A shocking moment in a recent conversation: A professor of my acquaintance said that he’d gotten rid of almost all his books. Why books, he said, when there’s Kindle?
Randall Jarrell voiced his misgivings this way: “Sometimes when I can’t go to sleep at night I see the family of the future. Dressed in three-tone shorts-and-shirt sets of disposable Papersilk, they sit before the television wall of their apartment, only their eyes moving. After I’ve looked a while I always see – otherwise I’d die – a pigheaded soul over in the corner with a book; only his eyes are moving, but in them there is a different look.”
I can’t help but feel, still, that Kindle is only one step away from a computer screen, which is one step away from a television screen. In fact, perhaps Kindle may be closer to the television screen to begin with, since both reading a book and watching TV are essentially passive activities. So … why does the tactile quality of the book, which at least offers the interactivity of turning the pages, seem so much less deadening than staring at a screen, any screen? Why does it seem so quietly redeeming?
And why does book addiction seem the most forgivable of compulsions? Gabe Habash describes his own habit in Publishers Weekly‘s “The Wonderful and Terrible Habit of Buying Too Many Books“:
If book buying addiction wasn’t a real thing, articles like this and this wouldn’t exist, and searching for “book clutter” on Google wouldn’t turn up 18 million results. Most of the articles are about a book lover, searching for obstructed light switches and tripping over wobbly stacks, finally saying “enough” and resolving to trim the fat, these being, more often than not, the library’s duplicates and never-will-reads or already-read-and-didn’t-really-likes.
My library has received its fair share of criticism. I gingerly proposed adding another shelf near the doorway of my roommate’s bedroom door, and I received a pretty impassioned response as a result. When my friend Matt comes over, he likes to engage in a favorite pastime called “You’re Never Going to Read That,” which involves him standing in front of the bookshelves with his chin haughtily tilted up and suddenly pointing at books that he thinks are stupid and that, for the life of him, he can not imagine why I have. “I think I have too many books,” I said once, and he said, “Okay I’ll help you out,” and quickly reached for House of Leaves.
Well, we’ve written about bookshelf porn before, and featured book furniture here and here. The craving for more books links inevitably to the need for a space to put them in. So Habash raises a bigger, more philosophical issue, apart from needing more understanding friends than Matt & co.:
But despite the fact that I probably have too many books, despite the fact that I am running out of room, I’m not sold on the notion of purging my library. The reason is this: most of the library consists of books I haven’t read (I did inventory for this article: I’ve read 85 out of the 371 books sitting on my shelves). In “Unpacking My Library,” Walter Benjamin shares this anecdote:
And the non-reading of books, you will object, should be characteristic of all collectors? This is news to me, you may say. It is not news at all. experts will bear me out when I say that it is the oldest thing in the world. Suffice it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question, “And you have read all these books, Monsieur France?” “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sevres china every day?”
I couldn’t agree more. Why would you want to have in your library only books you have read? Isn’t the whole point of a library to provide objects for contemplation in your solitary hours, the thrill of new discoveries on an otherwise humdrum rainy day? And for the writer, a book collection is a research library on Sundays, holidays, and at 3 a.m., and more comprehensive than what scattershot google searches can ever offer. How many sleepless hours have been devoted to thoughtful book browsing!
And should the Big One strike, and the earth shake my shelves around my ears … I die happy. Until the last battery dies within my flashlight while I hunker in the cave of books, I would contentedly read all those volumes I bought and never got round to finishing – William Anderson‘s Dante: The Maker comes immediately to mind, or Aleksander Wat‘s My Century. But so do many other books that I never even started. Edith Grossman‘s translation of Don Quixote, for example.
As Winston Churchill said: “If you cannot read all your books, at any rate handle, or as it were, fondle them – peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them at any rate be your acquaintances.”
Perhaps I could even finish his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, vol. 1.