Thursday, February 28, 2008

Of Personal Libraries and Bookshelves

David Keeps has an article in today's LATimes Design section about home libraries - or, more specifically about the demand for "faux libraries" (in the form of shelves which look like books, "a 3-foot-wide hand-painted mural that resembles shelves of books in an arched case", or "inexpensive room dividers ... that are painted to resemble rows of bookshelves"). These substitutes, Keeps writes, may give bibliophiles fits, but they "bear a post-modern sense of humor and irony that depart from the 'books by the yard' approach" (which give more severe fits).

The article also touches on the (growing) role of library consultants like Nick Harvil, who for $45 an hour "will appraise books and create extensive bibliographies based on clients' passions. He also can help organize and present a collection." Keeps concludes by profiling some upscale personal libraries in the LA area, including that of bookdealer Victoria Dailey, who told him "'Collectors are idealists, and a library is a way of perfecting and ordering the world,' she says, sitting in a red leather reading chair in one of her libraries. 'Being in here, I feel that this is the way the universe would be if I was in charge.'" Sounds about right (as does the phrase "one of her libraries"- heh). (h/t LISNews)

But which books, exactly, belong in those great personal libraries? Caleb Crain leaps into that discussion over at Steamboats Are Ruining Everything, bouncing off several recent pieces on this subject (beginning with Time blogger Matt Selman's "Unabridged Rules for Library Management," continuing with Ezra Klein's response to Selman, and concluding with an Inside Higher Ed piece by Scott McLemee).

Selman's personal rule, given at the start of his very amusing post, is: "It is unacceptable to display any book in a public space of your home if you have not read it." Klein replies, in an equally amusing post: "No, this is all wrong. Bookshelves are not for displaying books you've read -- those books go in your office, or near your bed, or on your Facebook profile. Rather, the books on your shelves are there to convey the type of person you would like to be. I am the type of person who would read long biographies of Lyndon Johnson, despite not being the type of person who has read any long biographies of Lyndon Johnson. I am the type of person who is very interested in a history of the Reformation, but am not, as it happens, the type of person with the time to read 900 pages on the subject. More importantly, I am the type of person who amasses many books, on all sorts of subjects. I’m pretty sure that’s what a bookshelf is there to prove. The reading of those books is entirely incidental."

McLemee declares Klein's terms "no less categorical – though hardly more sensible" than Selman's; he adds "There is bravery in such candor. The word 'poseur' is still around, after all, even if the people who study consumer behavior, and try to channel it, have coined the kinder and gentler term 'aspirational taste' for this sort of thing." McLemee says Selman and Klein's shared assumption ("that book ownership can, and indeed should, serve as a medium for displaying something important about yourself") is foreign to him. To McLemee, "Bookshelves are storage; that is all. The idea of using them for 'display' seems cute and improbable." And one shouldn't feel guilt about having unread books, he says, because that's life.

Delightfully, McLemee ends his essay by quoting Francis Bacon, who was the first of many to say "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention." McLemee extends the riff: "Likewise for bookshelves. Many items there are staples. Others are ingredients that, like salt, are only good in combination with something else. Some things you keep around are healthy, if not very tasty, while a few might count as junk food. (A couple of scholarly presses are indeed known for their Pop-Tarts.) And it’s hardly a decent pantry if you don’t have a few impulse purchases you later regret, or gourmandizing experiments that didn’t quite pan out. No formal rule can determine what belongs on the shelf and what doesn’t. It is, finally, a matter of taste."

Caleb picks up where McLemee leaves off: "If you are an open-minded reader, you'll end up with books you once intended to read but haven't so far and maybe, now that you know a little more about yourself and about the books in question, shouldn't." Does this mean they should be pitched? Again, a matter of taste, Caleb suggests, having just come out of a fit of, as he puts it, "Throwing Books Out" (by which he means reselling them, not actually throwing them out except in the most necessary of circumstances). As tastes and interests change (with the consequent needs for free shelf space), of course books once of the highest importance can be deaccessioned in favor of newly-important tomes. Caleb ends by noting "I will say, though, that as with Scott, the selection process for me doesn't have that much to do with how I want others to see me. The underlying principle seems to be the kind of work and play I am looking forward to."

I'm with Scott and Caleb more than the original bloggers on this one. First, I've not read probably half of the c. 1,400 books currently in my apartment. Do I feel guilty about that? Nope. Do I wish I had more free time so I could read more of them? Every single day. But I don't want to read them because I feel guilty about having them unread, it's because I acquired them with the goal of someday reading them. No, I'm not quite delusional enough to think that I'll ever have the opportunity to read every book I currently own (even if I didn't ever allow myself to get another one - an utterly laughable proposition if there ever was one - it probably wouldn't be possible), but I know they're there if I want them. Some of those I own now may get traded in or sold before I get to them: again, that's life.

So no, I've no guilt at owning books I haven't read ... but also none of Ezra's, what does Scott call it, "aspirational taste," either. My books (well, the non-rare ones, anyway - those are a different story) are there to be read or referenced, not to make a statement. My library is utilitarian, not flashy. But it gets the job done and keeps the books off the floor (or in my case, out of the brown paper bags they lived in until the shelves arrived this summer).

Sharing one's library with the world is made all the easier these days by LibraryThing, wonderfulThing that it is. A debate similar to that begun by Matt and Ezra's posts has raged there since the site's earliest days: should one catalog only the books currently owned? Or should any book read be included, even if borrowed, since sold, or whatever. My own library on there contains only the books I have in my possession; as soon as a book leaves my shelves, it leaves my LT catalog too. But others disagree heartily, using their catalogs to list the books they've read, or even those they only want to read. That's the beauty of a personal library: tangible or virtual, it is your own, and it can be seasoned to suit any taste.


Unknown said...

The significant distinction here is that many of the people mentioned in the various articles/blogs are not book collectors, and do not understand what it means to be a collector. For those people, books are utilitarian only, to be disposed of and forgotten. They don't see the beauty in books as art objects unto themselves. I actually feel sorry for those people. And to Sara Nelson at Pub'rs Weekly: I actually have read my "cliche" Shakespeare and Thackery collection. She might find that they write a bit better than Danielle Steel and look a lot nicer on the bookshelf.

Unknown said...

Sorry - I sometimes forget that these are long-dead authors, since they are such a part of my everyday life. I meant to say that Shakespeare and Thackeray were much better authors than Steele and her ilk. "Wrote", not "write". Oops.Was too feverish in my defense of collectors to notice the typos.

JBD said...

Jill - yes, indeed. I consider myself as having two separate "collections" of books: one for reference and pleasure (things I'm interested in now or keep around to consult as I need to - plus my fiction) and a separate body of rare books that I've collected because they're special to me for some reason. Someone (I can't remember who just now) said that the true sign of a collector is buying a book you know you'll never read ... I have several. But that's not the same as buying books to look pretty on a shelf and not caring a bit about them beyond the condition or color of the spines.

annajcook said...

. . .I acquired them with the goal of someday reading them

I won't pretend I've quite mastered my guilt over unread books in my personal library, but I appreciate the sentiment! And this reminded me of a passage from Nick Hornby's book of essays on reading, The Polysyllabic Spree, in which he describes finally reading a book he'd owned for years--just because his kid happened to pull it off the shelf and leave it on the floor, and when Nick passed by it looked interesting. He writes: "with each passing year, and each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not . . ."

Nice post :).