Tuesday, March 27, 2012


March 27, 2012:

A cold day, chilly in the house. It takes a long time to warm this house up. Yesterday was warmer and I spent a good part of the day on the front porch, which is enclosed but still the coldest room, going through books. I'm engaged in a major thinning operation, hoping to get rid of a thousand of them, maybe more, out of the six or seven thousand I own. When you own that many, and the house is too small to put them all on shelves, you wind up not knowing what you have or where to find it, and that's frustrating. I recently wrote a piece for Military History magazine on WW II in Yugoslavia and the editors couldn't find a decent map showing what territories were occupied by what forces during the war. I happened to find what they wanted in a used bookstore a day later, but going through my books yesterday I found at the bottom of a pile an historical atlas of the Balkans I had forgotten I owned. So it's time to bring it all into some kind of order. I can't work anyway. Burned out by the latest magazine piece, on Faberge.

Anyway I've done this before, although not often on this scale, and it requires a certain amount of self examination, because ultimnately it's about who you are, what you know, why you wanted to know it. Take all the books on mind and consciousness that I'm now getting rid of. Acquiring those books started when I did a piece maybe thirty years ago for Psychology Today called "Selves." It went on for pages and pages, that piece; it was the longest piece they ever published; and my wife remembers reading it before she knew me and being very annoyed by it, although she did finish it, because it opened with an experience I had had, namely seeing myself on TV for the first time, and she seemed to think I was bragging. But I wasn't bragging; the piece was really about the slipperiness of the concept of self and the many different ideas about the self that had prevailed over the course of Western history. I was especially interested in the mind/body problem and the fact that philosophers and scientists are still arguing about it, trying to determine how minds, which are non-material, can emerge from material objects like brains. When you write 7,500 words on a subject like that you can't help but think you'd like to know more, write more, contribute in a more substantial way to the argument, and so over the years you tend to accumulate books on consciousness and the philosophy of mind and I have a fair number. But now I know I'll never write that book. It's one of too many subjects that really went nowhere for me. Often it's the lack of a venue in which to pursue the subject that determines your interests. Now I'm getting rid of them.

All my books have stories like that behind them. They represent interests pursued and then abandoned, as in this case, or interests put aside for a time, or interests I still intend to take up, they are the material signs of my intellectual history, and they have two values for me: the personal, and their value in dollars. Most of them won't bring much. But their personal value can be great. I just won't get rid of my editions of John Donne or Edmund Spenser or the like, even though I'm not likely to look at them more than once again in my lifetime, because that's where I started out, in English literature, that's my first love; for a while it's where I wanted to spend my life. Unfortunately I didn't like to teach, hadn't the patience for it, and I could see, too, how petty the politics of university life was. It wasn't for me. (It's interesting how much of my identity is based on refusals; I wonder how much that's true for other people.) Other books you keep for other reasons. I have a little book aimed at women from the mid-nineteenth century called How to Be Pretty Though Plain. I keep it for the title alone, which is charming and sad at the same time. I won't sell my copy of Cicero's Tusculan Disputations, which is in Latin--I no longer read Latin--because it's an Aldine Press edition, one of the first pocket-size books, published in 1546. 1546! The oldest object I possess, beautifully printed, immaculate paper. I paid $10 for it at an antique shop. It's imperfect--someone took a colored pencil to it at one point in its past and underlined some pages, and its monetary value is therefore quite modest. But that's all right. It's a reminder of what a well-made book is like, in a world of planned obsolescence. And I have several shelves filled with early Modern Library editions, when they were printing them with leatherette bindings. They're mostly from the 1920s and they're a record of what the 1920s thought would be books of enduring value: Maeterlinck; James Branch Cabell; George Meredith; Gabriele D'Annunzio; Max Stirner. Who? Max Stirner? The first line of J. L. Walker's Introduction to Max Stirner's book, The Ego and His Own, reads, "Fifty years sooner or later can make little difference in the case of a book as revolutionary as this." Really. I can think of few books as unread, as forgotten, as this. How, then, could I get rid of it?

But scholarship that's out of date, history books that have been superceded by newer books that have gone deeper into the archives, they will go. How many histories written in the past can we read with profit? There are the classics, Thucydides, Herodotus, Gibbon, and the like, but how about Polybius? I have a four-volume translation fo Polybius and I'd love to sell it, but I've tried, and it turns out to be a drug on the market, nobody wants it. Then I have a copy of Jacob Burkhardt's Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, written in the nineteenth century. It's a handsome copy, a small quarto, full of pictures. I read the book, but not this copy, forty years ago, and I loved it. So dramatic, so powerful. But who accepts his version of the Renaissance any more? Very few. It's yes and no on this one. But yes, I'll keep it. I can't get rid of books I once loved.

So there it is. I have to look at every book, look into it, before I make a decision. This is my life, my mind, I'm dealing with, this is me in a sense, where I've been, where I'm going, and there is so much I still want to know. The books I haven't read yet exert a pressure; it's almost as if they whisper to me from the walls. Jefferson said he couldn't imagine his life without books, and I know what he meant. I'll get rid of this 1,000, but others will come into the house. They come unbidden; I'm still getting books from publishers who think I'm still a reviewer. They send them even when they know I'm not. Publishers of all people respect the lover of books; I might talk about them, I might be a source of the word of mouth they value so much. Because in the end a book is nothing without its readers, nothing but paper, cardboard, and ink. Valueless. There are books, then, that I keep out of sheer respect: for the work, the tremendous effort, and the skill that went into making them. I'll never read all that I have, but that's not the point, really. How often do I look at the art on our walls here? The point is to surround yourself with objects of knowledge, interest, beauty--absorbing objects, objects you can bury your mind in, objects you can talk to. Otherwise life is bleak, lonely in some essential sense. You have less of a connection with the world. Books are the engine of thought; you cannot really go anywhere without them, or know much. Without them your life is inevitably far less than it should be.