At the beginning of each new year, I spend the first few days, even weeks, indulging in the rearrangement of my bookshelves. I am not a collector type; I am ruthlessly unsentimental about the accumulations of clutter within my own living space. Yet in spite of my ruthlessness – in spite of discarding those unwanted Christmas gifts, acquired of late – my room is nonetheless taken up with books, books, and more books: books on my shelves, books under the bed, books on the desk, in the wardrobe. I am of course forgetting the books littering the rest of the house, and in odd places such as in a box on the floor next to my bed, and a few heaped up on the end of my bed (to be kicked off during sleep), or on the dining table, or on the kitchen worktop; but I am certainly not forgetting – and am painfully aware of the fact – that about a third of the collection remains in the attic, in wide and voluminous boxes, which are not enough to contain the books I will most certainly buy in 2019.
So, therefore, the question is this: what am I to do with all of these books? Do I need all of them?
To begin, the owner of such a collection must ask themselves why they are collecting books at such an alarming rate. First, simply, because I enjoy reading. But why? Because, I think, I want to gain knowledge as well as know how to use it. Michel de Montaigne, who shut himself up in his estate to write about one subject – himself – gave the following reasons for reading:
‘I would very much like to grasp things with a complete understanding but I cannot bring myself to pay the high cost of doing so. My design is to spend whatever life I have left gently and unlaboriously. I am not prepared to bash my brains for anything, not even for learning’s sake however precious it may be. From books all I seek is to give myself pleasure by an honourable pastime: or if I do study, I seek only that that branch of learning which deals with knowing myself and which teaches me how to live and die well’. ‘On Books’
Here, I think, is a slight disingenuousness on the part of the great sceptic: does he really think if he tried that he could grasp anything with complete understanding? Is there not something comforting about the idea of imagining that one could achieve a great ambition, but choose not to do it in favour of a humbler purpose? Moreover, the reader of Montaigne should adjust their sense of what it means for a seventeenth-century French aristocrat of genius when he claims that he does not ‘bash his brains for anything’. For in subsequent paragraphs, he goes on to list Boccaccio and Johannes Secundus as his pleasure reading. He goes on to list Lucretious, Virgil, Horace and Catullus as his favourite poets. Plutarch and Seneca are among those authors, he says, in which he is able to mix usefulness and delight. He may find Aristotelian logic ‘irrelevant’ to his purposes, but he knows it well.
Therefore I cannot take comfort entirely from Montaigne. I, and many others, have not acquired enough learning in order to be so comfortable. We are burdened by the Sisyphean task of curiosity about everything and a determination to grasp complex pleasures. It is a futile task, extremely difficult to keep up in modern life, in which we are overworked, and in which we go back to our phones eighty times each day; but it is as much of a pleasure as what Montaigne claims for his own. My collection continues to brim over, then, and the problem is unsolved.
If I were to name the core of my collection, it would consist of Shakespeare and the great English poets before and after; reference books; religious texts; Homer and Dante; a handful of novelists, Joyce, Dickens, Nabokov; and perhaps some historical and scientific books. The others, if need be, should have to go. However, there are problems even with the core collection. For example, do I really need three translations of Homer (not to mention four editions of Hamlet)? Well, I am about to read Richard Lattimore’s translation, for its interesting use of the Alexandrine metre. I have read Robert Fitzgerald’s translation but have not referred to it for many years, yet I may want to compare him with Lattimore. It stays. I also bought George Chapman’s Elizabethan translation on the recommendation of John Keats’s marvellous sonnet. The print is too small, and I am not attracted to the idea of Homer in heroic couplets. Still, it must yield some enjoyment, after all, if Keats liked it so much. It will remain in the loft until the time is right.
However, there are two other reasons for which I am going to persist in maintaining such a collection — until I am dead. The first is that I have collected books partly in order to shore up information and knowledge against the Internet. It is a duty in our time, I think, to be able to live as much as we can – and as well as we can – without it. I shall come back to to this subject at a later date, but it is for this reason that I am going to keep all of my several editions of Homer and Shakespeare. The second reason is that the collection should not just be for myself but for the children in my l life, born and yet to come, who may not be readers now, but at the moment they are hooked, they will be invited to view the collection, and to borrow whatever they wish; and, after my story has finished, it will all be theirs. For now, though, I suggest that they start with The Wind in the Willows.