriously when I entered college. Making a collection in a particular field, exciting as that may be, never appealed to me. I wanted instead to collect and read as widely as possible; to build a collection of such depth that, as a former colleague of mine put it, “I’d never have to go to a library again.” Some books I’ve owned, such as The Oxford Classical Dictionary, were meant for reference or browsing. Others, such as Runciman’s books, or Robert Caro’s magisterial multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, were meant to be read. To be sure, I’ve violated my principles many times and built up small collections in fields that were important to me personally or professionally: you may have my books on Milton and Shakespeare after you pry them from the fingers of my corpse. Yet, I’ve never wavered from the idea of creating a library that anyone could step into and enjoy.
In creating that library, I was in a very real sense creating my life. I was building a set of books that would sustain me not just for the present moment, but for years to come. Because I conceived of my library that way, time was irrelevant. The books I wanted to read would be there when I was prepared to read them, not when someone told me I should read them. Yes, I could have read Walter Jackson Bate’s biography of Samuel Johnson twenty years before I did, but I would not have appreciated Johnson’s astonishing courage, or Bate’s ability to reveal it to me. There was also another, deeper idea in play. The books I chose represent not just my interests–Renaissance literature, history, science fiction–they represent the connections I wished to make to those people who came before me. In reading Arnold Stein’s Answerable Style, I was touching the life not only of my honorable teacher of Milton, but also the life of the man who taught him, Harvard’s great professor of Renaissance Literature, Douglas Bush. Our bookshelves reveal not merely who we were and who we are; they reveal who made us, and who we are becoming.
To be sure, there is the problem of too many books and too little time. Winston Churchill, who wrote every day of his busy life, understood the dilemma and suggested that if a man couldn’t read his books, he ought at least handle them once a year. That’s a more valuable suggestion than it appears: in going through our books, we may discover treasures we didn’t remember we had. My copy of Theodore Sturgeon’s novel, More Than Human popped up in a sock drawer just last night. And though I am firmly in the camp of those who would never part with a book, time usually makes us part with them, whether we want to or not. I’ve parted with about 500 books twice in my life, once out of financial need, and once almost a decade ago when Hurricane Katrina flooded my apartment in New Orleans East. In each case, the loss of those books brought me pain, but it couldn’t be helped. In both cases, I was comforted by the idea of inheritance. Abraham Lincoln owned a library, too, I told myself. Most of it was in his head, as is a good deal of mine.
Our libraries serve as the preservers of our culture. More than that, however, they transmit that culture from one generation to the next. But even as Thomas Jefferson and the other members of America’s founding generation were contributing to the public institution of the library, they realized that that task was far too complex, far too important to be left solely in the hands of those who run those institutions, no matter how wonderful those institutions may be. We who own private libraries–quirky and eclectic, broad and magnificent–also share in that task. Our libraries, encompassing the books we’ve read and the books we’re going to read–stand as the last, best gift we can give to ourselves and to those who will come after us.