Saturday, January 24, 2015

`One Place in the World'

“Libraries are not made; they grow. Your first two thousand volumes present no difficulty, and cost astonishingly little money. Given £400 and five years, and an ordinary man can in the ordinary course, without undue haste or putting any pressure upon his taste, surround himself with this number of books, all in his own language, and thenceforward have at least one place in the world in which it is possible to be happy.” 

In “Book Buying” (Obiter Dicta, Second Series, 1896), Augustine Birrell speaks not of the institutional but the personal library, the books on the shelves in our home. To call them a library today sounds pretentious, a nouveau riche striving after culture, though etymologically correct. The snob appeal of books can never be underestimated. I once interviewed a bookstore owner who sold bulk orders of volumes to two sorts of customers – movie production people seeking books as props, a sort of classy-looking wallpaper, and home owners who wanted that Bookish Retro Modern look. Silly but perfectly understandable. Most pleasing in the Birrell passage is his equation of books and happiness, a library as a sanctuary. It sounds romantic or sentimental but I share the sentiment. Birrell goes on: 

“It is no doubt a pleasant thing to have a library left you. The present writer will disclaim no such legacy, but hereby undertakes to accept it, however dusty. But good as it is to inherit a library, it is better to collect one. Each volume then, however lightly a stranger's eye may roam from shelf to shelf, has its own individuality, a history of its own. You remember where you got it, and how much you gave for it; and your word may safely be taken for the first of these facts, but not for the second.” 

Most of my books I acquired one or two at a time across more than half a century. Just this week a reader here in Texas mailed me a copy of The Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov, a book I haven’t read since soon after it was published in 1980. When I read it again, it will be as though the volume carried an addendum, a supplemental chapter, because along with Shalamov’s chronicle of life in a Soviet labor camp I’ll think of my friend in Dallas. Each book on my shelf, in addition to its printed contents, is a story in itself, some of which I no longer clearly remember. Birrell suggests further that our books, in turn, assume a collective identity, just as the inhabitants of an ant colony function as a sort of mega-organism. To use Birrell’s example, Shakespeare chats with Milton – until our library is dispersed, probably with our deaths, and is pulped, sold piecemeal or gratefully (or otherwise) inherited. He writes: 

“They will form new combinations, lighten other men's toil, and soothe another's sorrow. Fool that I was to call anything mine!”


George said...

Four hundred pounds, adjusted for inflation over 120 years, is quite a bit of money. Two thousand books, unless comprising the lightest stuff only, would take a long time to read through: at a rate of a book a week, about thirty years. They would also require a good deal of shelf space, wouldn't they? Still, I like the idea.

Barry Cusack said...

A library through inheritance or purchase, certainly. Also through marriage, when two become one.