Thoughts on Constructing A Library

I am going to jot a few notes on the subject of library (as in, personal book collection, not edifice) construction that I’ve been considering lately.

When reading stories of intellectual and political figures of the past, such as Thomas Jefferson or Napoleon Bonaparte, I realized that possessing a substantial library of works of interest and fame was part of standard operating procedure for literate men of the past. When I say substantial, I am talking about private collections numbering ten to twenty-thousand individual hardbound volumes, or when traveling, taking one or two trunkloads of books with the traveler to aid in research and study.

It’s a pretty different commitment to book warehousing and travel from having a few shelves of things you’ve read, or grabbing a couple books and stuffing them into your suitcase for an upcoming flight. Even in the age of Kindle, it’s akin to having a multi-gigabyte device dedicated solely to storing your library.

I haven’t kept track of how many books I’ve read so far in my life, and it’s not exactly apples-to-apples to include childhood picture books in the same measure as thousand page social philosophy treatises. But even if you excluded everything I read before age 19 or 20, which is probably the point in my life where I got “serious” about reading and was mostly reading non-fiction for information and analysis rather than fiction to pass the time or have my imagination stimulated (although, like many teenagers, I did manage to consume Atlas Shrugged during this “non-serious” period), I would still feel comfortable saying the number is “thousands”, especially if you include partially read titles. Probably less than five thousand, but definitely more than one thousand.

I don’t have most of those titles in my possession. Over the last seven or eight years, I consumed many works (especially about business, investing or economics) digitally, and over the last two years I have become an active “purger”, selling, donating or simply tossing books I didn’t bother to read, didn’t bother to finish or didn’t think I’d get any additional value out of in owning them. Most of what is on my shelf at home right this moment are either unread-waiting-to-be-read, or read-and-coming-back-to-them titles. I guess you’d call the latter “reference” titles, but I actually have few reference titles and I mean more of the idea of doing a full-reread to see how my understanding and appreciation of what I previously deemed a worthy title has changed as I’ve changed.

I wonder if purging is a good approach for a few reasons. One is that I have a child now, and hope to have more. I like to think I’ve spent a lot of time reading and sorting knowledge contained in books and I’ve wasted my time on many in order to find the few quality gems, the essential titles in some field that can quickly give one a nuanced understanding of the major and minor issues alike in some discipline. This time I’ve invested is a sunk cost, and being able to hand over a ready-culled library of the “classics” and “greatest hits” to my children and grandchildren seems like part of the social capital of our family.

A problem I have with this logic is that I found a lot of these books by exploring specific questions I had prior to reading them. I arrived at the good stuff through a meaningful epistemological journey that probably would not be as valuable or even as coherent as it was if I had leapt straight from my starting inquiry to the most elucidated truth in the best book. I had to fight for the knowledge I came by and do my own hard thinking and analyzing as I went. Handing someone a ready-constructed library of “essential knowledge” lacks context and it also lacks respect for their own curiosity.

Similarly, as the RIE-philosophy of infant care-giving reminds us (I think derived from Montessori), when you teach a child something, you take away forever his chance to discover it himself. There’s something cognitively valuable in the act of discovery that inheriting a library might obviate.

On the other hand, “on the shoulder of giants”… so perhaps my issue will see farther than me if they start not at the starting line, as I did, but far beyond the finish line in another race entirely.

Another problem with purging is that we are quickly losing a sense of literary history and context with the rise of Google and Amazon. With Google, we convince ourselves that anything worth knowing can be easily searched for, and that it isn’t important to understand the source or genesis over time of certain ideas, only what the latest conclusions are. With Amazon, we come to understand the literary universe as being composed of recently published, hot-selling titles (usually rehashes of old ideas, reformulated for the latest audience fad or interest) and a few older works deemed “classics” because they don’t manage to offend anyone. There are literally hundreds of thousands of titles people used to read, adore and consider categorical in their respective field that aren’t in print and that are essentially invisible to modern readers unless you know what to look for. There are also thousands of titles that reflect the losing side in a historical conflict, of ideas or arms or otherwise, that are not considered “truthful” simply because that side lost. Those are perspectives worth thinking about still if one wants to hone one’s critical mind and maintain a level of scientific objectivity in one’s thinking.

So I worry that some of the great stuff I’ve come across, my children will simply not see if I don’t keep it in my library for them. Especially if they are about ideas I think are important and honest, but which end up “losing the battle” during our lifetime and become non-PC. Down the memory hole!

