It must be library week in the universe because I keep running into terrific articles about the pleasures and peculiarities of the personal library and collectors' perspectives on the place of the book in their lives. Today's Wall Street Journal brings a very amusing article from author Luc Sante, "The Book Collection That Devoured My Life," that celebrates a life time of vigorous (and random) collecting of books and the very vital role books play in his life.
Sante is a collector after my own heart -- collecting everything and anything that comes his way, from highbrow tomes in German to second hand pulp fiction. Maybe "acquiring" is a better verb here, since collecting suggests selecting specific titles for their uniqueness, while acquiring suggests that books just seem to gather density in one's house without one's knowledge. Sante describes this mysterious phenomena: "Books entered my house under cover of night, from the four winds, smuggled in by woodland creatures, and then they never left." In addition to acquiring, owning a library is also an act of periodically shedding books -- the bibliophile's ritual expression of rites-of-passage. (Go on...remember when you finally, finally gave up your college text books?)
But no matter how many volumes one owns (and never fully reads!) Sante offers an interesting observation on the power of the book as a physical presence in our lives: ""Primarily, though, books function as a kind of external hard drive for my mind -- my brain isn't big enough to do all the things it wants or needs to do without help...The tactility of books assists my memory, for one thing. I can't remember the quote I am searching for, or maybe even the title of the work that contains it, but I can remember that the book is green, that the margins are unusually wide, and that the quote lies two-thirds of the way down a right hand page." Boy do I agree with this last point! I often stand in front of my library waiting for the visual cue of a certain book, the color of the spine, the shape of the letters to remind me where I read something. And certainly, the many years I worked in a book store -- how many customers would come in asking for a book based on the color and size of it when they couldn't remember the title and author.
In a little sidebar column on the same page (scroll down a bit), Cynthia Crossen has gathered fascinating facts about other historical private libraries, for example, Englishman Samuel Pepys in the 1600s believed a gentleman should own a library of exactly 3,000 books, while Sir Thomas Phillpps had 100,000 books and 60 manuscripts in his collection and when he moved in 1864, it required more than a 100 horse drawn carts and 160 laborers. (In my youth, it required cajoling ten friends with a lot of pizza and beer.)