Object Lesson.

William Giraldi’s New Republic essay “Object Lesson” is, let’s face it, just another books-are-the-greatest-thing-ever rant, with an added helping of e-reader panic (though he gracefully admits at the end that the panic is irrational), but it resonates with me and my 5,000 or so books:

Those of us who dwell within mounts of books—a sierra of them in one room, an Everest in another; hulks in the kitchen, heaps in the hallway—can tell you that, in addition to the special bliss of having and holding them, it’s a hefty, crowded, inconvenient life that’s also an affront to the average bank account. (New hardback books are expensive to buy and economically neutered the second you do.) What’s more, your collection is a fatal Niagara if it falls.[…]

For many of us, our book collections are, in at least one major way, tantamount to our children—they are manifestations of our identity, embodiments of our selfhood; they are a dynamic interior heftily externalized, a sensibility, a worldview defined and objectified. For readers, what they read is where they’ve been, and their collections are evidence of the trek.[…]

Since bibliophiles are happy to acknowledge the absurdity, the obese impracticality of gathering more books than there are days to read them, one’s collection must be about more than remembering—it must be about expectation also. Your personal library, swollen and hulking about you, is the promise of betterment and pleasure to come, a giddy anticipation, a reminder of the joyous work left to do, a prompt for those places to which your intellect and imagination want to roam. This is how the nonreader’s question Have you read all these books? manages to miss the point. The tense is all wrong: Not have you read all, but will you read all, to which, by the way, the bibliophile’s answer must still be no. Agonizingly aware of the human lifespan, the collector’s intention is not to read them all, but, as E.M. Forster shares in his essay “My Library,” simply to sit with them, “aware that they, with their accumulated wisdom and charm, are waiting to be used”—although, as Forster knows, books don’t have to be used in order to be useful.[…]

Thanks, Paul!


  1. That Forster essay looks great! Here’s hoping it staves off the haunting applicability of “Trying to be happy by accumulating possessions is like trying to satisfy hunger by taping sandwiches all over your body” for a few more years.

  2. The vanity of bibliophilia! Just think what an empty shell we leave behind after we leave this mortal realm: a room full of accumulated matter that means nothing to those who have to deal with it, just the detritus of someone’s life. Surrounding yourself with books is no better than surrounding yourself with cats. You have to be outside looking in to see how diseased it is.

  3. Just think what an empty shell we leave behind after we leave this mortal realm: a room full of accumulated matter that means nothing to those who have to deal with it, just the detritus of someone’s life.

    Yes, that’s my wife’s objection. We’ve each had to deal with the detritus of our parents’ lives, and I fully admit it’s a burden to one’s heirs and assigns, and I would like to think I will have the moral fortitude to get rid of the bulk of them before I shuffle off. But I’m not about to deprive myself of the essentials of my intellectual life just to make things easier for those who survive me, much as I love them.

    Surrounding yourself with books is no better than surrounding yourself with cats. You have to be outside looking in to see how diseased it is.

    Tell it to my cats. Also, it’s always easy to be haughty about other people’s choices in life.

  4. Hehe, sorry, I forgot you kept cats. I just used cats as an example. I wasn’t trying to be haughty, just pointing out how such things can look very different from a detached viewpoint when you’re not in the thick of it.

  5. I buy books only to read them, and I do read them, generally very quickly. My problem is that I know I may want to read them again (and I reread a lot) and so in a lifetime I’ve acquired way too many books. If I could, without bankrupting myself, put them all on a device that provided the visual quality and affordances of a book, I’d toss them all in the recycling without a single qualm.

  6. George Grady says

    I’m a mathematician, and I can’t read serious mathematics on digital devices. I simply have too much need to be able to quickly and easily jump around throughout the text. I’ll be reading something in section 5, and trying to connect the dots to some example from back in section 3 that I can’t remember a detail or two about so I go back and remind myself, and then the next thing sends me to something in section 2, etc. Keyword searches tend not to be very easy, as the same keywords can occur hundreds of times in the text, and searching for equations is, well, not generally available, and even if it were, you’d have to remember the exact form of the equation, instead of its mathematical essence (was it x+x^2 or x^2+x?).

    The same thing happens for me with history (let me check that map again…), and generally most nonfiction that I’m really trying to engage with.

    Maybe I just lack the knack.

    On the other hand, I like reading fiction on my Kindle.

  7. Okay, this is the perfect thread to ask the question: how closely correlated are the following two passions: love of books and love of cats? Many bibliophiles I know own one or more cats (or, rather, I should say, are under the care and watch of at least one cat): certainly a much higher percentage of bibliophiles than of non-bibliophiles are cat-lovers, again in my experience. Symptomatically, perhaps, I have never met a bibliophile who was a dog person rather than a cat person.

