How can I resist sharing Roger Ebert’s essay on the books in his life? Not only will it set off sympathetic vibrations in anyone who loves owning books (I don’t understand you “I can get it at the library” people—what do you do when it’s late at night and you suddenly have to read Pound or Hammett or Tolstoy right now?), but it has illustrations of many of the items he mentions, not only editions of Shakespeare and Shaw but his student housing from the ’60s, Hob Nobs (plain and chocolate), and above all, bookshelves overflowing with books. A sample:

My books are a subject of much discussion. They pour from shelves onto tables, chairs and the floor, and Chaz observes that I haven’t read many of them and I never will. You just never know. One day I may — need is the word I use — to read Finnegans Wake, the Icelandic sagas, Churchill’s history of the Second World War, the complete Tintin in French, 47 novels by Simenon, and By Love Possessed. That 1957 best-seller by James Could Cozzens was eviscerated in a famous essay by Dwight Macdonald, who read all the way through that year’s list of fiction best sellers and surfaced with a scowl. It and the other books on the list have been rendered obsolete, so that his essay is cruelly dated. But I remember reading the novel late, late into the night when I was 14, stirring restlessly with the desire to be by love possessed.

I cannot throw out these books. Some are protected because I have personally turned all their pages and read every word; they’re like little shrines to my past hours. Perhaps half were new when they came to my life, but most are used, and I remember where I found every one. The set of Kipling at the Book Nook on Green Street in Champaign. The scandalous The English Governess in a shady book store on the Left Bank in 1965 (Obelisk Press, $2, today $91). The Shaw plays from Cranford’s on Long Street in Cape Town, where Irving Freeman claimed he had a million books; it may not have been a figure of speech. Like an alcoholic trying to walk past a bar, you should see me trying to walk past a used book store.

I must say, though, I’m shocked and a little abashed that I have more books than he does… and that’s after culling my collection as ruthlessly as I could for the last few moves. I’m hopeless, and my wife is a woman of superhuman tolerance.

In googling for more information on Cranford’s, I found Alf Wannenburgh’s reminiscence of old Cape Town bookstores, which has several paragraphs on Cranford’s (ending with this sad note: “When Mr Simonawitz retired, the shop was taken over by Irving Freeman, a booklover whom it was difficult to separate from his books. He had more than a million of them when he was obliged to close in 1993 – when 6000 cartons of books weighing 195 tons were auctioned off for a song”) and is well worth reading in its own right.


  1. 6000 cartons of books weighing 195 tons were auctioned off for a song
    No, really, how much did they go for?
    Language, do you have 9,000 books? MMcM does. I definitely don’t and never will, but I wish I did.

  2. Johan Anglemark says

    Hat (I’m not on first name terms with him I feel) has 5,638 books if all of them are cataloged. Only slightly fewer than I and my wife have, and we’ve never culled ours in any significant way.
    Hat, thanks for linking to Ebert’s essay!

  3. Well, I feel less bad about having so many unread books. But I can’t even remember the ones I’ve read, much less where, when and for how much I got them …

  4. Hat (I’m not on first name terms with him I feel) has 5,638 books if all of them are cataloged.
    They are, but a number of cataloged items are in fact maps and other non-book items, so I just say “over 5,000” and blush.

  5. What is all this about buying books and not reading them? I own lots of books, it’s true, but when I acquire a book, it stays in a bag (typically the purchase bag, but occasionally I consolidate) until it’s read, and there are never more than perhaps 20 books in the queue (which usually reflects a birthday). Allthe other books on my shelves (excluding those owned by my wife before we married) have been read, and most of them re-read many times.

  6. Jean-Pierre Metereau says

    The title of your post rang a bell, I think. Wasn’t “Books do furnish a room” the name of a chapter in one of the Anthony Powell “A Dance to the Music of Time” volumes?

