Library Science:
Just In Case
16 April 2015

And so the last boxes left the apartment. Three of them were filled with plastic bricks. Our new balcony is somewhat larger than a third the size of the balcony upstairs. Our good friend and former ‘cross-the-hall neighbor has a balcony that’s the same size as our new one, and we gave her enough bricks to pave it. The remainder filled three book boxes and half of a garbage bag. I’ve held on to the garbage bag, but the boxes are gone.

Some of the nine boxes of books had not been opened in this apartment. One of them was marked “Trollope,” and it contained very little else. I know where to go if the urge to read about Barset or the Pallisers overcomes me. I expect that it won’t — not anytime soon. I did re-read Orley Farm in the summer of 2012, and I did enjoy it, but I had been reading the “sensational” novels of Wilkie Collins, and was primarily interested in comparisons. I can’t remember the young lady’s name — the inevitable Trollope virgin who falls in love once and for all — but she was relatively plausible, making appearances so widely spaced that I never quite tired of her, and could just tolerate the loitering fragrance of Trollope’s unpleasant high-mindedness about girls. It will tickle me no end if I manage to overlook this kink and live to rediscover a fondness for Trollope. For the moment, his novels are safe in storage.

Why am I keeping the bricks and the books? Why not just let them go?

The bricks are not available anymore. In a year or so, I may accept the unlikeliness of our ever needing the bricks in the boxes, but right now all I can think is that I should never forgive myself if the need arose and I were no longer able to supply it. It’s for this reason that I’m still holding on to the top of my mother’s glass-fronted breakfront cabinet. Once again, I believe that the course of the year to come will see changes in my thinking on this issue. “Just in case” is an inversely spendthrift principle.

As to keeping the books, I understand the meaning of a personal library less and less every day. When I was growing up, they were, at least in the eyes of people I admired, unambiguous boons. There was nothing wrong with having a lot of books. Books were, overwhelmingly, the principle source of information. They were also solid evidence of learning. (What about people who never read the books they owned? Their amalgamations of volumes might just as well have been stamped, “For Show, Vol XXIII” or “Fake, Tenth Edition.”) And books were unbreakable; they were forever. Physical books arrayed on physical shelves — ideally, an arrangement of wood on wood — were timeless artifacts of the permanent world that both precedes and survives us.

That was then. Books are now rather unreliable sources of information. Dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases — they’re no more in general demand than are telephone directories (which used to be an important resource in every major public library). I doubt that scholars will ever manage to do without dictionaries altogether, but for ordinary purposes it makes much more sense to turn to a smartphone. Encyclopedias and atlases go quickly out of date, or would do if anyone were still printing them. Yes, I understand that the Internet is unreliable, too; but it’s early days for the Internet; we’re where books were in 1500. (Books could be ludicrously unreliable in 1500.)

Somehow, “timeless artifacts” have degenerated to “stuff nobody touches from one year to the next.” I wince to think how often a shelf of mine has been sorted and catalogued, only to proceed into undisturbed limbo until the next round of sorting and cataloguing, years later. Books take virtual root: having occupied space in a bookcase confers upon them the right to go on occupying space. The presence of certain books in certain places becomes reassuring without regard for the usefulness of their contents or the grace of their language. Few possessions transform themselves into fetish objects as frictionlessly as books do.

We have become much less patient about the evidence of learning. A wall of books is too indirect. Open your mouth, and show


Even though I understand how the sands have shifted beneath my bookshelves, I nevertheless grew up in a time when libraries were greatly respected. I feel rather like a hereditary grandee of the Holy Roman Empire must have done after World War I. Napoleon had put an official end to the Empire a hundred years earlier, but now the constituent territories were thrown completely out of alignment with the old order. Austria became unthinkably insignificant. About a third of Hungary went to Romania, not to mention the loss of Slovakia. Who even knows where Pomerania was anymore — Pomerania, Silesia, Galicia, all gone. Countless aristocrats became Counts of Nowhere. Lots of smart people today are no less eager to wish good riddance to the old rubbish of books.

And why do I have the books that I have? Why do I keep some of them a mile away in a dark room? How do I decide whether to stand a book at the edge of the shelf, and thus to have it handy, or to stack it horizontally behind the ones in front, so that I can forget its existence? I have written about these matters for years now, and I’m forced to the conclusion that the only explanation is varnished caprice. Right now, such and such a book fits well in the orbits of my mind, but it might not do so in a year or two: so much for timelessness.

All of a sudden, holding on to books just in case I might want to re-read them is looking both untenable and idiotic. Surely there must be some principle to guide and govern the maintenance of a personal library. Have I been looking in the wrong places?