It’s too hot for me to think up anything, so I’m glad a reader sent me this wonderful quote I can pass along:

Sooner or later, every nook and corner will be filled with books, every window will be more or less darkened, and added shelves must be devised. He may find it hard to achieve just the arrangement he wants, but he will find it hardest of all to meet squarely that inevitable inquiry of the puzzled carpenter, as he looks about him, “Have you really read all these books?” The expected answer is, “To be sure, how can you doubt it?” Yet if you asked him in turn, “Have you actually used every tool in your tool-chest?” you would very likely be told, “Not one half as yet, at least this season ; I have the others by me, to use as I need them.” Now if this reply can be fairly made in a simple, well-defined, distinctly limited occupation like that of a joiner, how much more inevitable it is in a pursuit which covers the whole range of thought and all the facts in the universe. The library is the author’s tool-chest. He must at least learn, as he grows older, to take what he wants and to leave the rest.

It’s from the opening paragraph of “Books Unread,” by Thomas Wentworth Higginson; you can read the rest of it here, and I wouldn’t discourage you from doing so—it’s full of tidbits like the exchange with the custodian of the library at Blenheim. Thanks, Rick!


  1. Does anyone know where the original of Anatole France’s reply to a similar criticism, quoted in “Unpacking My Library,” was? All that I find looks to be translating Benjamin.

  2. Ummm, all I get from the link is the cover of the Atlantic Monthly Vol 93 and some bibliographical information and links to similar works. So where is this essay?

  3. jdmartinsen says

    Google Books seems to have geographic limits on some content. Accessing this link from China gives a cover page, but when I go through a US-based VPN, I can read the whole article (and what a delightful article it is).
    A widely-quoted passage from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan (one example) makes a somewhat similar observation about the value of an unread library in reference to Umberto Eco.

  4. Roger Depledge says

    MMcM, according to fr.wikisource it may be

    De tous les volumes qui garnissent ces murailles il connaît le titre et le format, possédant ainsi la seule science exacte qu’on puisse acquérir dans une bibliothèque,

    from the short story La chemise in Les sept femmes de la Barbe-Bleue et autres contes merveilleux.

  5. A most rewarding essay. I also enjoyed the little story by Lafcadio Hearn that preceded it.

  6. Stepping back a little further (p. 337), we have an article that concludes:

    Before burial, the body of Prescott was taken, in accordance with a request he had made, to lie for a time in his library. The best of all ages looked down upon him from their books, but not one of those “lettered dead” was manlier or purer than he.

  7. The discussion of accents starting at p. 863 is not without interest.

    With easy assurance she informs us that “girl” does not rhyme with “whirl” and “pearl” and “curl.”

  8. Roger Depledge, thanks. Though I actually meant the

    Suffice it to quote the answer which Anatole France
    gave to a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the
    standard question, “And you have read all these books, Monsieur France?”
    “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sèvres fine china
    every day?”

    one, not the “only exact knowledge” one.

  9. Another copy of Higginson’s essay, without Google’s restrictions, here.

  10. maidhc, here is the Alice Meynell piece on accents to which that evidently refers.

  11. Thank you for those, M. I couldn’t find the right Higginson piece even using a proxy US server.

  12. I found it eventually on Questia. A great read.

  13. Roger Depledge says

    Third Anatole France quote then:

    Le goût des livres est vraiment un goût louable. On a raillé les bibliophiles, et peut-être, après tout, prêtent-ils à la raillerie; c’est le cas de tous les amoureux. Mais il faudrait plutôt les envier puisqu’ils ont orné leur vie d’une longue et paisible volupté. On croit les confondre en disant qu’ils ne lisent point leurs livres. Mais l’un d’eux a répondu sans embarras : « Et vous, mangez-vous dans votre vieille faïence ? »

    from Le Jardin d’Épicure.

  14. Does anyone know who “That Frenchman” is?

  15. That Frenchman and Mr. Barnes of New York are novels by Archibald Clavering Gunter.
    The “man of 83,” whose reading list that was, is John Bartlett, he of the quotations.

  16. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    It’s worth reading Umberto Eco’s little satirical article that Taleb refers to: How to Justify a Private Library, here in Italian, or as a Google Books preview in English.
    His suggested answers:

    The visitor enters and says: “How many books! Have you read them all?” […] I had once adopted the defiant answer: “I haven’t read a single one, or else why would I keep them here?” But it is a dangerous answer because it unleashes the obvious reaction: “And where do you keep those you’ve read?” A better answer is Roberto Leydi’s: “Many more, my dear sir, many more,” which freezes the opponent and plunges him into a state of stupefied veneration. But I find it merciless and anxiety-inducing. Now I have fallen back on the statement: “No, these are those I have to read by next month, the others I keep at the university,” an answer that on the one hand suggests a sublime ergonomic strategy, and on the other induces the visitor to anticipate the moment of his departure.

  17. Not strictly relevant, but a very nice toolchest:

  18. Very nice indeed! Here‘s the direct link.

  19. All just excuses for wasteful consumption.

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