Thoughts on Constructing A Library

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.

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