  7. What about Roger Ebert’s title, “Books do furnish a life”? I google it and it’s everywhere, but without attribution.

  8. How I envy those who can still cocoon themselves in their room full of books. Especially those who still own every book they’ve acquired since the age of seven: that was the age at which I made the momentous discovery that books are the gateway to knowledge. I’ve had to shuck two libraries, and my third is building very slowly. Because of a smaller income I’m reading out of my regional library — which bought Beckwith’s Empires of the Silk Road as requested! I must, however buy a new political history of the Haida during the last 40 years.

  9. John Emerson says

    I fully approve of buying books for emergency use, just in case you want to read them. I also buy books I’ve read from the library if I think I’ll ever want to look at them again. In one case I bought a book because of a single paragraph that struck me.
    If I had money and space enough, I’d also buy books I know I’ll never read, just to have them in my hands, like a rare jade or something. I almost bought “The Rasulid Hexaglot” awhile back, even though it’s written in six languages of which I only can half-read one. And as I’ve said here before, I sorely regret having sold Pierson’s Manyoshu Dictionary when I decided I’ was never going to learn Japanese. Just leafing through it made me feel good.

  10. What the hell is a Fruktkaptain?? A fruit or freight captain?
    when I acquire a book, it stays in a bag (typically the purchase bag, but occasionally I consolidate) until it’s read, and there are never more than perhaps 20 books in the queue
    How odd, John! That has been almost exactly my practice for a long time now. When the queue grows too much, I stop acquiring until I’ve popped it down to size. I used to buy books just to be doing, but decided that was expensive, wasteful and self-delusive. I don’t read the books sequentially, though, but simultaneously – that is, the fat ones that take longer. Things like Amélie Nothomb’s novels, or the little Reclam paperback editions of Herder, Fontane etc. I read straight through.
    It was by accident that I discovered the advantages of reading and (as audiobooks) listening to the most apparently disparate books simultaneously, or within a short interval of time. All kinds of unexpected cross-connections appear, and suggestive ideas recur, even though one book was written in the 18th century, another in the 20th. I have never liked the idea of having to plow one particular field completely before continuing to the next. I prefer flitting from one hedgerow to another. I remember some learned clown once saying that I couldn’t possibly profit from such an “indigestible” mass of reading. I suppose he had a delicate stomach.
    I appreciate the importance of having and keeping one’s own books – I can never cull them without agony and soul-searching – but I have recently come to feel that this is a privileged state of affairs, to boast about which is précieux, selfish and consumerist. I myself, like many people at Hat, have been reading all my life, but not by “free will”, as if I were some kind of self-made man phenomenon. We tend to “follow the classics”, i.e. any canon established (if only by implication and practice) by some coterie. I have known many people who want to find out about something that might be in a book, but have no idea where to start looking. I find myself unable to offer tips, apart from “look in the internet”. But searching the internet is not an easy thing to learn, everyone has his own technique. What happened to “look in the library”?
    This month, with nothing better to do, I walked in to the small Stadtteilbibliothek in Ehrenfeld, the section of Cologne where I live. It has probably been more than 40 years since I’ve been in a library. I had expected to find tattered magazines, Rosamunde Pilcher novels and techno CDs. Instead, I found complete editions of Goethe and Heine, the works of Grass and Frisch. Farther on, up-to-date and well-chosen sections on software and programming – which astounded me, since if the people with whom I often have to work in IT projects were as common-sensical, the projects would be more successful. There were sections for family and health, psychology, children’s books, history etc. You can view the holdings online, and even have books sent to you. Library membership is EUR 23 for an entire year, and entitles you to use all Cologne municipal libraries including the main one.
    In view of all this, I feel rather ashamed of my previous insistence on owning books. I recently borrowed the two-volume Nachrichten von Büchern und Menschen by Arno Schmidt. It didn’t hurt a bit to read and then return them, without writing in the margins. I hereby forswear the “furnish a life” attitude – but you still can’t have my books, not for love or money! I might lend them to you, one at a time, but only to make sure everyone gets a turn, not because I want to hold on to them …

  11. Well, I thought of a quote that perfectly summed up my own bibliomania, but when searching for it online to quote it properly, I see that Language Hat beat me to it:
    Even when reading is impossible, the presence of books acquired (by passionate devotion to them) produces such an ecstasy that the buying of more books than one can read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity… we cherish books even if unread, their mere presence exudes comfort, their ready access, reassurance.
    We have a little over 11 thousand, and steadily heading for 12. No need to blush at a mere 5 thousand.

