Better Questions for People about Their Home Library than the Ones that are usually asked

My library is, in my estimation, not huge. At least I think it is small relative to what I would like it to be. It is smaller than other personal libraries I have seen and certainly not over the top for an academic. Still, I get it. It is bigger than what you will see when you walk into most homes.

That doesn’t mean people without large home libraries don’t read. Many go to these quite remarkable spaces known as “public libraries.” There are more books there than you could read in several lifetimes. What is fascinating about these places is that they will just let you take a fair number of books home. They simply ask that you bring them back in a specified amount of time so others can access them, too. It is really a brilliant concept.

Also, there are these electronic things like “Nooks” or “Kindles” and other such devices. I don’t really understand them. Sure, I get the utility and convenience. It is easier to transport these thin devices from place to place than carry a book, plus you can have several books on a single device. Since the advent of the internet, I have read text on a screen and do so every single day. That part is not alien. I just like the tactile experience of a book and there is something deeply satisfying about turning a page. But, if you read books, I am not going to quibble with the medium. Just read.

I digress. Yes, I have a home library that, let us just say, takes up some space. I have ten shelves that are maybe six and half feet high and thirty inches wide. Then I have some shelves of the same height, but narrower, plus assorted books scattered here and there. On many of the shelves there are books arranged on top. Within the confines of the shelves there are many books not yet properly shelved but stacked in front of the other books in the general area they need to be.

And that is just what I had before I got married a few months back (well, okay, I have added books since then). My wife brought a substantial number of books along for the ride and several shelves of various sizes. Bottom line, we have a lot of books. I would count them, but that cuts into my reading time.

There are two questions I typically get asked. The first I am sure you are familiar with and perhaps have yourself inquired of friends with a lot of books: “Have you read all of these books”? The first thing you need to understand about this question is that it can cause a fair amount of distress and even despair to a booklover. Of course, we haven’t read them all! And we have had to come to grips with the fact that we only have one lifetime, and several lifetimes would not be sufficient time to read all the books we would like to read. Please don’t ask if we have read them all because, well, it is painful.

To the point of this question, Umberto Eco wrote a lovely little essay entitled “How To Justify a Private Library” (this essay is contained in an enormously fun book of short essays entitled How to Travel with a Salmon and Other Essays). The late Italian philosopher, semiotician, and newspaper columnist was said to have had 30,000 volumes in his personal library. He considered such a library a “working tool” for research rather than a “storage place” for books already read.

Even the ones already read, to me, are books to return to, especially those I need for research. I won’t ever return to all of them, but the possibility that I might need to is reason enough to keep already read books. This brings me to the second question I have been asked: “Have you ever thought of getting rid of some of these books?” The first time I was ever asked something like this, I admit I didn’t understand the question. But the short answer is, no, I have not entertained the idea even once.

Regarding non-fiction books, clearly to have them available for ongoing research is necessary. But fiction, poetry, plays, biographies are all books that on occasion invite me back, even if it is for that one paragraph that impacted me in some important way. I like having them around.

I will add in a bonus third question: “Why do you spend all that time getting book learning when life experience is where the real knowledge is found”? There are numerous problems with this question. First, its unspoken premise is entirely wrong. It seems to place book knowledge and life experience knowledge at odds where one is to be preferred above the other. The unexamined idea is that “book smarts” is of no genuine value because it is not the “real” world.” My answer to this is simply that even if book knowledge had no utility value, it wouldn’t matter. Some things are okay to do just because you enjoy them. But books expand vocabularies and introduce one to ideas they might not have been exposed to otherwise, among many other benefits.

Another problem with opposing reading to life experience, is that if you limit your knowledge to what you can personally experience, your knowledge is impoverished indeed. It is like saying one should never travel, if they have means, but stay only where they have always been because that is all you need to know (actually, come to think of it, a lot of people do think that way, which is the root of a great deal of damaging and dangerous ignorance we suffer because of in our day). Books are much easier to access than traveling and can introduce you to worlds that exist beyond you that you otherwise would remain ignorant of.

A little secret: where do you think the things people write about come from? Books contain the experiences of others. My world is expanded, and my horizons broadened by reading in ways my own personal experience could not, alone, provide me. The question of book knowledge and “real life” knowledge is not an either/or matter; it is a both/and. It is not as if I have to choose what I learn from only books or only walking out my door. I can do both.

Okay. I don’t want to merely curse the darkness in my objections to the questions I am frequently asked when someone sees my library. I want to light a candle by suggesting some questions that are better asked of people with a lot of books.

Instead of asking me if I have read all of these books, how about asking, “How many of these books have you been able to read so far?” We can go exploring and I can tell you about the books I have read or stories that might be associated with how I came to a particular book. You might discover a book that you want to get yourself (don’t ask me to loan it to you, I confess I am a bit of a jerk about loaning my books. Few have earned that privilege).

I have a few books that are very old. How about asking me how I got hold of a book with a copyright in the 1800’s in such good condition? For example, I have a complete 1st edition set of the Harvard Classics in pristine condition. The story of how I got those is a hoot and a holler.

Ask me if there are any books that I have been compelled to read more than once (even though reading a book twice means one less book in my lifetime that will get read). There are some of those I will show you, and you can ask me why I’ve read them twice (or three times).

Now, not to be a curmudgeon. I know that often when people exclaim “have you read all these books?” that it is just a reaction of awe toward so many tomes. But the question can also come across as having somewhat of a disdain for such home libraries. If I haven’t read them all, why do I have them? If I have read them all, why do I still have them? The underlying assumption seems to be that there is no point to having so many books.

All I can tell you is that I like them. Books surrounding me is one thing that makes me happy and I like having them around. Read or unread.

I look at my unread books and see them as worlds yet to be explored. Unread books are promises and possibilities. But, you say, if you read one of those books and it does not deliver on the promise or possibility, you have wasted your time. What if it is a dud? Yeah, well, you don’t stop going to restaurants just because you go to one you thought would be good that turned out not to be to your liking, do you? Do you stop watching movies because you watched a dud? Why are books any different? And most of the time, it was worth the journey.

As to books I have read, as I have indicated, they are places that I might want to return to one day. Just like a place I have traveled and go back to, I might find things the second time I didn’t experience the first time.

So next time you walk into someone’s home and discover they have a large home library. Try not asking the same questions they have heard a thousand times. Ask more useful questions. You might learn something new.

Those of you who have large personal libraries: what are some questions you would like to be asked?


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