(National Review, June 2014.)
Not long ago, I popped into a Salvation Army store in suburban Maryland to check out the used-book section. I’d unearthed plenty of gems in similar places, so it wasn’t surprising that the visit proved similarly productive. Home came copies of William Safire’s On Language and the novel Van Loon’s Lives, an 890-page tome written in 1942 that imagines what dinner parties featuring some of history’s most famous people might look like — Torquemada dines with Robespierre, Saint Francis with Mozart, and so on. Or, at least, this is what Wikipedia informs me Van Loon’s Lives is about. The thing is, I probably won’t read Van Loon’s Lives. Actually, I may never again crack open Van Loon’s Lives. Yet there it sits on my bookshelf between well-worn copies of A Short History of Byzantium and A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton — and, if I have my way, there it will sit for the next 30 years.
This kind of bibliophilic overindulgence has caused me plenty of angst over the years. The last time I moved my family — and we’ve moved multiple times — there were many more boxes of books than there were of clothing, utensils, dishes, and all other household items combined. So, unsurprisingly, every so often, mutiny breaks out and domestic forces prod me into scaling back my collection. This typically entails frivolous protests about the amount of “space” my books take up or equally unpersuasive arguments about how stacks of “messy” books scattered across the house are aesthetically disagreeable. Other shaky arguments include: “You’ve already read them.” “You’ll never read it again.” “Why don’t you get a Kindle like a normal person?”
This year, in the hopes of quelling insurrection, I decided to defend my book collection. “Every book is necessary. Surely I am not, as popular opinion around here has it, some kind of hoarder.” Well, things began somewhat precariously when it took me 20 minutes to decide whether I should retain a single slim volume called “Extra Lives,” an amusing history of video games, or condemn it to exile in some far-flung Goodwill where it would mingle forever with discarded copies of A Brief History of Time or yellowing Robert Ludlum paperbacks. It did not get any easier from there. Though I was only able to find maybe ten books suitable for expulsion, I had to admit that I probably owned hundreds of books for no practical or logical reason whatsoever.
There were the science-fiction books with covers so juvenile I’d be embarrassed to read them in front of my preteen kids. There were academic books on science and mathematics, the contents of which I couldn’t possibly pretend to begin to understand. There were Umberto Eco novels. There were books about punk rock and country music and histories of heavy metal and modern classical music. There were inane manifestos from long-forgotten politicians and trendy books on pop economics. There were the mystery books and there were mysterious books. For reasons unknown, for instance, I own not one but two biographies of the acerbic Oscar Levant and two books of “conversations” with Woody Allen. Perhaps, I rationalized, these tomes may be useful when I pen that historic book on the American Jewish comic — a project I’d concocted mere seconds earlier. The same shelf featured a book titled “The Anatomy of Swearing,” which is undoubtedly fascinating, and Neal Pollack’s Stretch, which is about a middle-aged man discovering the restorative powers of yoga. Yoga?
There were books I hadn’t read and there were books I had read but would never read again and then there were books I wished I hadn’t read in the first place. Killing Yourself to Live is an account of Chuck Klosterman’s journey to the sites of tragic rock stars’ deaths, and Frank Sheeran’s I Heard You Paint Houses is about the Mafia hood who confessed to killing Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa. Neither was particularly enjoyable or educational, so why were they taking up space in a basement that should contain evidence of my children’s hobbies? Do I really need The Story of Tibet or The Story of Sushi? Do I really care “Why Mahler Matters”? Is it rational for someone to eat up valuable square footage in the Washington, D.C., area with Arthur Koestler’s absurdly ahistorical The Thirteenth Tribe or a history of the Westies?
Turns out it is.
A book collection is, of course, the story of your intellectual and cultural life — with all the high-mindedness, pretentiousness, shallowness, and curiosity that comes with the project. As sappy as it sounds, browsing through my own unreasonably cumbersome book collection, one that took more than 20 years to compile, became something of a sentimental experience. It turns out that even what you don’t read says something about you. Perhaps some of your books aren’t about what you know; they’re about what you hope to know and what you once thought you wanted to know. This connection simply can’t be made in digitized form. As Joe Queenan pointed out in One for the Books, it is the objects themselves that are sacred. One stack in my home features The Servile Mind, The Rational Optimist, Cryptonomicon, and Parliament of Whores because together they say something about my sensibilities. And I hope that one day I will read that biography of Disraeli or Diarmaid MacCulloch’s gargantuan book Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. There might be better, less messy, less intrusive uses for that space. But I can’t think of a single one. At least, that’s the story I’m going with.