  12. Books will always be ordered and stored on the shelf, I have loads I have never read, I just love having them!
    God bless amazon 🙂

  13. John Emerson says

    I still regret selling the Pierson and a number of other Japanese language and poetry books, at least a dozen of which I could name. I occasionally think of buying them back even though I know I will never read them seriously.
    The 11-volume complete Manyoshu is only $369, less than $30 / per.

  14. Cherie Woodworth says

    >>bookshelves overflowing with books
    Hat, I find your collection very admirable, and think YOU should definitely keep it.
    But as for me: AAAAGHGHGH! this should definitely be a question given as mandatory pre-marriage counseling: Which rooms of the house do you think should have bookshelves on every wall?
    a) the study
    b) the livingroom
    c) the master bedroom
    d) the small bedrooms
    e) the bathroom
    f) the entryway, hallway, and every other room reasonably safe, secure, and damp-free
    If your potential spouse answers “all of the above,” RUN AWAY IMMEDIATELY.
    Hat, your wife IS a saint, and you can tell her I said so, because I am in the same position. (My answer to the above question is (a), ONLY, and live next to a major research LENDING library.)

  15. Books do have an odd, but not unparalleled, double existence: units of delight and information; and magical objects. I guess the magic of holding one’s own book, in spite of its inutility (‘I doubt I’ll ever read or sell it . . .’), must be connected to or generated by an attachment to the delight and informativeness of reading itself.
    (“not unparalleled”: how many times are you really going to listen to that jazz CD again? or re-watch that DVD set of the six-hour documentary on the carburetor?)

  16. If your potential spouse answers “all of the above,” RUN AWAY IMMEDIATELY.
    The correct answer is “all of the above except e”. When I was younger I hid my reading activities with more diligence than an alcoholic hides bottles. I thought I had discovered reading in the bathroom as a place where one could stay without being unduly disturbed, however I didn’t think about how to get the book in and out of the bathroom without discovery. One day I ended up hiding a library book about electricity under the sink while my dad was waiting outside to get in, but what I didn’t know was that the reason he wanted into the bathroom was to fix the plumbing. A few minutes later he handed me the book with the comment “electricity and water don’t mix.” Ever since, I have kept all my books out of the bathroom, having discovered that it’s the only way to maintain some sort of control over who has them.
    After that, I had to read under the covers with a flashlight. It was only after I had gone away to college that I found out my brother had been doing the same thing.
    (P.S. The bathroom off of my parents’ master bedroom now has a rack for reading material.)

  17. Reading in the bath is really the only point in taking a bath, Nij. The only thing I don’t like is that your dry hand, the one that’s holding the book, gets cold.
    I’ve said before that German libraries are great, Grumbly, as are Norwegian libraries. My favourite library as a teenager was the one at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. I don’t know how I discovered it, but it got me interested in architecture. Architecture rare-book libraries (the R.I.B.A., Avery Library at Columbia, etc.) might possibly be the most beautiful places in the world.
    Fruktkaptain was a word my daughter invented, meaning ‘fruit cocktail’.

  18. I wonder how many people there are who abosultely love reading but have no urge to build libraries of their own? Even though impecunity and house size have long made having a big collection of books impossible for me, I’ve never felt the loss. Over the last few years I’ve grown warmer toward the idea of owning some of my favourites, but even now the desire to own maybe 100 or so books is outweighed by my apathy toward the idea of possessions. If I can get someone else to have the hassle of keeping the things I want while still getting to use them pretty much whenever I want, that’s even better. Having more stuff just means more stuff to look after, and I’m with the Walrus when it comes to work.

  19. I’ve never been persuaded by the chocolate Hobnob; I’m more a Marks and Spencer’s Plain Chocolate Digestive man. As for books – sometimes we’ve given them away, sometimes left them behind when we’ve moved. But they multiply regardless.

