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Long Live the Personal Library

Why won’t physical books die? Because “like the bicycle, the book is a perfect invention, and perfection dies very, very hard,” writes William Giraldi for The New Republic. “The car hasn’t murdered the bike, and the Web won’t murder the book.” Yet Giraldi’s excellent article is about much more than technology’s effects on physical books. It is more like a love letter to the personal library:

What does it mean when what you own is essential to who you are? In our everyday grasp of owning things, we tag it materialism, consumerism, consumption. But I trust you’ll agree that the possession of books is not identical to the possession of shoes: Someone with a thousand books is someone you want to talk to; someone with a thousand shoes is someone you suspect of belonging to the Kardashian clan. Books are not objects in the same way that shoes are objects. This is what Milton means in his sublime “Areopagitica,” as necessary now as it was in 1644, when he asserted that “books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.”

For many of us, our book collections are, in at least one major way, tantamount to our children—they are manifestations of our identity, embodiments of our selfhood; they are a dynamic interior heftily externalized, a sensibility, a worldview defined and objectified. For readers, what they read is where they’ve been, and their collections are evidence of the trek.

This idea of deeply personal ownership and pride reminded me of a piece by James Poulos in The New Atlantis, in which he laments our slow abandonment of ownership. Instead of seeking to procure things, he writes, we increasingly emphasize “experience” and “access.”

Yet owning books—physical books—provides us with experiential comforts that are not available in short-term borrowing. These experiences are only gained through the (oft obsessive) work of long-term collecting, careful repetitive reading, and the accompanying growth of personal pride. And though we speak of a “sharing economy” having been opened up via the web, sharing is much more meaningfully done when performed personally with physical objects such as books. When we loan out our beloved copy of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, all covered in the comments and markings we’ve made, we are giving away a piece of ourselves. I would not feel nearly so bereft if lending someone an e-copy of the same book. This makes sharing a more personal and meaningful act.

“Access,” meanwhile, can be altogether overwhelming in the virtual world of reading: a bookshelf is necessarily finite and digestible, but the web’s cacophony of reads is mind-numbingly paralyzing in its breadth. We face unlimited possibilities as readers today: an almost eternal outpouring of books, new ones published constantly, old ones decaying on shelves in endless succession, words being typed by journalists and authors every day, ever adding to the astonishing volume of work.

We see this mad mayhem of books, and face burnout: the dismay and horror that comes with our own finitude—with knowing that we will never reach our five-thousandth volume (if we can even reach a couple thousand). Yet Giraldi writes,

Since bibliophiles are happy to acknowledge the absurdity, the obese impracticality of gathering more books than there are days to read them, one’s collection must be about more than remembering—it must be about expectation also. Your personal library, swollen and hulking about you, is the promise of betterment and pleasure to come, a giddy anticipation, a reminder of the joyous work left to do, a prompt for those places to which your intellect and imagination want to roam. This is how the nonreader’s question Have you read all these books? manages to miss the point. The tense is all wrong: Not have you read all, but will you read all, to which, by the way, the bibliophile’s answer must still be no. Agonizingly aware of the human lifespan, the collector’s intention is not to read them all, but, as E.M. Forster shares in his essay “My Library,” simply to sit with them, “aware that they, with their accumulated wisdom and charm, are waiting to be used”—although, as Forster knows, books don’t have to be used in order to be useful.

The physicality of real books sets us free from the imprisonment presented by virtual infinitude. We do not look at an interminable cloud of lifeless volumes—but rather, at our own finite collection, and understand with humility that they are still too much for us. We cannot ever read them all, yet we still develop a love for them. We collect them out of love, and out of hope: we seek to read as many of them as we can in our lifetimes. The others, we will store up for future generations. I buy books for my own enjoyment—I also, however, buy them for my children.

Buying books ties us: to our physical place, true enough, but also to the past and future. We invest in books that we hope to read in the future, and by buying them, give ourselves an incentive to keep the ember of reading alive in our lives, no matter the distractions and difficulties. We treasure old books, because of past memories and deeply cherished joys they conjure up, merely by their touch. When Jonathan Crombie, the actor who played Gilbert Blythe in the movie adaptation of “Anne of Green Gables,” passed away this past week, a world of readers and movie-watchers were moved to tears and grief. It may seem strange, this deep connection to a person never met. But for me, Gilbert and Anne and Diana were indeed “bosom friends.” I grew up with them, their maturation mingled with my own. Whenever I see a copy of Ivanhoe, as well, I think of the days I spent engrossed in it, saturating my brain in the medieval romanticism and chivalry of it. I read it aloud to my little brothers, translating the English into simpler terms so that they could understand it, and hopefully cherish it as I did. These books still bear the dog-eared pages, water stains, underlines, and tattered covers of love. They are part of me—their covers, pages, and illustrations stand out to me in a way that no replacement could, whereas my iPad version of Middlemarch holds no such special ties.

What we are anxious for, when we bibliophiles become anxious for the physical book, is more than a “sensory experience.” It’s more than the smell, more than the aesthetics, more than the thump of a heavy book being closed, or the flutter of pages flipped quickly by eager fingers.

We fear the death of physical books because they are our past and present, and we desperately hope they will be our future. They are more than objects: they have become our memories, and losing them would constitute losing a piece of ourselves.

It may sound melodramatic. But when I gaze at the volumes on my shelf, consider the hours poured into them, I cannot imagine the loss that would be felt by their destruction. Like Giraldi, I believe “Books, like love, make life worth living.”

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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