My librarian friend Jonathan, who likes to disrupt things, once suggested that books might be about to follow scrolls and parchment onto the ash heap of history. Could well be true, but this leaves me with the question of what I should do with the 2,653 books that now line the shelves of my office. Not to mention the approximately equal number we have at home.
For some of us, buying books is a kind of addiction. I’m not sure how this affliction works with other people, but for me it reflects a lifetime delusion that when I own a book I have thereby mastered its contents. Blalocks’ Social Statistics has been squatting fat, black and heavy on my corner shelf since graduate student days, therefore I must have absorbed something of its contents. Or so some corner of my mind seems to believe.
At least with Blalock I can say I did once read a couple of its chapters. But what about the books I haven’t got around to reading at all? Occasionally a visitor to my office will look at my crowded shelves and ask incredulously, “Have you read all these?” I sometimes answer by pointing to a specific item and say, “I haven’t read that yellow one yet.” Which is true, if not entirely forthcoming.
The truth is that I haven’t read about a third of them at all. But maybe I will someday, right?
This, Dear Reader, is the anguished cry of the bookaholic.
Certainly it would be more economical to rely on the library, since my collection and that of our trusty Olin Library broadly overlap. In fact, I confess that I have more than once checked out a book from Olin that I already own, because I couldn’t quickly locate the needed volume on my shelf. But somehow owning a book gives me more of a feeling that I’ve truly mastered it. Yes, I realize this is a delusion. But it is not delusional to say that owning a book does allow me to write in the margins. That is worth something I should think.
Another delusion under which I have long suffered is that every book is as interesting as its title. Not true. I recently bought a book called Dark Tongues: The Art of Rogues and Riddlers. This title is totally cool and so might have justified my purchase in itself. Beyond this, the book was described as plumbing the depths of offbeat and marginalized speech communities, one of my favorite topics. But the author, as it turned out, though certainly authoritative, wrote in a manner that lulled me to sleep, dwelling on trivia that couldn’t hold my interest and didn’t answer any of my questions about slang and badass language. Sigh. Twenty dollars and seventy-one cents, down the drain.
I really do appreciate good books and I remember when I learned that good authors can write bad books. It was when I bought a paperback copy of D. H. Lawrence’s Fantasia of the Unconscious just before I boarded ship for my summer stint with the Navy Reserve. I had planned to read it in my off duty hours, but once I started it, I quickly realized that it was dreadful. I lay in my bunk one evening complaining about how god-awful it was, even though it was written by Lawrence, but none of my fellow midshipmen seemed to grasp the depths of my disgust. So, to illustrate my sentiments with a vividness that they could understand, I began to tear the little volume into shreds. Then, throwing the scraps onto the deck, I stood up and began stomping on them spewing out blasphemies as I did so. “Wow,” one of them finally said, “you really don’t like that book, do you?” Exactly.
These days I make it a point to assign books in my classes that I think will stay with undergraduates for much of their lives. I didn’t always do this. When I first began teaching I made the mistake of assigning “the latest thing” to my students. This allowed me to keep up with the anthropological literature, but was an injustice to my freshmen and sophomores who weren’t really ready for a debate over the abstruse virtues of cognitive vs. symbolic anthropology.
So now I assign books that are more likely to matter to them, like Gandhi: His Life and Message for the World by Louis Fischer and Hiroshima by John Hersey.
I came to Hiroshima via a minor guilt trip. Some 10 or 15 years ago, my friend and colleague Twila had her students ask their professors what books they thought everyone should read. When I received an email from one of Twila’s students asking me this, I started to answer “Hiroshima.” Then, I realized that I hadn’t actually read Hiroshima; I had only read about it. But I wanted to stick to my choice, so I instructed the student to tell Twila that “Professor Moore recommends Hiroshima even though the big, fat hypocrite hasn’t read it himself.” Well, now I have.
Anyway, it’s probably better that my shelves be stuffed with books like Hiroshima rather than some trendy academic tome designed to win a contemporary anthropological debate. But, in addition to the great works, some books are worthwhile simply because they are just irresistibly fun. For me this category includes almost all the work of P. G. Wodehouse. I was tickled to read in today’s New York Times that Sting also treasures his collection of Wodehouse. That’s one section of shelf that I can’t see myself culling.
But when I retire, some few years from now, how will I manage to empty the shelves of my office library? I keep trying to minimize, and in fact I have given away a couple hundred books over the past year, but this has made barely a dent. And we can’t clear our home shelves because there also stand ranks of volumes too precious to give up. I think there may be only one solution: our little bungalow is going to have to be augmented with a new wing. Call it the addict’s library wing. This does a raise a pertinent consideration though; namely, what are my chances of getting my wife to go along with this idea?