Saturday, January 31, 2009

Matthew Battles' LIBRARY and mine

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles informs me that the Ptolemies, in order to ensure their Alexandrian Library's monopoly on knowledge, banned the export of papyrus. This led the rival rulers and librarians at Pergamon to develop parchment, a superior support. This may be history's most ironic example of censorship inadvertently assisting the spread of ideas. Battles also argues that the Alexandrian libraries were in sharp decline after centuries of Roman hegemony, Christian antipathy, general neglect and natural decay, so the caliph's perhaps legendary burning order merely put a period to a death sentence already longer than Faulkner at his friskiest. In an eye-opening passage, Battles also tells us that the catalog of titles in the British Library--just the catalog--had grown by 1991 to an outrageous 2300 volumes!! In the old round reading room at the British Museum (no longer used as such; the British Library now has an enormous building of its own a few blocks north in St. Pancras) the catalog was housed in a double row of circular shelves around the librarians' central desk. (In the photograph near the top right corner of this blog, the catalog volumes occupy the outermost ring of the central circles.) Unfortunately, I didn't make it to London until the library had already moved north and the round room had been transformed into an almost entirely unused reading room devoted to the Museum's collection. I don't recall ever seeing anyone reading there, although there was a steady stream of North Korean tourists paying homage to Marx by having themselves photographed in the room he probably knew better than any of his homes. (By the way, Peter Ackroyd's Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (US title: The Trial of Elizabeth Cree) is an excellent romp of a historical novel in which we see Marx and George Gissing at work under the British Museum's lovely dome.)

Thinking about libraries and vast accumulations of books encourages me to do a book count of my own relatively modest stockpile. Two or three hours at this senseless activity yields an approximate total of 3455 volumes in my library. (I guess I can call it by such a grandiose term, although I prefer to think of them as my books, my tools, things to use, not a collection of the embalmed and unread.) So I'm approaching 3500 volumes. Not bad, but certainly not in the league of Susan Sontag's legendary 20,000. And no, I haven't read all of them... (I remember a scene in the documentary Derrida where the filmmaker follows the eponymous philosopher into his library and asks the question all nonserious readers ask when faced with a serious reader's collection of books: "Have you read all of these books?" Derrida replied, "No, no...only three or four. But I've read them very carefully." Watching the scene, I thought: Truer words were never spoken by the Old Hedgehog.) But read or unread, they are all books that I have chosen to own, and they thus provide a fairly accurate snapshot of my interests. It's a library heavy on what Barnes and Noble categorizes as "literary fiction:" a lot of Penguin Classics, Oxford World's Classics, Bantam Classics, Signet Classics, Vintage International, Vintage Contemporary and NYRB Classics editions, some New Directions and Dalkey Archive Press titles. Included in and aside from this is a large amount of poetry, from massive anthologies to individual volumes from Homer and Ovid and Chaucer to Philip Larkin and Rita Dove and Richard Howard. My collection of plays runs from Aeschylus and Aristophanes (a personal favorite--"There is a god and his name is Aristophanes"-Heine) to Shakespeare (god's other name) to Joe Orton and Sam Shepard. There's also a good deal of literary biography, criticism and theory mixed in with this: Edel on James, Ellmann on Joyce, Carter and Tadie on Proust (Painter's classic life has been definitively superseded); a shelf's worth of Joyce criticism, too much Harold Bloom, several books each by Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, de Man, Adorno, Benjamin, Edward Said (whose work I like enormously), Walter A. Davis (whose work continues to challenge me--and everyone else who reads it), Walter Pater, Camille Paglia (whose Sexual Personae introduced me to Pater), several volumes of William Gass's absurdly alliterative essays. And then there are my art books, perhaps the heaviest category by weight: enormous textbooks, big exhibition catalogs, smaller monographs, the 4 volumes of Hauser's Social History of Art, collections of criticism by John Berger, Robert Hughes, Arthur Danto, Pauline Kael, etc. In philosophy I have much Plato (a poet, really), a bit of Aristotle (almost entirely unread), random volumes from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Voltaire, Hume, Schopenhauer, equal amounts of Nietzsche and Sartre, as well as some unread Heidegger and dipped-in Wittgenstein. (True confession time: the philosophy book I consult most often is the 'fake book' I keep on my desk, Bryan Magee's The Story of Philosophy, a good place to turn when I need a quick reminder of what the hell Hume was all about.) My history and political books run the gamut from Howard Zinn to Noam Chomsky (HA!). Actually, it's a little more balanced than that, but the collection does tilt decidedly leftward--a corrective to the History Channel, TV news, and all the crap that came out of my history teachers' mouths in high school. I have a traveler's collection of travel books and a heavy shelf of travel guides (mostly the extremely helpful DK Eyewitness guides that I've carried to Europe and back on various trips; the London volume proved its waterproofing when I carried it across Hampstead Heath in a driving rain with no damage, a bookish miracle). One of the largest categories, though, is miscellaneous, that catchall that catches everyone from Freud and Jung (more books by the former) to Solzhenitsyn and Andrea Dworkin (there's a marriage made in Russian Orthodox heaven!)... and all of this seems to me now like an exercise in the merest of surface-scratching. I just have too damn many books...and now if you'll excuse me I have to go buy a few more.

1 comment:

Molly said...

Hi, I first ran into your reviews at Amazon, liked them immensely, and had to add you as one of my "interesing people." That was quite a while ago. And, today, out of the blue, I checked out your profile and came to visit your blog. I've read the posts in silent admiration (and agreement, largely) so far, but had to leave a comment just at this point. I wonder, why hasn't anyone leave any comment to your posts?! They are so very to the point and funny!

This post about your library is a delight. I could almost envision your book shelves. I once came across a picture of books someone took from his shelf, almost every title of which was owned by myself! Reading this post was a little like what I felt looking at the picture. Anyhow, you will have one more devoted reader from today!