Personal Libraries by the Book
Posted by: Keir Graff
How could I have missed this? On Nerdworld, Matt Selman offers The Unabridged Rules of Library Management. (Personal libraries, that is.)
RULE #1: THE PRIME DIRECTIVE – It is unacceptable to display any book in a public space of your home if you have not read it. Therefore, to be placed on Matt Selman’s living room bookshelves, a book must have been read cover to cover, every word, by Matt Selman. If you are in the home of Matt Selman and see a book on the living room shelves, you know FOR SURE it has been read by Matt Selman.
Ezra Klein responds:
No, this is all wrong. Bookshelves are not for displaying books you’ve read — those books go in your office, or near your bed, or on your Facebook profile. Rather, the books on your shelves are there to convey the type of person you would like to be. I am the type of person who would read long biographies of Lyndon Johnson, despite not being the type of person who has read any long biographies of Lyndon Johnson.
My experience (which can’t be unique) is that some books end up accumulating out of a misguided attempt to win the approval of authors already well-entrenched on my shelves. A few years back, for example, Slavoj Zizek started to insist that I had to be familiar with the work of Alain Badiou – a French poststructuralist philosopher whose work I had never heard of, let alone read. Well, OK, sure. Thanks to some busy translators, Badiou volumes started crowding in, next to all the Zizek titles.
But in short order, Badiou lets it be known that I am expected to understand something about mathematical set theory – and furthermore should come to appreciate one particular approach to formalizing the basic axioms. Chances are, that second part is just not going to happen. I am willing to try to learn to recognize a formalized axiom when I see one, but can promise no more, and even that much is probably pushing it. So, anyway, off to the nearby secondhand bookshop in search of a couple of introductory works. They are terrifying. The shelf in question is starting to turn into a neighborhood I am afraid to visit.
His actual conclusion is much more sensible. But I realize now that I haven’t given the subject nearly enough thought. I’m constantly acquiring books and constantly ordering more bookshelves–about the most thought I give to what goes where is a general attempt to keep like with like. There’s a crime fiction section, a literary fiction section, a poetry section, a film section…but due to the unpredictable sizes and numbers of my books, there are odd little colonies, like the crime fiction that seems to be attacking the poetry.
And I love having hardcovers around to look at, whether I’ve read them or not–having lots of unread books around sustains my hope that I’ll actually live the 537 years required to read them all–but in terms of shelf space, one hardcover equals three paperbacks and so I tend to keep more of the latter.