On entering a house or office for the first time, one naturally inspects the bookshelves, hoping to discover evidence of a gifted reader or, failing that, a reader whose taste is so appallingly bad that one can feel guiltlessly righteous in the superiority of his own literary judgments. When I recently visited the office of a faculty member I had not met before, I was greeted by an entire wall filled ceiling to floor with books, technical journals and not one tchotchke. (That absence is noteworthy. Book owners often clutter their shelves with dust-collecting junk, which is like slavering catsup on cassoulet.)
While the professor answered an urgent email, I looked more closely at her impressive-looking library. Her research is multidisciplinary, drawing on mathematics, medicine, and several of the hard and soft sciences, and her books reflect the diversity of her interests. I noted several volumes by a well-known “activist,” a writer much lauded for his bottomless capacity for complaining about something or other. When the professor finished with her chore, she asked if I had found anything of interest on her shelves. Mostly to make conversation I mentioned having interviewed the activist-writer some years ago, and she asked for my impressions. Speaking, for once, tactfully, I replied that he seemed rather impressed with himself and his every utterance. She, drawing on deep reservoirs of diplomacy, ended that portion of our conversation with a noncommittal “hmmmm.” I admired her deft deployment of guile. Theodore Dalrymple in The Pleasure of Thinking: A Journey Through the Sideways Leaps of Ideas (Gibson Square Books, 2012) shares my taste for bookshelf psychologizing:
“I know many people who, when they enter a house for the first time, are inclined (even if they control themselves) to go straight up to the bookshelves to find out what their hosts are made of: for taste is a more reliable guide to character than opinion. I am like this: I control myself, but in a room with a substantial number of books I feel a tension mounting in myself until I have found out what they are. Indeed, I often fake or manufacture a reason for sidling up to them, and examining them out of the corner of my eye. It is astonishing, when one has been around books a long time, how often one recognizes a volume by some very tiny aspect of the appearance of its spine or dust wrapper.”
Dalrymple’s volume, with its rather misleading title, chronicles a life spent acquiring and reading books. Without snobbery, he revels in everything to do with the printed word. He collects and writes about obvious favorites – Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson, De Quincey, Arthur Koestler – but devotes entire sub-sections of his library to books beyond conventional literary categories -- crime and medicine in particular (he is a retired prison psychiatrist). There’s little of attention-seeking or delectation about Dalrymple’s book obsession. Books are like tools or medicine, useful and sustaining. As he writes: “I am not so much a collector of books as an accumulator of them.” That’s precisely the distinction I would make.
The manner in which I finally acquired a copy of The Pleasure of Thinking might be of interest to Dalrymple. I ordered it last week through interlibrary loan (ILL) at my university library. On Wednesday I received an email saying it had arrived. When I reported to the circulation desk the librarian told me the book could only be used in the library. I couldn’t borrow it to read at home. The volume came from half a continent away, from the holdings of the Library of Congress. The librarian suggested I try to order the book again, specifying that it be a fully circulating copy, and I did.
Thursday morning I received another email, this one from a woman in the ILL department. According to the OCLC (Online Computer Library Center), she reported, the only library copy available in the U.S. is the restricted one from the Library of Congress. “I would suggest you speak with a Reference Librarian about purchasing, but the cost for a hardcopy [is] USED $862.26, NEW $1992.97,” she wrote, and included the pertinent link to Amazon.com. The price printed on the cover of the book is £12.99 – about $20.28. Then the ILL librarian presented me with an unexpected gift: “I understand you would prefer to take this book out of the library; in this case I'm giving our Circulation staff authorization to give you this book. You have requested several books through Interlibrary Loan and you have a good reputation with our department and the library, so I do not have any issues with you taking the book out of the library.”
Librarians and other book people can be monsters, like the rest of the species, but I had stumbled upon an angel, and yet another happy example of book-driven serendipity. For Dalrymple, serendipity is the essence of the bookish life, the reason we haunt bookshops, libraries and other peoples’ shelves. It is also precisely the quality most vulnerable to the ease and convenience of the internet. Booksellers tell him young people increasingly visit their shops with a single title in mind. If it’s not in stock, they leave – no browsing, no letting go of the strictly utilitarian, no faith that a better book may be waiting for them. Dalrymple writes:
“They cannot know, then, the pleasures of serendipity, for their view of books is entirely an instrumental one, a means to an end, say the completion of an assignment. They have been brought up in an educational environment in which everything that is taught is of supposed relevance to their lives as they now are, or soon will be; indeed, any lack of such relevance is an alleged explanation of their ill-behaviour or refractoriness in learning. The notion that the irrelevance of subject matter to their current lives might enrich those lives and enlarge their outlook, by increasing what counts as relevant for them, is utterly alien. We live in an age that praises diversity and imposes uniformity.”