  20. this should definitely be a question given as mandatory pre-marriage counseling: Which rooms of the house do you think should have bookshelves on every wall?
    One of the comments to Ebert’s article by Mike Massee (6 Oct., 4:56 am) rather struck me:
    Like many avid readers, the books are in the living room and the television is in a room by itself, a home theater to which I occasionally wander to put in a blu-ray disc from netflix. The television is not a part of daily life, something I am reminded that is quite uncommon when visiting other people’s homes.
    I sat and looked around my study lined with bookshelves, went and had a quick look at the TV sitting forlornly in the generally deserted living room, and reviled myself for being so conventional.
    On the other hand, I’m not sure how it would fit in with Chinese cultural expectations to put the bookshelves in the living room and the TV in the study… Not that it matters, I guess; they would just write me off as a nutty foreigner.

  21. John Emerson says

    This is long, but people need to know the truth about German libraries:
    Nowhere do we more readily receive an idea of the cultural level of a city and its prevailing tastes than in its reading libraries. Listen to what I encountered there, and I will say no more about the intellectual level of Würzburg.
    “We would like to have a couple of good things to read.”
    “The collection is at your disposal.”
    “Something of Wieland?”
    “I rather doubt it.”
    “Or Schiller, or Goethe?”
    “They would be hard to find.”
    “What! Are all of their books loaned out? Are the people here such readers?”
    “Hardly that.”
    “Who are the most avid readers here?”
    “Lawyers, merchants, and married ladies.”
    “And the unmarried ones?”
    “They may not borrow books.”
    “And the students?”
    “We have been instructed not to give them any.”
    “Well, then, please tell us, if so little reading is done here, where in the world are the works of Goethe and Schiller?”
    “By your leave, sir, such things are never read here.”
    “You mean, you do not have them here in your library?”
    “They are not allowed”.
    “What sort of books are all these on the shelves, then?”
    “Chivalric romances. Nothing but chivalric romances. On the right, chivalric romances with ghosts; on the left, chivalric romances without ghosts, as you prefer.”
    “Ah, I see.”

    From An Abyss Deep Enough Heinrich von Kleist, Philip B. Miller, ed., tr, Dutton, 1982,
    p. 61: Letter to Willhelmine von Zenge from Würzburg, Sept 13-18, 1800.

  22. Okay, but these days they’ve also got a fair number of chivalric romances in English too. In Norway we have chivalric dvds.

  23. Having moved just last year, I’m torn about acquiring books… our several hundred were enough trouble to cart halfway across the country. On the other hand, I love the feel of a book and the ability to just flip through the pages, waiting for something to catch my eye. It’s not quite the same to look through a library copy or to read on the computer (though I do plenty of those, too).
    My distinct preference for paper over digital copies still baffles my husband. I asked for a copy of Vasmer for Christmas last year, and he seemed to be really confused about why I would want an actual printed, bound edition rather than a digital copy (which, he tells me, is also available).
    With dictionaries especially, I feel like I learn so much from flipping a couple pages after looking something up that I vastly prefer paper copies.

  24. My distinct preference for paper over digital copies still baffles my husband.
    I think most people would side with you. Digital readers are handy, and increasingly so, but the tangible nature of an actual book is hard to beat if the work in question means something to you. My Dad had a great collection of books his father had collected from some Times of India bookclub (I’m guessing) and the look, smell and fell of them (plus the sense of connection with the grandfather I never knew) could not have been replicated by a Kindle. Here in Zild we don’t have access to any of the e-readers anyway (even the upcoming Kindle International is only going to the penal side of the Tasman), but when I think of the books I would want to own, they would all be dead tree versions, not digital.

  25. John Emerson says

    The only times I’ve ever gotten rid of books is when I’m shipping them or putting them in storage. If I had a large, stable residence I’d probably have 3,000 books, but I imagine I’m closer to 2500 now.
    I’d love to be in one of those contests where you have 10 minutes to spend $10,000. I could do it ordering and buying books. (A new OED plus a new Hanyu Cidian approach $1500. The Cambridge History of China is $150-$180 each for about twelve.)

