On Surrounding Oneself with Books

I’ve occasionally mentioned, here and on Twitter, that I love books - not just reading, but the actual, physical objects, and try to surround myself with them. That “surrounding” is, in fact, literal since I don’t have much space in my room, and I long ago ran out of shelf space and have to stack new volumes on the floor. It’s something like stuffing the Library of Alexandria into a broom closet, or Yomiko’s room from R.O.D.


I haven’t even read many of these, and at the rate I collect more may well never have time to read them all. Is that a waste? Why do I feel compelled to buy so many books that I don’t even have time to read? Part of an explanation may be as simple as positive associations with books and libraries. At university, some of my happiest moments were those times I’d go to the library, sometimes skipping class to do so, and just hang out for an hour or two. Occasionally I’d study or do research while there, but often I’d just grab a book that looked interesting and thumb through it. My personal library may never quite reach a university level, unless I hit a couple good superfectas at Kentucky Downs or something, but I’ve certainly been trying. Having a wide variety of books at hand certainly helps when I want to look up a quotation for, say, a blog post, and no matter what kind of mood I’m in I can always go right to the shelf (or the stack next to the shelf, or the stack next to my desk, or the stack by my bed, etc.) and find something appropriate.

As for books themselves, they’re romantic things, a way to collapse time and space, forming a link to a total stranger, perhaps from a strange land or centuries past, but who in personal reading seems to have written something just for me. Whether I want a Fourth Century Roman’s opinions on interpreting Scripture or a Twentieth Century Englishman’s observations on constructing mazes and labyrinths, they’re all available for a one-on-one conversation any time. A large library can ground its modern patrons in millennia-old thoughts and narratives, like a parliament for the “democracy of the dead.”

Now, though I did recently get a Kindle, in fact my second Kindle, I don’t think e-books can fully replace physical books, any more than the telephone or e-mail can adequately replace a face-to-face meeting. That physical presence and contact enables a more intimate, trusting relationship, whether with a friend or a Chinese philosopher. The added engagement of turning pages or physically noting or highlighting passages also seems to engage one’s mind more than the relatively passive e-book, and especially more than a web page filled with distracting hyperlinks. Also, you know a book’s good when it’s been around long enough to have that great old-book smell that makes one’s eyes water.

Even the unread books have a value. I may not be familiar with them, but just their physical presence has the grounding effect mentioned above. Besides, they’re always there waiting for me, lest I get curious about an Eleventh Century courtier’s lists of things that lose (and gain) by being painted.