Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Meaning of My Library

I have never counted the books in my personal library. Indeed, the total figure grew within the last few weeks after the library's book sale. I'm nervous, though, that the number of unread outnumber the read.

Maybe this isn't all bad. If I had read them all, where would be the fun of browsing my library for the next book to read? An argument could be made for disposing of all books already read. Save those one might want to return to for reference.

A personal library, though, is so much more than a grouping of books either read or unread. The books are there to tell the observer something about the library's owner. Even if that observer is the owner. I don't get many observers down to my basement office where most of my library is confined, but I still enjoy looking over my books. The various titles, the colored spines, remind me not only of the stories within, but also of the person I was at the time. Various bits of my collection remind me of who I was an who I think I am.

Not my library. You can tell by the Ken Follett and the Janet Evanovich.
To see on my shelf Updike's The Afterlife, I remember the day of waiting for jury duty. To see Celine's Journey to the End of the Night, I'm reminded of two distinct points in my life when I read the novel. The first time makes me recall an early morning after a late night, drinking coffee downtown watching the business world start up its day.  The second time, I was well ensconced in that business world. Or McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, devoured while laying on the couch of my current home.

When visiting someone's house, I am drawn to the books on their shelves. Yes, I am judging them by what they've chosen to put on display. The books there are meant to be a representation of the owner. And if there is a disregard for which books are on the shelves for public display, that tells me something (disappointing) too.

In an article, "Shelf Life", in last week's New Yorker, James Wood explores the meaning and meaninglessness of our libraries. He sums up the sentiment thus:

Libraries are always paradoxical: they are as personal as the collector, and at the same time are an ideal statement of knowledge that is impersonal, because it is universal, abstract, and so much larger than an individual life.

The books on my shelf mean something to me not only because they represent me to myself, but because they represent me to the observer as well. And as personal as the identity that is created can be, it is in the universal that it finds meaning. But, as Wood asks,"Isn't a private library simply a universal legacy pretending to be an individual one?"

A library is a showcase and I've known more than one person who has used bookshelves to demonstrate superiority. Some would likely say I'm guilty of the same. The trashy novels are relegated to a bookshelf in the guest room.

Where, though, does this universality go when all of these titles are contained in a small piece of electronic hardware? Do I care about the representation they form? I would say they mean significantly less.

When books are commoditized, stripped of their physical presence, their abstract value is reduced. They have no presence. They are experiential only. We have the pleasure of reading and the meaning found in the words, but those e-ink letters don't represent me in the same way a book, those same words on paper and bound between covers, does. The electronic list of titles, browsed with a push of a button, does not please me, does not force recall of memories and desire, as much as does a simple glance at my shelves.

The materialism of it is something that probably gives many book owners/collectors worry. There are many books on my shelves that I will never open again. But still they are there to tell me something. They are there, though, to give me pleasure, to help me recall the stories within and the stories of my own life when I read the book. And it real is this pleasure that matters. It is this pleasure that gives my library meaning.

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