Storing all these books has an economic cost. There is also search costs in looking through them when seeking a title out if they’re too numerous. And while I’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on books over the years, I’ve mostly acquired paperbacks. I wonder if these are durable and can stand the test of time.

I am currently not resolved on the question of “To construct a library for myself and my posterity, or not?” One thing I do know, is that there is something wrong with a home (or office!) that contains no books, or that contains only books selected by others and not by oneself, or received for promotional reasons alone. It would be a major mistake to raise children in a place where books weren’t an ever-present part of their surroundings, even if the total quantity and methodology of selection behind the “library” remains in a negotiated state.

Review – The Bully Pulpit

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism

by Doris Kearns Goodwin, published 2013

I picked up this title for two reasons. The first reason was to try to explore the phenomenon of “fake news” and the mainstream media’s war on Donald Trump’s presidency (and vice versa), to better understand the modern concept of the official press as an important check on government/regime power. The second reason was because at (now) 2,024 reviews on Amazon with an average 4.5-stars, this book seemed to promise it’d be a great, and long at 700+ pages of narrative text, story and I was looking for a great story, something that, whatever I thought of the point being argued, at least proved to be interesting and artfully constructed.

On the second point, I find myself frustrated. The research that went into this book is clearly exhaustive– the author speaks almost as much through verbatim quotes from primary source documents of the period (journal entries, private correspondence, public speeches, newspaper articles and editorials, memoirs, etc.) as she does in her own voice. This lends itself to creepy quirks of the book, such as the preponderance of quotes in which Theodore Roosevelt is found explaining himself in confidence via correspondence with Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, a character who relationship with Roosevelt is never formally introduced or explained! It kind of makes Teddy seem like a tool of some higher, shadowy powers. Why was he constantly justifying himself to another politician when the author never bothered to tell us when and how they met?

But this doesn’t seem to make for a great story. The narrative is rather breathless and sycophantic in tone. Teddy, a progressive openly-hidden amongst Republican ranks, is one of the good guys, he never gives up and, progressivism being the inevitable enlightened state of the universe toward which historical events are constantly moving us all, he of course never meets any real resistance along the way and always wins in the end. And this is a good thing. We never see the author questioning him, catching him in contradictions (though there are many for the alert reader!) or asking how it is that this One, Good Man managed to succeed in a wholly corrupt system and reform it despite the various Interests who had so much at stake in stopping him.

For a critic of progressivism, there is no profundity to consider; for the advocate, no value in confirming what is already known. The story is boring.

As for the topic of “fake news” and watchdog journalism, that must’ve developed at some other time period. We learn again and again of how Roosevelt took various progressive journalists of the era into his confidence and made friends of them, and them of him, with many ebullient feelings being shared all around. We learn of his unique talent for cultivating relationships with these journalists who then heralded him and his policies for public consumption, and we also come to understand the important value this access represented to people who essentially are merchants of information those with access frequently come by. In some scenes, we see them conspiring so closely that it almost seems that the journalists are formulating policy, and the politician is writing the story.

In other words, we see a symbiotic relationship that serves power. Where’s the watchdog here?

One thing I wondered as I read this book was, “Was progressivism truly inevitable?” It’s hard to see how it could’ve been stopped, or what would’ve existed that was much different from it if it had been. Roosevelt’s insidious support for what every critic at the time could quite obviously see was socialism, from within the Republican party, which according to repeated insistence from the text had a stranglehold over the entire government, calls to mind the cliche, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?” It seems that there was a competitive advantage in politics in moving further and further to the left, no matter what party you came from, and the investigative journalists of the era (such as the evil Lincoln Steffens, who spent many years becoming “educated” in Europe about Marxism on his businessman father’s nickel) were only too happy to assist in readying the public for this ideological assault. When you read the accounts of the period of union workers intimidating “scab” worker families (women and kids), beating strike-breaking workers and even dynamiting non-union workers in public places, it kind of sounds like terrorism, something that seems like it would be a hard sell to good-hearted middle class Americans.

Yet, that is the side of history that won, and guys like Roosevelt and the investigative journalists helped make it happen.

It seems like it’s worth not forgetting that when listening to the media today tell us the important role it plays preventing democracy from dying in darkness while it does the bidding of the Deep State.

3/5