“When I look at the thousands of volumes on my shelves, the accumulation of a lifetime, an indivisible unity, I put their inevitable fate out of my mind, and imagine nothing can part us.”
Even those of us dwelling in the higher realms, immune to the mere Māyā of matter, contemplate the fate of our libraries. We live autobiographically through our books, as Theodore Dalrymple’s choice of “indivisible unity” suggests, and we don’t feel the same way about our furniture or neckties. More than an aggregation of paper and ink, our books constitute a surrogate self; sculpted, not merely accreted, a whole reassuringly greater than its parts. Dalrymple continues on the vanity of bookish wishes in The Pleasure of Thinking: A Journey Through the Sideways Leaps of Ideas (Gibson Square Books, 2012):
“Even when I pick up a volume in my possession, three hundred years old, and see inscribed in it the names of its successive owners, I do not conclude that I am but its temporary guardian, and that my guardianship is merely a brief episode in its long history. No, I conclude that, at long last, the book has found its true, rightful and final owner, that I am the goal, the denouement, at which the previous three hundred years has been aiming.”
More rationally (“in my more lucid moments”), Dalrymple recognizes that on his death, his widow will call in a dealer who will offer “yardage” for his library. The vision recalls the Ghost of Christmas Future showing Scrooge how his charwoman will sell his belongings after his death. It amuses Dalrymple and horrifies him: “I prefer to avert my thoughts from the posthumous breakup of my library. To me it seems to possess an obvious organic unity [that word again], that of my whole life, but I cannot expect an outside observer to notice it.” A friend tells him he is usually able to accurately judge the interests, profession and character of a person by examining his library. Dalrymple continues:
“But with me, said my friend, my library offered no clue. Several special sections on Russia, Haiti, Albania, Liberia, Guatemala and Romania, along with criminal trials, poisonings, Doctor Johnson, anti-vaccination literature, bubonic plague, the Baconian theory of Shakespearean authorship, opium and Joseph Conrad, among other subjects, which are not large enough to be those of a real scholar, but were too large to be those of the mere general reader, gave no clear clue as to the nature of my interests, character or mental health.”
My library seems less heterogeneous than Dalrymple’s. I think of it in architectural terms, starting with the customary foundation -- Homer, Dante, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Melville, Tolstoy and so on -- and branching out into a series of connected annexes and wings: the American Civil War, insects and birds, Guy Davenport, jazz, Yvor Winters and his circle, Dr. Johnson, Henry James, twentieth-century Polish literature, Judaism, nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian literature. I emphasize the connectedness. One could start with any book on my shelves and find his way thematically to any other – or at least I could, because each represents a piece of my sensibility. There’s no filler, no dead spots.
What’s really so awful about the dispersal of a library after its architect is gone, especially if the survivors don’t share the bookish tastes of the departed? Think of it as the literary counterpart of nature's nitrogen cycle. Elsewhere in The Pleasure of Thinking, Dalrymple cites Holbrook Jackson’s The Anatomy of Bibliomania (1950). Near that book’s conclusion, in a chapter titled “On Parting with Books,” Jackson offers solace to those contemplating the question: “Yet many are loth to part from their treasures even at the end, although they know that unless collections were dispersed collections could not be made.” As Dalrymple reminds us: “Booksellers are, in fact, as dependent on death as much as undertakers for their livelihood.”