Sunday, August 16, 2015

On the books, read and unread, on my shelves

One of the first rules you learn if you work in food service is "First in, first out." When, bleary-eyed at 5 AM, you greet the truck that brings the racks of ready-to-boil bagels and vats of cream cheese and load them into the walk-in cooler, you have to rearrange everything, every day, pushing yesterday's supplies to the front and making space to wedge the new stuff in the back. (If you're like I was at twenty, you'll also eat about half a dozen pickles from the man-sized pickle bucket while you're at it. Yum.)

The first in, first out rule is often in the back of my mind when I'm looking over the shelves of my library. I certainly don't come close to practicing such an approach. Does anyone? Though I know there are diligent, focused readers, I have never been of their party, tending more to be in the camp Samuel Johnson describes here:
Idleness is a disease which must be combated; but I would not advise rigorous adherence to a particular plan of study. I myself have never persisted in any plan for two days together.
Combine that with an inveterate habit of haunting bookstores and libraries, and the result is a situation where older books--good, interesting books, books that were brought into the house in the full intention that I would read them--get buried under newer books, and at least some of which will doubtless soon find themselves buried by specimens still more fresh.

Most days, I don't mind this. I'm no scholar; I have no duties to these books or any others. And while it's not wrong to say that there is at least some risk that a new novel left too long may transform, in a was not wholly dissimilar an aged vat of cream cheese, into something less appetizing, it seems far from unreasonable to think that a novel that can't patiently wait its turn is probably a novel that didn't need reading in the first place. If a new book buries a nearly new book, it's a small sin.

Yet there's no question that a pathology, however modest, underlies this. I do not, in any sense, need all these books in my house; I bring them home to read, but I also, no doubt, bring them home . . . simply because I like knowing they're at hand? I'll share one symptom, trusting that it will speak for the whole problem. This photo shows the bookshelves in my office, to which I recently carted all the books I currently have on loan from the University of Chicago Library.

Ahem. I trust I stand convicted. While I do hold to the belief that one's shelves should feature a large proportion of unread books--they are a to-do list and a wish list as much as they are a repository of personal knowledge--there are times when the situation in my library does seem a bit out of hand. Holbrook Jackson, in his Anatomy of Bibliomania (1950), offers citations for both the damning and the defending of a reader who finds his library in a state like mine:
That book-colletcors read not what they buy is a common observation. Every age furnishes evidence of those who hoard books without reading them. One such is reproached by Lucian: "Nobody who knows you," he complains, "would think you do it on account of their helfpfulness, or use, any more than a bald man would buy a comb, a blind man a mirror, a deaf-mute a flute-player, an eunuch a concubine, a landsman an ora, or a seaman a plough." There are many who insist that this is a prime symptom; others stoutly contest the view: "some books are to be read, others are to be collected" (A. Edward Newton); and [Sir Adam] Ferguson as boldly maintains that "the larger number of books are not for reading; their improtance does not depend upon their contents, but upon themselves."
Edmund Gosse, meanwhile, in an essay about his own library, asserts:
Books are not entirely valued or intimately loved unless they are ranged about us as we sit at home.
But then there are those days when by chance I turn away from the stacks of new books and walk my shelves. On those days, after I inevitably discover a forgotten volume that, on its initial entry into my life, brought a shiver of excitement, I resolve, however weakly, to curb my pathology and cut back on new books for a time.

I'm in the midst of one of those spells now, and I'm pleased to say that the first half of August has seen the balance between read and unread books in my house tip ever so slightly to the former. One of the books I dug up, which had been left in a partially read state for years, was Clive James's monumental, staggeringly learned Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts. In his introduction, James writes,
It has always been part of the definition of humanism that true learning has no end in view except its own furtherance.
In a lighter vein, Holbrook Jackson concludes The Anatomy of Bibliomania with:
Go then, choose your book and your time. There is no compulsion. Reading is not a virtue--unless the enjoyment be virtuous.
I agree with both, though I also hope they'll both forgive me if, for this brief late-summer span, I ascribe the tiniest bit of utilitarian virtue to my reading. The situation is still absurd, of course, the balance still deeply tilted to the unread side, but as with so many things in life, merely demonstrating to oneself that one's will can be imposed feels like a victory.


  1. On Goodreads, I always like to keep the number of books on my "read" shelf higher than that of my "to-read" shelf. Right now the count is at 445-441. That four-book buffer is about as high as it's ever been.

  2. I am currently enjoying the exact opposite of what you are experiencing. I have recently graduated from college (English of course) and have a "real" job now. This means I now have no books that "have" to be read combined with a larger margin of expendable income. The result has been a book-buying binge. Literally every week I am purchasing at least one new book, usually more. I think this is going to become a problem.

  3. Oh, congratulations, Laura. I remember that feeling: the minor version of it, experienced in summers working retail, was what convinced me that post-collegiate life would, one way or another, be fine. I do remember the first time that I went to a bookstore after I was no longer working in one and thought, "Even without an employee discount, I can afford to buy some books. The world is good."

    It won't become a problem for a while . . . my wife and I agreed that we would stay in our condo until we ran out of room for books. It wasn't a huge place, and we made it 14 years.

  4. Thanks! And that is certainly good news for me though my boyfriend may feel otherwise. I've just moved from a one bedroom apt. to a two bedroom house and I now have a whole room to fill up with books!! This is going to epic.