    Discussions with friends and colleagues have made me reach the following (most tentative!) answer: cat-lovers, compared to dog-lovers especially, tend to be more individualistic: artists, philosophers and the like. Since bibliophilia is also a very lonely passion, it is unsurprising that bibliophiles are strongly drawn to cats.

    There is the added bonus of cats being very quiet creatures compared to dogs: reading books in feline company (well, as long as the food bowl is full at the right time) is far easier than in canine company.

  8. I share your tentative sense of things, but we’ll have to await a properly controlled scientific study. I love both cats and dogs, and grew up with the latter, but I don’t think I could deal with a dog and its need for walking, play, and attention at my advanced age. I do enjoy it when the grandsons’ dog comes to visit, though; the dog/cat interactions are fun for all involved (well, not so much for the female cat, who just curls up on the bed and waits out the invasion).

  9. I am a cat person[*]; my wife is both a dog and a cat person. Ergo we have cats. We are both heavy book-readers (but not “bibliophiles” in the technical sense, though she’s closer to that than I am).

    [*] It might be more accurate to say that I am a cat person in the sense that domesticated cats are human-oriented. I’ve lived with them all my life, and I’m glad to have them about, but I don’t play with them or pet them. We are commensals (in the broad sense, not in the literal sense); I have been known to say “Cats belong on the floor, dammit”, and a cat that jumps on me finds itself back on the floor.

  10. Meow.

  11. Also, St. Jerome and his kitty.

  12. Also, Pangur Bán.

  13. Powell’s Technical Books has cats living in the store. I thought this was odd when I first when there, but I realized it’s actually charming. I was sad when they changed the sign out front to one without cats.

  14. David Marjanović says

    Cats are David persons.

  15. I love books as much as the next guy, but the writing style in this really rubs me the wrong way. Take just the first sentence – Surely he doesn’t dwell *in* a single “mount” of books, but among multiple mounts, as he then immediately goes on to describe. All that this torrent of sloppy mixed metaphor and laboriously overdone alliteration does is call attention to the writer’s lack of precision. He comes off like a student with a bad case of thesaurus overuse.

    Sorry to rant about a rant!

  16. No, I agree. I liked the sentiments but the whole thing is overwritten. Also, he comes off like an old fogy when he’s probably half my age, judging from his photo, and that’s never a good sign.

  17. Some of us were born old fogies!

    Just think what an empty shell we leave behind after we leave this mortal realm: a room full of accumulated matter that means nothing to those who have to deal with it, just the detritus of someone’s life.

    I know a man who is almost 80 whose children are not interested in his collection, so he set up shop in his parking garage and spends his days selling his books and magazines off bit by bit and having a pleasant chats with the old fogies and junior fogies who come to visit him. It seems like a nice way to wrap up a lifetime.

  18. Guilty, because we have both cats and lots of books. But my wife is really the cat person and she also complains that we have too many books. When my father died I took all of his books that I was interested in, and since then I haven’t bought another book.

    All the bookstores around here have cats. It’s almost a requirement.

  19. We are dog (and at one time ferret) people. Cats not so much.

  20. marie-lucie says

    I once went to a used bookstore occupying an pleasant-looking old house not far from the main drag in a university town. Inside was a nice display, with four or five cats lounging around. The stench of cat urine was overpowering! I left almost as soon as I had entered, not even looking at a single book.

  21. I think I would have to donate my collection (which is not very extensive) to a library.

    I do think I qualify as a bibliophile, however, as I actually bought an apartment so that I would have a stable place to keep my books. It’s hard to buy lots of books if you’re living overseas and haven’t got a place to keep them. (I also bought a shipping container to house the ones I have back home in Australia, even though there are only a few shelves of them. Shipping containers are not recommended for books.)

  22. I agree very much with Giraldi’s sentiment, but too many moves and too little money, and a wife who thinks like Hat’s, have meant that I’ve had to cull my dynamic interior more than once. Fortunately my daughter is an accomplished Ebay merchant. I like to think that at least most of our five cats are on my side. Cechtar nathar fria saindan.

  23. narrowmargin says

    There used to be a cat sleeping in the window of the late, lamented Gotham Book Mart. Maybe more than one. I never knew its name. Or theirs.

  24. I like both cats and dogs and grew up with both. Unfortunately, my wife is allergic, so we currently have neither. I count myself lucky that she hasn’t developed a book allergy. 😉

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