I was lucky enough to have parents who taught me the value of reading from my early childhood. Leaving their house at 16, I lived from ages 18 to 33 in New York City, Boston, Istanbul, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. Through my mid-20s, mine was a kind of itinerant ascetic life in which I deliberately owned few possessions. I was working full time and going to school, tuition for which devoured what remained of my salary, so I was approximately penniless during much of that time. For that reason, maintaining my relative asceticism was easy enough, and at least in part a philosophy of convenience.
Undeterred by my compact resources, I accessed books, which were my prime material indulgence, in other ways. I frequented public libraries and read at least one full book from cover-to-cover while sitting in a Barnes and Noble in Brooklyn with a good friend. My patronage of that store has since made up for this instance of gratuitous freeloading. When at the end of each year the university library offered boxes of free books I raided them for gems like so many treasure chests. A few of them still stand on my shelves behind me.
When I did buy books, it was usually from the bargain shelf at the used bookstore on my way to class. Barring rain or snow, the shelf was on the street and, as late as 2014, every book on it was $2.95. For a while my personal library comprised stacks of books on the floor. Stalagmites of facts and ideas creeping upward in the various rooms I rented. I got my first bookshelf – it was only about three feet tall – when I lived in Chicago. Despite its service, I had to leave it behind when I moved because it did not fit in my car.
A couple years after graduating I had what polite society calls a “real job,” which meant I could buy practically any book that I wanted. Not because I was or am tremendously rich, but because I tend to not buy many more books than I can read and do not read fast enough to break the bank. Hardly anyone does. After living through periods of debt and unpaid bills, I now have the decadent luxury of being able to not only buy exactly the book I want to read, but to donate books that I no longer want. My previous methods of book acquisition meant I had many books I valued alongside others I had more by chance than by specific interest. I have since set those ones free to find better owners.
After six years of relatively freely buying new books and donating old ones, I am pleased with my library, though it continues to grow deeper, larger, and richer. I have not donated or bought all that I will, and my trips to the local bookstore reliably add a book or two to the shelves. Gradually, the ratio of read to unread books on those shelves increases, as does the ratio of books I would recommend to others to those I would not recommend, depending on the particular reader. In this way my library reflects how my selectivity and focus have increased with my age. Thus, slowly and steadily, by patient cultivation, my sapling library has grown along with me. Or I have grown along with it.
I expect that if you were to tell the story of your library, it might sound similar to the one I have told about mine. You can understand a lot about a person from what is on their bookshelf, and others can understand a lot about you from what is on yours. A library reflects a lot of time, interest, and money. What did you think would be worth more than the money it took to buy and the time it took to read? A library has an element of autobiography in it. Aside from the knowledge gained from the writer, which is the book’s chief value, a book sitting on the shelf may remind you of the person who gave it to you, the store you bought it from, the trip on which you bought it, or the period of your life in which you first read it.
A personal library is certainly not a prerequisite for thoughtfulness or intelligence, but there are not many people with a wall of read books at home with whom you could not have at least one interesting conversation. I find that keepers of libraries can often identify each other within a few minutes of conversation, if not on sight. This is an example of the old saying, “it takes a thief to catch a thief.”
As social media slithers deeper into many people’s lives, pulverizing the attention span, keeping a library allows a person to execute an important social function. Someone who can direct their attention long enough to read a book can stand sentinel and not be swept away by the daily torrent of inane digital sludge that our smartphones and other devices belch out at us. They can keep their focus on what matters and not be easily distracted. A person who owns and has read books written over a century ago has some cultural and historical memory. He knows that history did not begin yesterday, and the dominant culture was not always as it is now. The library is of course not the point, any more than the climbing equipment is the purpose of mountain climbing. The library is a means, not an end.
Keepers of libraries know that a true library cannot be faked. It cannot be cobbled together suddenly, whatever your budget. It extends arboreally, over years and decades, at an average speed measured in millimeters per day. In its maturity it gives the culture oxygen, shelter, fruit, and flowers. A vigorous and strong civilization requires square miles of such libraries. It requires access to the great minds of the past, and more importantly, it requires people who use and benefit from that access.