Wednesday 27 February 2008

Of the displaying of many books, there is no end

Matt Selman (of The Simpsons fame) has a delightful post on the rules of bookshelf etiquette, including the rule that “it is unacceptable to display any book in a public space of your home if you have not read it.” Then Ezra Klein responded with a humorous rejoinder: “Bookshelves are not for displaying books you’ve read. Rather, the books on your shelves are there to convey the type of person you would like to be.”

And now Scott McLemee responds by insisting that bookshelves exist simply for storage rather than for performance-of-self. And he makes this nice point: “My experience (which can’t be unique) is that some books end up accumulating out of a misguided attempt to win the approval of authors already well-entrenched on my shelves.”

In my home right now, we’re trying to build a new study, since we’ve run out of room. So in my present circumstances – crammed into a corner of a noisy living room, hunched nervously at my desk between tottering piles of books – I’ve discovered that there is only one essential rule of library management: Don’t bump the books with your elbow, or they will topple down and crush you.


Looney said...

When I visit a person's house or office, one of the first things I like to do is to observe the books that are there. If he doesn't know the contents of his books and can't discuss them, he is obviously a pretentious phony.

Having said that, many of the books in my house were inherited from my parents and grandparents, and, well, um, I haven't bothered to read many of them. Several others were left here by my kids due to insufficient room in the dorm. The worst is when you receive a book as a gift that you don't want to read, but politeness compels you to keep it on the bookshelf in case this person returns.

Anonymous said...

George Caird used to say (though I think he was quoting someone else) that you can tell a lot about ministers from their bookshelves - including when they died theologically.

I highly recommend Pierre Bayard's recent How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read (2007). It is so très français, full of brilliance, banter, and bullmerd (the trick is telling which is which). I bought it and devoured it in a day (it's a real page-turner), but according to Bayard, in keeping with his thesis, it doesn't matter: "as I will argue, it is sometimes easier to do justice to a book if you haven't read it in its entirety - or even opened it" (p. xv). "Among specialists," he continues, "mendacity is the rule, and we tend to lie in proportion to the significance of the book under consideration" (p. xv). And Bayard concludes his preface thus: "Our relation to books is a shadowy space haunted by the ghosts of memory, and the real value of books lies in their ability to conjure these specters" (p.xix). The book's biggest piss-take is that Bayard pursues his thesis through close attention to books he has certainly read.

Anonymous said...

Another enjoyable read on this theme is Umberto Eco's witty little essay, "How to Justify a Private Library." Eco makes the crucial point that a library is a working tool, and not simply a collection of books one has read.

Anonymous said...

Great quote Kim! Ben, I find it difficult too 'balancing' the books so to speak. Then, just when you have resigned yourself to not buy anymore books, an email appears from the Adelaide College of Divinity announcing their annual books sale! This year including the library of a former arch bishop. I guess it will be interesting to see when he died theologically!

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Fun! I love the illustration, too.

(Ben, send me an email, please. I have a question for you, offline.)

Anonymous said...

Before becoming addicted to F&T, I always had a small pile of books-to-be-read beneath my desk to the left of my chair, maybe three or four tops. Then that pile grew until it reached the desk's drawers - and I began another pile to its right. Then a pile behind that. And now another pile has begun next to that one. Over thirty books now in my "in-tray". It's crazy, I know - such are obsessions. But now I use the latest pile for devotions during the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent, as a memento mori: I look at at, and as my eyes move from top to bottom, I sense that I will be dead before I get to the last book.

Meanwhile there is the grief of having to cull books from my shelves - there is no more room, even with wedging and stacking, unless I want to risk premature death-by-toppling (as Ben mentions). I am then confronted with "Kim's choice" - the invidious, agonising choice of deciding which old friends die first (most of them are liberals, which is especially sad for the non-realists like Don Cupitt who don't believe in the resurrection).

There's an old Jewish saying that shrouds have no pockets. Nor do graves have libraries. Maybe Ben will be good enough to start a fund for me to buy a mausoleum.

byron smith said...

Libraries ought to be collections of read and unread, that way, when looking for a book you've already read, you keep discovering new possibilities, and when looking for some new to read, you remember old friends (and enemies!).

Anonymous said...

Very poetic Byron! When I mentioned this to my wife she just said, "yeah right!" We still don't have room for all of the books!!! I do think the importance of a pastoral library has diminished in recent decades as have pastoral academics (at least within my tradition) Sigh!

Michael Anthony Howard said...

I have had this kind of conversation with others often. I am like Looney..."When I visit a person...I like to...observe the books..." I think books are a sign of the interests, thoughts and goals of an individual.

I ask myself, "Why do I get the books I get." Often I borrow some books from the Library and others I buy. Truthfully, I think of the books I buy in two ways, more like goals to be achieved:

(1) Have you seen the Matrix? There is the part where Neo quickly ingests the knowledge he needs through this program?

(2) Have you seen the Lawnmower Man? A similar situation.

I would like to just be able to have all the information that is on my shelf in my head already so I can use it. I have read about 75% of my books. Mostly, about 75% finished in each one.

Anonymous said...

You know the old retort to the person who looks at your shelves and asks, "Have you read all those books?" Answer: "Some of them two or three times."

Anonymous said...

Entertaining post.

My love for books was deeply influenced by my Latin teacher and her husband. If you removed too many books from their house, I am quite certain the walls would collapse.

I shamelessly buy books that I know I won't read for many years. I call it saving for retirement!

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