31. Personal Libraries

I have a confession to make: I am an addict. I cannot help collecting ever more books.
I have been bringing books into the house for decades so some volumes are  now crammed three deep into the bookshelves  of every room.  My study (to which no one is invited) now resembles the redoubt of a recluse with books stacked to waist level. Questions arise: How did this come about ? What was I trying to prove? Is the digital age now threatening to change  such compulsion?

Let’s make it clear from the start that I do not consider myself a bibliophile like
Chris Foyle. Nor do I collect books for the rarity, for their bindings nor as an investment.
Books which were originally seen by me as a research tool have come to represent a
kind of mind/life support system as well as a bizarre form of elitist exhibitionism.

All of this goes against the digitized, Wikipedia spirit of our times.Kindle makes me
wonder whether my collection  which I consider as a testimonial to the breadth of my
interests  as well as a backstop to my convictions, simply brands me as antediluvian?

I grew up with a book-loving heritage: a steady stream of books entered the
New York apartment of my European parents. The fabulous Widener Library at Harvard,
with its millions of volumes, was to become my baptismal fountain of books. I was
permanently converted to purveying endless alphabetically arranged shelves.
Roaming through the then “open” stacks was an excellent way to broaden my perspective. Today when I search for Emily Dickinson in my small poetry section I note that she is nestled between Dante and Duncan.

My first “real” job when I graduated  was to sell books at the B.Altman
department store in New York. Their prestigious bookshop specialized in
leather-bound sets which were much sought-after by interior decorators.
They were eager to buy by them by their shelf  length and color. It was there
that I met a young student who came looking for a set of John Locke and
who later became my wife.

A home full of books was never my dream. It just worked out that way.
As a writer and foreign correspondent living in England, I chose to live
near the Cambridge University library where I could do my research.
However, I did not like their stacking system and bit by bit began to acquire
research volumes in my study. The rest is history. My eclectic collection is now
divided into a number of categories including: architecture, art, biography, biology,
classical (Greek and Roman), economics, fiction, genetics, media, Melanesia,
philosophy, photography, poetry,  psychology, reference, sculpture, sociology,
the UK, and the U.S.

I find physical objects such as books extremely satisfying and the new electronic
technology challenging. Amazon advertises its latest ereader by claiming that its
“pages are virtually indistinguishable from a physical book.” The virtuality of such
salesmanship immediately becomes a matter for contention. Silicon valley is
eagerly re-imagining the core experience of handling a physical entity. Many of the
new digital formats mimic features of classic book formats as we have known them.

Under frontal attack from digital screens, the printed word on paper is shrinking.
For me the bound book remains my touch-stone to both the worlds of pleasure
and knowledge. I sometimes think that without my books I would be a
mental cripple, I also wonder what might happen if a solar flare were to
wipe out most of our electronic communications. Perhaps small libraries
would then become temples of worship?

Living room bookshelves may be on the way to becoming relics of bourgeois
affectation and coffee-table exhibitionism. However it is likely that collections
like mine in the age of digitized books will soon be irrelevant. For the untold
masses who will have unlimited and immediate access to hundreds of thousands
of volumes as well as the latest  information on every imaginable subject,
this  hopefully will mark a huge leap forward.

A dozen or so books of 2013 I would recommend  for 2014!

SOMEONE (fiction)by Alice McDermott
THE CIRCLE (fiction) Dave Eggers
OUR ANDROMEDA,( Poems )  by Brenda Shaughnessy
THE FLAME ALPHABET (fiction) by Ben Marcus
ANSELM KIEFER STUDIOS .(Sculptures.) by Daniele Cohn
MUSIC AT MIDNIGHT, The life and Poetry of George Herbert ,
by John Drury
THE BULLY PULPIT, Theodore Roosevelt, Taft and the Golden Age
of Journalism by Doris Kearns
THE UNWINDING, An Inner History of the New America by
George Packer
THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE, the lives of American veterans on
their return from conflict, by David Finkel
GABRIELE D’ANNUNCIO: Seducer and Preacher of War by Lucy
WHEN THE MONEY RUNS OUT: The End of Western Affluence by
Stephen King


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