How to Justify a Private Library


I could not resist posting an excerpt from this witty essay by Umberto Eco from How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays. (I separated some of the larger paragraphs for easier reading. The color and bold parts are also my doing. Just helping Umberto out.)  I can’t think why this one resonated with me.

…people who possess a fairly sizable library (large enough in my case that someone entering the house can’t help but notice it; actually, it takes up the whole place).

The visitor enters and says, “What a lot of books! Have you read them all?”

At first I thought that the question characterized only people who had scant familiarity with books, people accustomed to seeing a couple of shelves with five paperback mysteries and a children’s encyclopedia, bought in installments.  But experience has taught me that the same words can be uttered also by people above suspicion.

It could be said that they are still people who consider a bookshelf as a mere storage place for already-read books and do not think of the library as a working tool.  But there is more to it than that. I believe that, confronted  by a vast array of books, anyone will be seized by the anguish of learning, and will inevitably lapse into asking the question that expresses his torment and his remorse.

[Now] I have fallen back on the riposte: “No, these are the ones I have to read by the end of the month. I keep the others in my office,” a reply that on the one hand suggests a sublime ergonomic strategy, and on the other leads the visitor to hasten the moment of his departure.    ~ 1990


9 thoughts on “How to Justify a Private Library

  1.  very true… btw I tried to post a comment on your other post about the siblings and the father. unfortunately I could not make it work. It was a very very good post that my eyes welled up and my heart wept. For I saw myself on both of the siblings. Thank you for sharing.

  2. “No, these are the ones I have to read by the end of the month. I keep the others in my office,” — love it! We encounter this often because two full walls in our living room are floor to ceiling books — with a mix of those we’ve read and those we intend to read or have left for one of the other members of the family to read. 🙂 I suppose if we had a den or a family room, we would have put the shelves there — but our house is quite small and the living room was the only space so they do evoke comments from new visitors.

  3. temporarily, Carol, I tagged you in a Facebook Tgiving photo which shows one (of many) walls of my parents library.  yes, I would love to have a vast private library.  Such a fantastic tool !!  You will recognize at least one of the fellows whose private library is nothing to sneeze at, no?  Will detag in a few days, k?I’m wondering if Kindles (that type of apparatus) can act as private reference libraries…. altho I hear it’s not easy to search/catalog stuff.

  4. Carol, you wrote to me recently that you miss our conversations which I have not been very good at lately. Hopefully once I get settled that will change because I miss them too. This post made me HAVE to get here and reply. Wonderful! In the process of moving I have given away many books but still have retained many, and there is no doubt that I will continue to buy – I can’t NOT buy books. Some for my Kindle too for that matter though I must say I like the REAL ones better. The Kindle is a great thing to carry on a plane in the case with my laptop because the latter is so heavy I need help carrying it from the wheel chair to my seat.  Yep, it’s come to that which is why I am going to live with my son. (I think I told you that already.) It’s been all over my Facebook page anyway. To gete back to the subject, now you have made me want to get that book! I will put it on my Amazon wish list for later, but at least that way I won’t forget the title. 

  5. I get those comments every time someone new enters my home. “Wow, you sure do have a lot of books!” “Have you read all of them?” “How did you get so many books?” Do you read a lot?”I don’t mind at all. I just tell them that books are my only decorating scheme.

  6. I’ve always thought that the ideal home is a library that happens to be inhabited. A few years ago when I did an inventory, we had 33 bookcases in our home–and that doesn’t count various random shelves of books that my husband has installed. Now my son has moved out and he took two bookcases with him.I am always stunned when I go into a home where there are no books in evidence, especially if it’s a homeschooling home. How can you live without books?

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