My bookshelves are a fertile landscape where I can wander from an Ontario cornfield in an Alice Munro short story to the tree-lined path of a New England prep school in a John Irving novel...
"What was once known as building a library is now considered hoarding," writes New Yorker music critic Alex Ross of his CD collection in a recent blog post on streaming classical music. That thought chilled me for a moment and prompted me to spend some time today scanning my bookshelves, wondering whether the volumes that sit silently there mark me as a lover of books or, instead, as someone in the grip of a disturbing psychological disorder. Thanks to LibraryThing, and my diligence, I know my library at the moment comprises precisely 3,825 books. The topical tags I've applied so assiduously remind me that Fiction (1,325 titles) leads the list, while Judaism (277) just edges out Golf (a fairway of 264 mostly green-bound books) with solitary entries in Radio, Geography and Architecture to round out the mix. From disintegrating paperbacks, some with price tags under a dollar, salvaged from a remainder table in Carlisle, Pennsylvania or Ann Arbor in the 1970s, to gleaming, newly-published novels, it’s a collection that's been assembled over nearly half a century, lovingly if haphazardly. I've read a good number of the books, but others, purchased (or, I'm slightly embarrassed to confess, borrowed, likely never to be returned) with the best of intentions, sit unread.
Sometimes it's suggested that periodic weeding of the collection is required, if only to allow new books to take the place of the old, read or never to be read. As essential as that task may be, it’s clearly a flawed metaphor, for the occupants of these shelves are no noxious invaders choking out beautiful, fragrant flowers. At worst, this profusion of books is a lush overgrowth, an untamed garden that allows John Updike to blossom next to F. Scott Fitzgerald or the tendrils of a Philip Roth novel to entangle themselves in the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. My bookshelves are a fertile landscape where I can wander from an Ontario cornfield in an Alice Munro short story to the tree-lined path of a New England prep school in a John Irving novel in only the distance that separates one shelf from another. Doubtless some of my books might find a better home in the hands of a more sympathetic or diligent reader. Will I ever plow through Norman Mailer's Harlot's Ghost or the eight hundred page biography of Robertson Davies that snuggles up next to its subject's Deptford Trilogy, whose bookmark at the end of its first novel visibly chastises me about how far I have to go to reach the final page? No matter. For me there always has been something reassuring about walking into a room at least one wall of which is lined with books and a corresponding sense of unease when I enter a house, however elegantly furnished it may be, that’s barren of the printed word. If that's a symptom of a psychological malady, I'm hard pressed to imagine a cure that wouldn't be far worse than the disease.
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