My anti-library and a digital bookshelf

There is a video I love. For more than a minute the camera follows Umberto Eco walk through his personal library, the path lined with bookshelves that often stretch from the floor to the ceiling, all packed with books.

This library, which was recently acquired by the University of Bologna, contained roughly 44,000 volumes. Of course Eco hadn’t read every volume in this library — there is a finite amount of time in any given life — but the collection served as a research collection and a personal philosophy articulated in an oft-repeated passage of Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan, where Eco explained that unread books are more valuable to a collection than are read books. The latter are little more than an “ego boosting appendage” as though being well-read alone confers value to the person, while the former are a well of potential knowledge. Taleb calls this the “anti-library.” The more one knows, the larger that well-should be, according to Eco.

I also like to think that this library brought joy to Umberto Eco, if we are to apply the Marie Kondo test.

The reason I love this video is that I aspire to have this sort of library.

Years ago I had a conversation with Alex Green at his store, the now-closed Backpages Books in Waltham, Massachusetts where we talked about our respective book-buying habits. The upshot of that conversation is that I have a problem — and also that Alex gave me a copy of Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ when I checked out, I assume because I mentioned that it was my favorite book.

When I need a break, I will often relax by poring over lists of books hunting for hidden gems. Sometimes this has a direct impact on what I read, such as a recent stretch where I read books curated from the New York Times list of best books from 2020. Other times those books sit on my to-read shelves for months or years only to be pulled out when the time feels right, as with Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters, Ayse Kulin’s Last Train to Istanbul, and Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum.

The current States of my to-read shelf.
The current state of my to-read shelf.

For similar reasons, I struggle to walk past a bookstore without sticking my head in, and have taken to deliberately browsing the store for longer than I intended while holding onto some volume I found to see if the impulse to purchase it fades.

Even with that restraint, I have acquired a lot of books. I recently moved with just a fraction of the volumes in Eco’s library and have been charged by my partner with sorting out library, much of which resides in the room I am using for my office. This process has me thinking a lot about Umberto Eco and his stroll through the library and I have questions.

  • Does he have an assistant (or graduate student) who tends to the collection?
  • What kind of building was this library in?
  • When did he acquire the space?
  • Did he ever have to move the collection and, if so, at what age? Did he have helpers?

The last question is of course the one I am most concerned with since the peripatetic life of of a graduate student and contingent faculty member is almost more of a limitation to creating a library than the monetary cost of the books. It is much easier to be Guy Pearce’s character at the end of Mare of Easttown packing all of your earthly possessions into a Jaguar XK8 to drive to your next gig if those possessions don’t include hundreds of books.

And yet, even as I struggle to find space for all of the books that we currently own, I can’t help but think about all of the other books I want to acquire.

Like I said, I have a problem.

The local library helps, of course, but only to a point. In addition to being limited by what they have in their collection, libraries don’t always match up with the rhythm of my reading where I like to have access to a book so that I can pick it up on a whim.

Library e-book programs like Overdrive are somewhat better in this respect. My current read is an e-book of Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet, a thick book detailing the divergent philosophies of William Vogt and Norman Borlaug that I picked up after seeing it name-dropped favorably on a blog. The problem is that I’m reading it on my phone. I’ve read several other books this way recently, with mixed results. I like the ability to clip a passage by taking a screen shot, but generally dislike almost every other aspect of the reading experience.

What I am currently debating is whether my antipathy toward e-books is intrinsic to the form or whether my phone is just a bad e-reader. The latter is without question true. The screen is calibrated for looking at social media and the fact that it is smaller than a book means that it is an awkward fit in my hand. Conversely, my tablet is too large for an e-reader. In addition, the other apps on the phone have proven a siren’s song always pulling me away from whatever I’m reading. If I am going to keep doing e-books, then, I need to get an e-reader that I use for nothing but e-books — and, looking at the kindle options, I’m definitely going to need to pay the surcharge for an ad-free version.

I will always love the feel, and the smell, of a physical book, but carrying a slim device saves both space and weight. E-books also could — potentially — save me money after the initial investment on the device since the average price of an e-book is lower than the print equivalent (by design, Amazon and Barnes and Noble offer higher royalty rates on books priced between 3 and 10 dollars), even before considering sales.

But what is good for me as a reader gives me pause as a book person. While unpacking my library, I have been slowly pruning the collection, putting some volumes in boxes that I want to donate to my local public library. I don’t like this process, but, unlike Signore professore dottore Eco, I am not graced with an enormous space that I can fill, and I try to think about this as a gardener might: prune the tree not as a destructive process, but in order to clear the way for new growth. That is, if I from time to time clear what I have on the shelf in a way that allows someone else to enjoy some of the books, then I can buy new books, building my library as a physical, tangible thing that blends my favorites with those I have yet to read.

E-books don’t provide the same experience. Purchasing an e-book actually means licensing access to the product and browsing an e-book shelf might provide the same information, but I find that trapping all of that knowledge in a small device soulless. The anti-library lands differently when it is on a digital bookshelf.

And then there is the Amazon of it all.

So, where does that leave me? I don’t know. The increasingly-large selection of digital books through my public library has me leaning toward purchasing an e-reader because I can’t keep reading them on my phone. But an e-reader is also yet another device to keep around the house and a substantial investment for something that I might come to hate. At the end of the day, though, I also just want to keep buying books.

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