Last week Daniel Mitsui posted photos of two bookshelves without commentary on Facebook. My zoomed-in perusal of the volumes revealed a few items sparking jealousy (Émile Mâle’s two volumes on Religious Art in France, the Très Riches Heures), and others fanning the flames of curiosity (Graphic Worlds of Peter Bruegel the Elder, and a spine that says simply, BESTIARY).
I could not help but begin thinking of the libraries of artists, novelists, and other famous men. What riches would one find on their shelves? What could we glean from thumbing through the pages to see which books had been well-worn and which unread? What unexpected and subtle mental connections could we make simply by noting the juxtapositions of volumes?
The digital age has granted us a limited glimpse into this facet of the well-read. The website LibraryThing includes the section Legacy Libraries, which compiles lists of books found in the homes and offices of authors like James Joyce, C.S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, and David Foster Wallace. The Art of Manliness online magazine also has a series on “Libraries of Famous Men,” featuring such luminaries as Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. These libraries always include many expected volumes but more than a few surprises.
Still, there is something tangible missing in these electronic lists. We cannot see the marginalia of the owners, nor smell the decay of pages like the fallen leaves of autumn. We cannot run our fingers lightly across the spines, some sticking out precariously, others pushed back so far as to be almost hidden. We cannot wonder how many rearrangements were put in effect before the collections reached their final resting place. It is a far cry even from the Bibliotheca of Photius who, anticipating the librarianisms of Jorge Luis Borges by many centuries, sought to summarize hundreds of essential books for the sake of his brother Tarasius.
A library can serve as a sort of selective super-ego for its owner, a collection of the celestial influences he desires to receive within his mind and soul. It can be a challenge to greater things and expansive horizons, or it can be a pile of disposable pulp that is read once but hoarded forever. Thomas Aquinas was blessed with a memory so sharp that he rarely had to read a text twice, but the rest of us need to revisit the most important books repeatedly throughout our lives.
Perhaps the best thing we can learn from the libraries of others is the importance of building our own.