On Books and Libraries

I just finished reading an article in the Globe and Mail Talking about Alberto Manguel's new book The Library at Night. Really, though, this article isn't anything about that. It does discuss the importance of libraries, and that is what I want to talk about.

Libraries can be grand things like the Library of Alexandria, but they can also be a humble shelf of books. Libraries can also be other things, like a collection of papers that someone decided it was useful to keep. Perhaps ironically, libraries may also be papers that someone would prefer to dispose of, but can't. I'm thinking of a chapter in Matthew Battles' Library: An Unquiet History that discusses a geniza, which is a kind of Hebrew "book tomb" where writings of all sorts are retained when they are no longer needed, and kept safe until they can be properly disposed of. When they are not disposed of, it provides an invaluable insight on the society that created them. These all amount to various perspectives on the preciousness of words and ideas and how such things are (or perhaps should be) treated in society. I suppose book burning is the ultimate in verification of the preciousness of words; if they cannot be countered, then despicably extraordinary measures are taken by those who wish to suppress the ideas they express.

I have quite a few books. I like to think that I don't hoard them but I am going to have to cull my collection soon. It's either that or buy more bookshelves. I find this culling very hard to do. I have books that I haven't read in years, but know that they are out of print, so if I part with them I may never see them again. Don't get me started about the whole idea of digitizing books. Digitizing does have it's uses in situations where the material is more reference related, like an encyclopedia. However, I've always thought of digitizing books as a rather unsavoury practice, similar to the nasty colourization done by Ted Turner on movies that, in my opinion, should have stayed black and white. Call me a luddite if you like.

I also use books to think about other people. For instance, when I enter a person's house for the first time, lots of book related questions run through my mind, like "How many books do they have?", "Do they have any books at all?", "What kinds of books do they have?", "What books do they put out for show, as opposed to what they read when no one is looking?", "If they have books, do they actually read them?" You have no idea how many people have told me that they "have" Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, only to later reveal that they own it, but have not read it. (Personally I found that book intolerable, but that's a different story.) Basically, I think that, for better or worse, I try to learn a little bit about who people are by looking at their books. I suppose some people might do the same thing for music or movies.

Which to me means that this book I am looking at that I have read, and enjoyed, and am trying to figure out if I should get rid of is in some way a part of me. Even though I may have forgotten the general arguments in the book, the act of reading it has changed me in ways that I may or may not be cognizant. So it's not easy to dispose of such a part of yourself.

This article didn't quite go in the direction I had intended. I was intending to discuss the importance of libraries in general to society and reflect it back on my library and why it was important to me. Instead, I ended up discussing libraries as I thought they reflected on people and myself. Well, it has been argued that books in of themselves are nothing, and that it takes people to bring them to life through reading.

For now this book goes back on the shelf.