The Value of a Library

After about sixteen months, abandoned in boxes in a storage facility in Houston, most of my belongings were recently retrieved–the majority of which are books.  I had paired down my possessions to a minimum a few years ago, having moved into a furnished house, so I had virtually nothing in the way of furniture–the life of the contingent academic tends to be a bit nomadic.

At any rate, my book collection is not too numerous, but neither is it a joke–roughly 600 volumes, most of which I have read (at least some of), but many of which I have not.  There was something of a Christmas-like feeling in unpacking the books; I had forgotten some of the books that I own, read and unread alike, and now find myself with a treasure trove of knowledge and insight and reasoning–some good, some bad, some deeply flawed, some I do not quite understand–all of which had sat dormant and idle.

All of which reminds me of this anecdote about Umberto Eco (whose Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum sit now in a stack next to my desk) from Nassim Taleb (via BrainPickings):

Umberto Eco (1932-2016)

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others — a very small minority — who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary

I hope that before long I can start to grow my antilibrary–financial means pending.  At any rate, I find it hard to ignore the startling value of a physical library.  In the past year, I have massively expanded my digital library: it now exceeds, in number of volumes, my physical collection by some 30 or 40 books.  But while useful as searchable and indexed, there is a richness to the presence and order of the concrete, tactile volumes now on shelves behind me.  Simply seeing the cover of a book previously-read sparks ideas and thoughts in a way that the title of a file in a folder on my desktop cannot.  Thumbing through the pages, feeling the heft, the smell of the paper, the texture against my fingers–this gives a uniqueness to the experience of reading which goes beyond nostalgia.

I’ll be posting a much lengthier discussion on a similar topic–education in the digital age–in the near future.  But I felt compelled, in the meanwhile, to wax poetic about reclaiming my books.

P.S., this is an interesting interview with Eco, given not too long before his passing.

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