“A person’s library is often a symbolic representation of his or her mind. A man who has quit expanding his personal library may have reached the point where he thinks he knows all he needs to and that what he doesn’t know can’t hurt him. He has no desire to keep growing intellectually. The man with an ever-expanding library understands the importance of remaining curious, open to new ideas and voices.”
I too am a psychoanalyst of other people’s bookshelves, but that’s a role easily blurred with snobbery. If I see Stephen King on your shelf, I can’t help but draw conclusions, but I weigh those conclusions against other evidence, including the rest of the books on your shelves and the way you talk about them. Likewise, the presence of Finnegans Wake might be interpreted in many contradictory ways.
“A man who has quit expanding his personal library” might be financially strapped, sick, content with his collection, or an enthusiastic public library patron. To conclude that he “may have reached the point where he thinks he knows all he needs to and that what he doesn’t know can’t hurt him” is presumptuous and seriously underestimates the importance of individual titles in the lives of many readers. A reader might be devoted to one book, one writer or one literary era, and that may suffice for a lifetime.
In a lecture on Monday I heard a neuroscientist say, “The brain is matched to the world.” That’s because the human brain evolved out of the world. It is a complementary piece of the world. Our libraries, like much else in our lives, are matched to that elusive but readily recognized quality, sensibility. Mims writes: “The man with an ever-expanding library understands the importance of remaining curious, open to new ideas and voices.” No, he may just understand the importance of a fat bank account. Curiosity has nothing to do with it.
Mims makes too much of the unread books on our shelves. Many explanations are apparent. I haven’t recently taken an inventory but I think I have read every volume I own. The most recent addition, Joseph Epstein’s Charm: The Elusive Enchantment, arrived in the mail on Monday. I stayed up late and finished reading it.