Sunday, June 01, 2008

More on Personal Libraries

The regularly-scheduled Links & Reviews post will follow later this afternoon, but I did want to point out today's top reading recommendation: Bard College professor and author Luc Sante's essay in the Wall Street Journal, "The Book Collection That Devoured My Life." Sante writes "Seemingly I've arranged my life in order to acquire as many books as possible," discussing his many avenues of book acquisition, his many moves, and the inevitable necessity of de-accessioning (having just hauled twelve boxes of my own books from Schenectady to Boston and then divesting myself of about nine and a half of them, I understand).

Sante discovered a few things as he weeded his collection: "I owned no fewer than five copies of André Breton's Nadja, not even all in different editions. I owned two copies of St. Clair McKelway's True Tales from the Annals of Crime & Rascality, identical down to the mylar around the dust jacket. I had books in three languages I don't actually read. ... I also had no need for books with funny titles, books acquired only because everybody else was reading them, books with no value except as objects, and books that inspired a vague sense of dread whenever they caught my eye -- possible cornerstones of culture that nevertheless only solitary confinement would ever compel me to read."

He finds he likes the variety offered by books (although, like me, he wishes more were printed smaller - I've often said that all coats ought to offer at least one pocket that will hold a trade paperback comfortably): "thin little plaquettes, 16-volume histories, drugstore potboilers, privately printed crank pamphlets, ancient volumes in unknown languages, sleek new art editions with lots of white on the pages, forgotten doctoral dissertations from German universities in the 1880s, pornography bought by sailors in Tijuana, technical publications with wildly recondite diagrams... I remember a cartoon I saw as a child in which the books jumped off the shelves and had themselves a party in the bookstore in the middle of the night. Bookcases that hold the greatest diversity seem to present that as a real possibility."

Fascinatingly, Sante shelves his books of literature chronologically (which probably makes more since than the crazy way LC does it - my fiction is simply shelved alphabetically by author), and in this essay he takes the opportunity to highlight a few of his "collections": books about Gypsies, for example, or vaudeville, or pre-1940 books illustrated with photographs. And he makes a good, maybe even excellent point about the value of a personal research library: "books function as a kind of external hard drive for my mind -- my brain isn't big enough to do all the things it wants or needs to do without help." And finally, he comments on the coming of the e-reader and the future of the book with a very apt conclusion ... which you'll have to go read for yourself.

[Also note the sidebar, which contains a short "history of private libraries" and some stats from LibraryThing.]