13 December 2008

How to Justify a Private Library


I don’t really have time to write ‘Perceiving the Truth in Shadows & Mirrors, Part II’ today, so here’s something to enjoy in the meantime.

As I see it, aside from storage and transportation, there aren’t many drawbacks to having a lot of books. It has happened many times, however, that upon first seeing some of the bookcases at my house, a visitor has exclaimed, ’Wow! Have you read all of those books?’

I call this a ’drawback’ because it’s an annoying question to have to answer. It assumes that a bookcase is a place to store books once you have read them, whereas in fact, to me it is much more like a toolbench like one keeps in the garage. It is not a depository, but a place to store things one uses often and repeatedly. Many of the books I own are, in fact, not the sort that one simply sits down and reads, rather, they are reference tools like dictionaries and encyclopædias. Also, I frequently acquire multiple versions and editions of a single book in order to consult, whereas I’m not likely to read straight through more than one.

Typically, when confronted with this question, based as it is on mistaken assumptions about the nature of private libraries, I have in the past tried to explain the above points to the visitor, and to do so in a way that is not patronising or condescending. Nevertheless, however well I may hide it, I am almost invariably annoyed.

What a relief it was to discover that I am neither the only bibliophile to be plagued by this silly question, nor the only one to regret having to deal with it. One of my favourite contemporary thinkers, the Italian novelist, essayist, and semiotician, Umberto Eco, has already written a short essay on the subject, from which I derived the title of this blog entry. Furthermore, Eco has already said nearly everything I wish to say, such that I actually considered simply posting his essay here in its entirety. While I believe that I have now adequately addressed the gist of the problem itself in my own words, I think it is still worth posting Eco’s suggestions for possible responses. While they are not as kind as my own long-winded explanations of the nature of the private library, they have the merit of saving a good deal of breath:

In the past I adopted a tone of contemptuous sarcasm. ’I haven’t read any of them; otherwise, why would I keep them here?’ But this is a dangerous answer because it invites the obvious follow-up: ’And where do you put them after you’ve read them?’ The best answer is the one always used by Roberto Leydi: ’And more, dear sir, many more,’ which freezes the adversary and plunges him into a state of awed admiration. But I find it merciless and angst-generating. Now I have falled back upon the riposte: ’No, these are the ones I have to read by the end of the month. I keep the others in my office,’ a reply that on the one hand suggests a sublime ergonomic strategy, and on the other hand leads the visitor to hasten the moment of his departure. (How to Travel with a Salmon and Other Essays, trans. William Weaver [San Diego: Harcourt, 1994], p. 117)

9 comments:

Fr. Luke Hartung said...

Ha! I love Eco's suggestions. Thank you Aaron.

aaronandbrighid said...

Yes, I believe 'And more, dear sir, many more' is my absolute favourite.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Door Number Three, due to the added benefit of shortening the visitor's stay, is going to be useful, I think. (Number Two really is simultaenously the funniest and the truest, though.)

Esteban Vázquez said...

Er, what? No justification whatever is needed for a private library.

(The maintenance man had to come over Friday night to fix the heat, which was distressingly not working; he commented, looking around, "Read much?")

aaronandbrighid said...

Mr Edgecomb> Don't forget that it 'suggests a sublime ergonomic strategy', which is a wonderful thing to want people to think you have.

Mr Vázquez> I perfectly agree that in and of itself the private library needs no justification. But we must have some response, be it only our pregnant silence, when hoi polloi dare to question the fundamental truths of existence.

Basil the Black said...

'A brother said to Abba Serapion, "Give me a word". The old man said, "What shall I tell you? You have taken the living of the widows and orphans and put it on your shelves". For he saw them full of books'.
(Sayings of Serapion)

aaronandbrighid said...

My dear Basil, I'm not sure your Gerontikon reference was really in the best of taste. ;-) Besides, I thought you believed lay people should not try to imitate monks!

Seriously though, I suppose the prophetic voice of conscience is much in need around here, for myself anyway.

Sarah Taylor said...

Aaron - I realize that I don't have near the number of books that you do but I do have my fair share and thus thoroughly enjoyed this blog. I love the feel and smell and words of the book and so I refuse to get one of those Kindle type things. This causes people to remark on the number of books that I travel with in my luggage. The same ridiculous questions are asked of me, "are you going to read all those?" "No, I was just determined to use all 50 pounds of luggage space allotted me." I think I have found my new favorite line though for when people come to my house and see all the books - "And more, dear sir, many more" - because that is funny!! Thanks for posting!

aaronandbrighid said...

Glad you liked it, Sarah--thanks for stopping by! I look forward to hearing about the reactions of your 'adversaries'...

By the way, I filled a whole over-sized duffle bag with books and papers on my last trip to Greece. Oh how I suffer for my obsession!