November 25, 2022
Thanks to David Yamada, 2022 Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.
I’m not quite sure when I started to think of my growing collection of books as a personal library. It may have been back in the mid-to-late 1980s, when I lived in several Brooklyn rental apartments and kept adding bookshelves that gave my surroundings the superficial look of a library. Or maybe it’s when I moved from New York to Boston in 1994, and I realized that books and bookshelves took up the biggest share of space in the moving truck.
Today, my home (a modest condo) and faculty office have taken on a sort of used bookstore design motif, featuring shelves overcrammed with books and more volumes in piles on the floor. My collection reflects my interests in history, politics and current events, favorite cities and places, philosophy and spirituality, sports, various hobbies, and mystery and suspense fiction, as well as academic interests in law, labor studies, psychology, and education. More recently, as I will share below, my collection has been taking on a classical flavor.
Those of us who define our personal spaces in part by the books around us are a different breed. Homes with few books may be fine for others (and help to keep Marie Kondo in business), but book lovers feel bereft without lots of volumes around to keep us company. We are hardly the first humans to feel this way. After all, personal libraries of all shapes and sizes have been around for centuries. I’d like to contemplate this topic and share some stories and thoughts along the way.
The Idea of a Personal Library
Personal libraries may serve several broad purposes: First, they can provide collections for leisure reading, both fiction and non-fiction. Second, they may contain guidance of all sorts, such as religious texts, self-help books, cookbooks, and home repair books. Third, they may serve a family function, especially by providing favorite titles to be enjoyed by kids and parents alike. Fourth, they may offer resources for one’s profession or vocation. Finally, they may serve an aesthetic or performative function, saying something about one’s space or identity.
In serving these myriad purposes, personal libraries have been around for as long as books have been in print. Many centuries ago, when books were rare and expensive, personal libraries were a status symbol, associated with wealth and power. The creation of ornate rooms to house these volumes marked another feature of the aristocratic library, one that has continued to this day.
The emergence of learned vocations such as theology, medicine, and law would necessitate personal book collections. By the Middle Ages, practitioners and scholars in those fields would have small working libraries, consisting of core texts and supplementary volumes. Higher volume counts were associated with greater success and prominence.
Eventually, though, everyday folks began to create modest libraries in their homes. For example, by the 19th century, many a working-class family in the U.S. might have a single shelf of books called their home library, typically including a family Bible, favorite children’s books, and maybe some literary or historical titles. Works of popular fiction didn’t necessarily appear on family bookshelves, as many were read as serialized installments in magazines.
During the early 20th century, cheaper methods of book printing and the appearance of paperbacks made home libraries more viable for families of America’s emerging middle class. Commercial ventures such as the Book-of-the-Month Club (established in 1926), the Harvard Classics, a 50-volume, curated collection of classic literary works (first published in 1909), and various home encyclopedias appealed to this upwardly mobile demographic. The personal library was now going middlebrow.
Nowadays, building a personal library is within the means of many. It may be a physical library housed in one’s dwelling or office, a digital library stored in a Kindle or similar device, or a mix of the two. If one has a nose for book sales and discount book racks, a very respectable collection of books can be assembled with minimal funds.
From Early Acquisitions to My Own Library
I had none of these historical traditions in mind when my own book collection began to grow, starting during my college years in the Midwest during the late 1970s. My biggest source of book hauls was a huge, annual, week-long used book sale outside of Chicago, run each summer by the local chapter of the Brandeis University women’s auxiliary group. With over 250,000 used books available, it was held in a giant tent covering much of a shopping center parking lot. Over three successive college summers, I must’ve purchased over 100 books.
After college, I moved to New York City to attend law school. There I would find the Strand, a giant used bookstore and Greenwich Village institution offering hundreds of thousands of books, ranging from bargain buys to rare collectibles. At a time that predated computerized inventories and the internet, I would become adept at “working” the nooks and crannies of the Strand, knowing the different places where a sought-after title might be found. Over my 12-year stay in New York, hundreds of visits led to hundreds of book purchases.
My transition from legal practice to law teaching in the early 1990s would spur the acquisition of books that would evolve into my personal academic library. It started with a basic focus on employment law, then quickly became more multidisciplinary as my scholarly focus broadened similarly.
I own around 1,500 books, split roughly evenly between my personal and professional collections. Even if I retired tomorrow and lived in good health until 100, I would not be able to read through what I have. Furthermore, I have plenty of books for research purposes that are unlikely to be consulted for, or cited in, any of my academic publications.
On Facebook, I join with like-minded friends in posting links to articles invoking a Japanese term, tsundoku, which Wikipedia defines as “the phenomenon of acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them.” Depending on one’s philosophy towards book ownership, tsundoku is either (1) a lame rationalization for obsessive, hoarding-like acquisition habits; (2) an intellectualized, own-the-literature version of Millennial-style FOMO (fear of missing out); or, (3) an almost spiritual embrace of the limitless potential of unread volumes. The latter notion dovetails with my practice of tsundoku, though others might say I’m merely shoveling the fertilizer.
Will the Great Books Prompt a Great Culling?
In recent years, I’ve discovered the Great Books. Since 2020, I’ve been enrolled in the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults at the University of Chicago, an intensive, four-year, non-credit course of reading and discussing the Great Books. The assigned texts are now part of my library. In sync with this new foray, I’ve also acquired the two most well-known, multi-volume anthologies of classic works, Great Books of the Western World (60 volumes) and the aforementioned Harvard Classics.
Now, one might suppose that my middle-aged leap into the Great Books would prompt me to ruthlessly cull down my library. Hey, it’s time for quality over quantity, right? I mean, are all those unread mystery novels worth my time after reading Crime and Punishment? What about the piles of volumes on politics and history after I’ve wrestled with Thucydides? And do I really need a half dozen titles on the 1985 Chicago Bears, even if they are the greatest team in galactic history?
I understand that my dilemma is a common one for those whose personal libraries overflow. There is a psychological calculus about this, one that weighs wants, needs, and the meaning of material possessions. In my case, I have no problem limiting purchases of clothes, appliances, furniture, and so forth, so why do I accord books special status?
For now, I’m hedging my bets. I’ve been donating boxes of books, stashing other volumes in Little Free Libraries, and contributing largely uncracked academic titles to my university’s library. Overall, my library strikes a balance between the lighter fare and the deeper stuff, while retaining many books relevant to my scholarly work. I know that tougher decisions await me. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy having these friends around, knowing that I’ll never be bored as I take part in a bookish tradition that has spanned centuries.
Some Favorite Books about Books
These three recommendations are purely personal and don’t even pretend to cover the literature on personal libraries:
Reid Byers, The Private Library: The History of the Architecture and Furnishing of the Domestic Bookroom (New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2021, 3rd printing with corrections) – A bit of a splurge, this is a lively and lavishly illustrated history of personal libraries, emphasizing the physical spaces that house them.
Cornelius Hirschberg, The Priceless Gift (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960) – In this sadly out-of-print little gem, a middle-aged salesman in New York who never went to high school writes about a lifetime of self-education in the arts and sciences by reading during subway rides and lunch hours, while sharing observations about the books in his personal library.
Jacques Verger, Men of Learning in Europe at the End of the Middle Ages (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997) – A bit of an intellectual time travel adventure, this unexpectedly engaging cultural history includes interesting details about the lives of learned professional men during this time, including the contents of their personal libraries.
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