What Our Book Collections Can Tell Us About Ourselves

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From my Collection
I have a small study in my house. Well, it would be better to say I have a room in my house with books on shelves, books in boxes, and books stacked on a French Avignon desk that I don’t use. We moved into this house over a decade ago and I told my wife then, patient and tolerant woman that she is, that “You go ahead and decorate and finish all the other rooms first and then we’ll do my study last.” Well, as with various other projects around the house, I never followed through. I had grandiose ideas about my new study and what it would mean when we moved into our new house. “I would,” as Michael Dirda quipped “of course, wear a velvet jacket at my desk, take breakfast in the conservatory, and in the late afternoon go for long walks on graveled paths.” I know, that’s pathetic.

Anyway, the truth is I’m either sitting at the kitchen table or in a chair in our bedroom when I write (or read) at home. Oh, and I don’t have any graveled paths to walk on either. My study, or “book room” really, is just storage space for me to wander through (or trip), while searching for a book or just casually picking up books and dipping into them to get a taste of the author’s prose or find some inspiration. My book room ramblings remind me of a fine quote by Churchill, that nicely captures my state of mind:

“If you cannot read all your books…fondle them—peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them, at any rate, be your acquaintances.” — Winston Churchill

Recently I decided to organize my books a little better. Instead of strictly by author, I organized them into large categories like history, philosophy, economics, etc, etc. A novel idea, I know. Of course this process, as I sifted through the boxes and shelves, forced me to see (by stack size, and word count) exactly what category had won my interests and taxed our budget over the years. In my case the winner, by sheer numbers and thickness of books, is biography. I’ve definitely read a lot of them over the decades.

Maybe it’s partially in the blood. My mother loves biographies and has a small collection herself. For me, I don’t know exactly when biography became my favorite genre, but I can remember two books that probably had the biggest influence on me early on in my reading life. Many years ago I read James Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson. Yes, I read the entire unabridged 1402 pages of the Oxford World Classic edition. I’m a slow reader, so believe me that took a while! But it was a great reading experience. Boswell’s biography was full of wit—which Johnson excelled at—and wisdom and fascinating details about 18th century English culture and art. It’s definitely a classic. I came away totally fascinated by Johnson’s unique life and his powerful, sharp mind.

Boswell’s biography led me to Walter Jackson Bate’s biography of Samuel Johnson. This was an absolutely absorbing book and a captivating literary experience. I had no idea, at that point in my reading life, that biography could be so compelling, instructive, and psychologically insightful. I completed Bate’s biography of Johnson feeling my perspective on life and the dynamics of human potential had changed. It was, properly speaking, literature that inspired a reverence for the power of literature to alter how we see the world. The book, by the way, won all 3 of the major American literary prizes, something that rarely happens.

The next biggest book category in my study appeared to be classical history, followed by literature (mostly essay collections), general history, leadership, psychology, civil war, and economics. And of course I have a large collection of what can be called general non-fiction. Books by, say, Malcolm Gladwell would fall into the category. My collection of novels is not what it use to be. I actually don’t read that many novels anymore I’m sad to admit. My time is limited, as you can tell by the rather spare postings on this blog (hoping to change that), and so I need to prioritize my reading to make room for writing.

If there is anything I’m reminded of from reorganizing my library, it’s that the books we collect don’t just represent what we like to read, but also through what discipline (or category) we enjoy discovery. For me, I’m attracted to biography, the story of people’s lives. It’s this form of literature that’s had the biggest influence in shaping how I’ve learned about the world. “I esteem biography,” Samuel Johnson said, “as giving us what comes near to ourselves, what we can turn to use.” I for one have always loved this quote and, as my bookshelves can attest, taken it to heart.

5 thoughts on “What Our Book Collections Can Tell Us About Ourselves

  1. After years of storing my books in boxes, we finally got the money to build shelves in our den. They’re truly a thing of beauty. It was a pleasure to sort and stack them. I have a non-fiction section, popular paperbacks, general history, WBTS, and novels, which are sorted by author.

    It’s not work when you get to spend time with old friends.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Certainly nothing wrong with being slightly eclectic when it comes to reading preferences. Miles from modeling yourself after one who chooses to abandon the art altogether at some point shortly after grade school. If you’re willing to try a novel I just thoroughly enjoyed The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto by Mitch Albom. It reads as a biography but of a fictional character. The novel is narrated by none other than music itself and serves as a terrific primer on the subject. Food for thought. I always enjoy your posts on keeping the arts alive, namely literature!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the book recommendation and the kind words about my blog, ET. I appreciate it.

      I recently picked up the novel All the Light We Cannot See. It’s been a bestseller for about a year now, so I figured I see what has made the book so popular. It’s on my nightstand waiting to be read—eventually. I will definitely look at The Magic Strings when I get a chance, it sounds interesting.

      The Arts and the aesthetic experience nourish the soul. The transformative power of literature is one of the great joys of life.

      Like

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