Wonderful article in the Wall Street Journal, from author and writing teacher Luc Sante, about his personal library and why he loves books. He starts by talking about what happened when he started weeding books out of his collection, in preparation for moving house:
I discovered that I owned no fewer than five copies of André Breton’s Nadja, not even all in different editions. I owned two copies of St. Clair McKelway’s True Tales from the Annals of Crime & Rascality, identical down to the mylar around the dust jacket. I had books in three languages I don’t actually read. It occurred to me that I had little need for most of the shrubbery surrounding the works of major authors: the letters (with one or two significant exceptions), the critical approaches (unless they are worth reading on their own terms), and any biography over 500 pages long (except maybe those by Richard Ellmann and Leon Edel). I also had no need for books with funny titles, books acquired only because everybody else was reading them, books with no value except as objects, and books that inspired a vague sense of dread whenever they caught my eye – possible cornerstones of culture that nevertheless only solitary confinement would ever compel me to read.
He goes on to talk about what’s left of his collection (which is still impressive, the removal of 30 boxes of books aside), and how it’s arranged.
There’s nothing inert about these shelves, no men’s-club-library or college-chapel somnolence here – it’s a hive of activity, abuzz with rhythms and images and ideas. As for time: I shelve literature chronologically… so that I can see as well as feel the 19th century turning into the 20th, the prewar cascading into the postwar, the spines gradually becoming brighter as the present day approaches.
Perhaps I should reorganise my bookshelves… Anyway, he ends with a discussion of electronic books and all that. He’s in favour of the change to digital, but brings up a few things he’ll miss about good old books.
The tactility of books assists my memory, for one thing. I can’t remember the quote I’m searching for, or maybe even the title of the work that contains it, but I can remember that the book is green, that the margins are unusually wide, and that the quote lies two-thirds of the way down a right-hand page. If books all appear as nearly identical digital readouts, my memory will be impoverished. And packaging is of huge importance, too – the books I read because I liked their covers usually did not disappoint.