Some of our books. This is the medieval section.

My wife and I, over the course of our careers as historians, have amassed over 4400 books (I catalogued them a few years ago). Our children are well on their way to replicating our habit with their own tastes in literature. We have 27 bookcases of various sizes lining the walls of six rooms of our house. I wouldn’t say that we are hoarders – we’re actually somewhat selective about what we acquire, and the shelves have their own pleasant aesthetic. But when you both have academic specialties, and teach a lot of topics through survey courses, and have any number of secondary interests – and there are a potentially unlimited number of books published on every topic under the sun, well, you end up acquiring a lot of books! In fact, our habit has become a bit compulsive, almost like an addiction. Like all addictions, it has enablers:

I hate shopping, but there are few things I enjoy more than visiting a used book store! Usually it doesn’t take much for me to find an excuse to buy something. Some possibilities:

• This looks interesting.

• I don’t have a book on this topic, and I might need one for a lecture some day.

• I have a book on this topic but this one is more recent/provides a different point of view.

• I have heard of this author and I should have some of his books.

• I have read something by this author and would like to read more.

• I have nearly all this author’s works; all I need is this one to complete my collection.

• It is important to support small bookshops.

And so on. So out we come with an armful. (I do have an Excel spreadsheet of our collection on my phone, so that we don’t end up buying the same books over again.)

Bookshops, however, at least provide you with plenty of books that you do not want to buy. Romance novels, self-help books, celebrity biographies… all so very much beneath the notice of this academic. You find the history section, and then the selection of books that you might want, and then choose the best ones among them. It’s a chase, a filtration process – the aspect of collecting that makes it addictive. The trouble comes when you’re spoiled for choice, like at the book exhibits at the annual meeting of the AHA, where just about every academic publisher operating in America shows up with every historical title they have currently in print. Then you realize just how pathetic your addiction is. My friend Scott claims he fell out of love with stamp collecting when he realized that there were companies out there from whom you could order just about any stamp ever printed. Where’s the fun in that? Similarly, why buy a book on ancient Greece that “looks interesting,” when there have been twenty such books published this year alone that are brimming with current scholarship and are not available in Barnes and Noble, i.e. they are the sort of books that actually command academic respect? Oh, the pain!

But I don’t get to the AHA much. Instead, the normal situation prevails when we visit McKay’s in Tennessee or 2nd & Charles on Barrett Parkway. Joseph Epstein once called such stores “the pool halls of academe” and lately I have come to believe that our habit is somewhat self-congratulatory and illustrates a lack of discipline – or at least a distraction from doing real work. Having walls full of books certainly signifies you as Educated and a Professional Academic, but it also represents what one friend called a “security blanket.” After all, when are you going to read them all? I will say that I do read – last year I read 42 books, most of which were in our collection. But this represents less than 1% of our holdings, and at this rate it will take a century to read everything we’ve got. I could say that they’re there for the sake of reference – “reading” in the academic sense of skimming for information, and then keeping the book on the shelf in case you need to return to it some day, which may be never, but at least it’s there. But I really don’t like reading books in this way (what one author called “book breaking“) – it shortchanges the author and encourages intellectual superficiality. 

“Have you never heard of libraries?” a friend once asked me, to which I replied, “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t trust libraries.” And I guess I can say that this is a good reason to keep an extensive collection. It’s always convenient to have a book at home when you need it, rather than having to go to the library the next day, only to discover that it’s missing from the shelves, or that someone else has already checked it out. Having to order a book through interlibrary loan takes even longer, and there’s no guarantee that it will even arrive. And lately libraries are deaccessioning their codexes because “everything’s online anyway,” but I am suspicious of this movement, for a number of reasons:

• it remains (for me) more difficult to read longer works from a screen than from a page.

• you need computer equipment, an internet connection, and a power source to be able to read electronic documents. What if any of these is down? Sometimes they’re behind a paywall or require a subscription for added annoyance. 

• putting things online allows your reading habits to be tracked, and for changes to be made to texts without ever being acknowledged, in the mode of George Lucas monkeying with the original Star Wars trilogy. (Han shot first!) And don’t forget the books that somehow disappear without notice from your Kindle “library.” 

Reinhardt’s librarian Joel Langford once pointed out to me that with music or video recordings, you always need some sort of playback equipment, but with text, all you need is to know is how to read. Thus books will never quite go out of style, unlike CDs or VHS tapes – you don’t need any special equipment to read them, except for a light source. Furthermore, the tactility of books keeps them attractive over computer files. Malcolm Gladwell once wrote an essay about the persistence of paper. An excerpt:

Computer technology was supposed to replace paper. But that hasn’t happened…. This is generally taken as evidence of how hard it is to eradicate old, wasteful habits and of how stubbornly resistant we are to the efficiencies offered by computerization. A number of cognitive psychologists and ergonomics experts, however, don’t agree. Paper has persisted, they argue, for very good reasons: when it comes to performing certain kinds of cognitive tasks, paper has many advantages over computers. The dismay people feel at the sight of a messy desk—or the spectacle of air-traffic controllers tracking flights through notes scribbled on paper strips—arises from a fundamental confusion about the role that paper plays in our lives.

There’s much more at the link. Gladwell is talking about the use of paper in offices, but some of what he says applies to books as well – holding them in one’s hand, marking pages with sticky notes, scribbling in the margins, shelving them by topic – these things actually help us to remember what’s in the book. (This is a drawback of literacy, of course – we have outsourced remembering to the text, so anything that allows us more efficient access to that information is to be cherished.)

While we’re on the subject of tactility, it is good to remember that some books, as objects, are better than others. One is not supposed to judge a book by its cover (or, presumably, other physical attributes), but you really can’t help it. Some of the qualities I appreciate:

• The paper should be smooth to the touch, strong (not disintegrative), and should not yellow with age.

• The pages should be well laid out with spacious margins. Fonts should be attractive and appropriate, with competent leading, kerning, justification and characters per line. The ink should be solid in tone and color, and the letters well defined. 

• The illustrations and graphical flourishes should be attractive and appropriate, and not clash with the typeface.

• Whether hard or soft cover, the binding should not crack or come apart yet should be supple enough to handle with ease. (I don’t particularly care for Folio Society-style leather bindings and gilded page edges, though – that is a step too far.)

• Softcover books should be made so that the cover doesn’t curl up in the slightest humidity, and the cover shouldn’t easily retain and display the grease stains from one’s fingers. Also, it’s nice when that thin film of cellophane that covers some softcover books doesn’t bubble and start peeling off.

• Last but not least, there is that lovely scent. One of the appeals of a book store is the smell of all the old books! A book should certainly not reek of the oil used to print it. 

So I’m not about to get rid of all my books any time soon. I’m certainly not going to adopt the habits of a person I read about in the Chronicle once, who prided himself on keeping no books. If he was working on something, he would get whatever books he needed from the library or interlibrary loan, and after he was done he would return them, and put the topic out of his mind as he moved on to his next project. To my mind this is somewhat anti-intellectual, but it’s likely more conducive to academic success.

Still, a good cull is probably in order….

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