  26. I have only about 2,000 books, and it is with great pain that I am deaccessioning some of them due to considerations of space, as posed by my wife. I can’t even bring myself to delete the victims from LibraryThing. I can see the logic in getting rid of computer books that are dated. But getting rid of my edition of the Tanya (a chassidic text) and its commentary is really, really hard.

  27. it is with great pain that I am deaccessioning some of them due to considerations of space, as posed by my wife
    In 1981, for unknown reasons, my husband removed the dust cover of my Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico and threw it away. He may be dead, but twenty-eight years later I’m not really ready to forgive him for that. We’re playing with powerful forces here. I must have chosen well when I moved to the Middle East, though, because even though I only had space to store a third of my books, the only ones I remember getting rid of was a stack of badly recovered Nancy Drew mysteries and I don’t miss them at all. (I still have the coverless Prescott.) At one time I had about 3000 books in the small apartment and eventually it got out of hand. Now I have about 700 inside. One thing that helped was having certain rooms without books. Taking the bookshelves out of the kitchen was a good move. Another thing that helped was having some of them out of sight: the middle east and poetry was stacked under the bed and religion was on three shelves hidden by hanging clothes. In a small apartment there aren’t that many options. Now I have everything on a row of four identical four-foot bookshelves, and I’m very pleased. They’re a little higher than the standard shelf and hold more, but they don’t loom like the really tall shelves.
    I’ve just decided to put the books I haven’t read yet in a separate book shelf instead of adding them to the mix, and so far I’m happy with that too.
    Reading in the bath is really the only point in taking a bath
    If you study martial arts, you will want it for muscle aches too, along with a small glass of red wine. Be sure to get the floating candle shaped like a boat. After a couple of years of heating water on a propane stove for bucket baths and not going into a bathroom without plastic shoes, the whole idea of water that comes out of a shower head already hot then disappears down a drain by itself is such a thrilling idea that I’m not done rediscovering it yet.
    On the right, chivalric romances with ghosts; on the left, chivalric romances without ghosts
    These days the choice in romance novels is between those with the bedroom scenes spelled out and those where the bedroom scenes take place off camera. They have special names for those genres and everything; I was dumbfounded.

  28. Don’t do it, Jonathan.
    I bet they are as remarkable a collection as we could ever find, John. There’s a large stable residence down the road from me.

  29. John, the latest version of the OED on cd (works for both pc & mac), through bookfinder (from A1 Books), is $182.

  30. Crown: “Stable residence” means where your horses live, right? I remember Mr. Ed The Talking Horse, and there have been horses who could do arithmetic, as I learned from Watt (“an episode in the Kulturkampf”). In Notre Dame de Paris, Esmeralda has a goat who could too. But reading horses? Is this a ploy to get your hands on JE’s books?
    JE, since you think German libraries are understocked, the next time you unload books you might consider sending them to the Cologne public library (Würzburg is in Bavaria, where they don’t like to read English).

  31. When, as a linguist, you inherit a collection of over 500 books on Scandinavian topics, and in twelve languages, as I did 25 years ago, and also well over 600 from your in-laws, and you also regularly buy books in charity stores, it isn’t difficult to get up to the 11,000-12,000 that we have in the house. Of course I haven’t read them all, but I should like to – if I live to be 150!

  32. Well, if I may misquote Warren Zevon, who was misquoting himself, I buy books because I like to believe that I’m buying the time to read them. My “Books To Be Read” pile is constantly growing and I have books in virtually every room of my house. I do try to keep them appropriate to the room, whenever possible, so cookbooks are in the kitchen, technical manuals in the bedroom, etc.
    I’ve often thought I should catalog them all, as I suspect several friends have not returned books I’ve lent them. I have no idea how many books I actually have, but, generally, not quite enough. For reference, I do live alone, with my dog, in a four-bedroom house. I think I can squeeze someone else in, but not if she comes with too many of her own books already. Though, perhaps that would be manageable, too, if she brings her own shelves. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
    Lovely article. Thanks for sharing it.

