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)