Thursday, April 26, 2007

how to justify a private library. (after Eco).

The other day I told a friend that I have spent approximately...well, in the event that one or both of my parents comes across this blog, I will leave out the exact amount, let us just say that it was a significant amount of money, on books in the last six months. He gave me such an expression of horror (and took a step backwards towards the door) that you would have thought I had told him his car (parked outside) was on fire. In my defense, this is the friend who is extraordinarily cheap, to the point where he won't even pay for basic cable.

But then I came home, and looked at the three large bookcases, the smaller one, the two media units filled with mass market paperbacks in my bedroom, the bookcase in the second bedroom, the bookcase in the living room, the boxes in the closet, the overflow piled on my windowsill, and realized that my other friend C. had a point when she walked in to my apartment after a few months' absence and said, I think you have a problem. Although my apartment is large and airy and full of blank walls the color of caramel custard and large windows that let in floods of light, even when the sky is overcast, there is still somehow the impression that there are books everywhere. That is because I am always reading, and because I never put anything away.

Umberto Eco once complained of the banality of those who entered his home and, upon noticing his rather sizable library (actually, he tells us, it takes up the whole place), exclaim, "What a lot of books! Have you read them all?" At first, he says, I thought that the question characterized only people who had scant familiarity with books, people accustomed to seeing a couple of shelves with five paperback mysteries and a children's encyclopedia, bought in installments. But experience has taught me that the same words can be uttered also by people above suspicion...who consider a bookshelf as a mere storage place for already-read books and do not think of the library as a working tool.

My own library is a working tool, and it is something more than that. I think it is an extension of my brain, my heart, my soul. There are the books from childhood that I still return to, reading them in the bath, or curled up in bed before falling asleep. There are the books I read as a student, all the way from middle school through my university years. And there are the books that I read now, that I read for the pleasure of learning about new things. They are organized by country, by genre, by publisher, at random, the writers I love most at eye level or just below. It keeps growing because I keep discovering new writers, new ways of thinking, of seeing the world. It is as much about the places I have been, the person I was, as it is about the person I have become, and even more the person I hope to be.

Eco, Umberto. How to Travel With a Salmon. Harcourt Brace, a Harvest Book, 1995. pp 116-117.

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