  33. It wasn’t my idea to keep them in the stables. The thing about 9,000 or more books is that unless they’re on microfilm, don’t you need palace-sized digs? I suppose you could drain the indoor pool …

  34. For reference, I do live alone,
    technical manuals in the bedroom
    These two thoughts might not be unrelated. Personally I would put the technical manuals in the computer room, and put something more right-brain, like literature or art, in the bedroom. Bread and roses.

  35. Of course, I live alone….

  36. I live in what Russell Baker calls a couple of closets, meaning a Manhattan apartment, and a rather large one at that, meaning that I have two bedrooms rather than one or none.
    So. There are bookshelves in the large room that doubles as living room and dining room, though what purports to be a dining-room table is mostly used for baby-changing; some of them reach to the ceiling, others not. There are bookshelves in both the parental and the (adult) child bedrooms. Part of a kitchen shelf is devoted to cookbooks, but only a few. No bookshelves in the bathroom. No other rooms at all.
    I do, however, also possess a country house, though I don’t get there nearly as often as I’d like to. That has much the same number of rooms, though they are much larger rooms, plus an extra bedroom in the basement. The distribution of bookshelves is the same as in the apartment, but there are many more books there.
    Finally, I have a loft over the garage next to the country house. There are a lot of books there, many of them in the bags that I used to transport them. There are also a lot of shelves.
    In all cases, shelves are crammed full. There’s no cataloging system whatever. (I know, I know, but ars longa, vita brevis.) So far I have run two garbage collections (in the first, for example, I donated all my mother’s books in German) and am trying to get it together to have a third. But it’s hard, hard. How can I know whether to discard a book without looking through it? And that takes way too much time.

  37. Baby-changing? Do you change babies often? Is it legal?

  38. Only if the babies reach to the ceiling.

  39. J.W. Brewer says

    You want to be careful about the relative positioning of your bookshelves and your baby-changing location until you’ve got your changing technique down, as witnessed by the faint markings on my copy of The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West (by Rob’t Taft, S.J.), commemorating a misadventure from the infancy of my now-eight-year-old. The markings in practice are indistinguishable from those on my old Hansen & Quinn Greek textbook, which resulted from a late-night coffee spill some night my sophomore year of college when I was presumably befuddled by athematic verbs.

  40. I never understood the fuss and unnecessary thought that goes into these tables for changing babies. I even had a NY client who asked me to design them a table that could double as something, I’ve forgotten what, a wet bar probably (luckily she changed her mind, it was before I had had any baby-changing experience).
    Anyway, changing tables are a complete waste of space and money, except in public toilets (where they’re invariably in the Ladies — I used to just go in there).

  41. My distinct preference for paper over digital copies still baffles my husband.
    I shouldn’t think it would baffle anyone here. Moreover, the much praised Kindle appears to be practically useless for any language other than English. You can get a smattering of older classics in German, French, Latin, etc. but nothing under copyright. And the device can’t reproduce Cyrillic or Japanese characters, even from a pdf file. I was given a Kindle for my birthday and now regret not having exchanged it. On the other hand, if you’re a German interested in collecting English language books the Kindle might be quite a good buy.

  42. And the device can’t reproduce Cyrillic or Japanese characters, even from a pdf file
    Thanks for that. I had been tempted to get one for my Hindi lyrics sheets and the like when it comes here next year. Now I shan’t bother.

  43. where they’re invariably in the Ladies
    This seems to have been corrected around here; they’re regularly in the Gents.

  44. As I was wiping off some new acquisitions with a damp, soapy sponge last night, it occurred to me that no one has talked about washing their books, but Mr. Brewer’s description of the baby changing mishap has emboldened me to bring the subject up.

  45. vanya & Stuart: It appears it is possible to get some support for Unicode Cyrillic (Japanese, Devanagari &c.) on the Kindle. It’s not supported & doesn’t sound particularly convenient, but perhaps still helpful: Kindle 2 Unicode fonts hack. (The hack at that link is for the Kindle 2, but there is a link to information about the Kindle 1.)

  46. vanya and stuart,
    get an iPod touch or an iPhone, the Kindle app, Stanza (for epub) and GoodReader (for PDFs). Or try one of the alternative ebook readers, e.g..

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