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Shelves, by the way, do make a difference. If my books had made me famous or wealthy (I’d prefer the latter over the former), and if publishers thought of me as someone worth marketing lavishly (which they don’t), I would have a library of books housed caringly in Levenger bookcases (which I don’t have). You know the kind: stackable, individual shelves, each with a glass door engraved (“History: Ancient,” or “Essayists: American”), and made of solid, honest-to-goodness oak. They would surround my room, some four feet high, some five, and some eight or nine. Above the four feet high shelves would be art work from the finest – “finest” for me means Rembrandt and Carravagio, not Picasso or any of the modernists who, like fiction writers, make up their own world. I’ve got but one bookshelf like this and it is what the Germans call a billige Nachahmung. It is about five feet high, stands proudly in our living room on a wooden floor, and presents our set of Dickens, some of the Great Books of the Western World, some of Bonhoeffer in German, some baseball books, and a half shelf of my own (paperback) books. On it sits pictures of our two children, and behind them a nice clock (always, as my wife insists, set about 7-10 minutes ahead).
If shelves matter, so does having one’s own library and a few handsome sets of books. Thoughtful people don’t have “offices.” They have either “studies” or “libraries.” Offices are for the business people who make chairs that annoy readers, while studies and libraries are for the sort of people who use sesquipedalians and avoid the riff-raff at Barnes & Noble. Studies are for studying, but libraries, like the great library at Alexandria, are for readers and browsers. I do both in my library, where I am proud that I have a few sets. I prefer to keep my sets together. So, Dickens’ novels sit together (as a family ought to) in my living room. Come to think of it, our living room is also a place where the family tells its stories, so Dickens is good company. I own the Great Books of the Western World. Robert Maynard Hutchins wrote volume one and it is a good (not a great) book called The Great Conversation: The Substance of a Liberal Education. I value the Syntopicon volumes (#s 2-3) because they at times put me in touch with a wealth of references to check on a give topic – a topic organized by a Thomistic mind (Mortimer Adler). It was that same Thomistic mind that (over) categorized Encyclopaedia Brittanica into a Graecized trinity: Micropaedia, Macropaedia, and Propaedia (with two volumes of indices). I have this set, too. On my shelves sit about 60 volumes of the Loeb Classical Library. They are advertised as handsome; they are. Just as handsome are volumes in A.A. Knopf’s Everyman’s Library, and I have fallen to the allure of their volumes instead even of more readable translations – I found it impossible to read anything other than Fitzgerald’s translation of The Iliad because I liked the feel of the publisher’s clothbound book. Other sets stand together in my library, but mostly they belong to my library wearing the study cap, sets on Hebrew words, biblical books, and ancient Jewish history.
Libraries, as Lionel Casson has shown, also have a history, from the early library in Assyria of Ashurbanipal to the great collection of Aristotle to the repository of reliable manuscripts in Alexandria. Aristophanes is perhaps one of the only examples of a library director who had as his mission to read all the books in the Library at Alexandria, but it was Callimachus of Cyrene who first thought up the good idea of a catalogue (called the Pinakes) to a library so the stacks could be used efficiently. If the most frequently stolen books today are (get this!) The Holy Bible and (a close second) The Joy of Sex, it should not be forgotten that the great library at Pergamum was not only on the top of a hill next to the Temple of Athena, but it was a collection of (largely) stolen books. That library became the focus of several warlords who saw its stolen books as potential booty for their library (of stolen books). (How about you? Any stolen books in your collection? Return to lender, to clean and jerk a line from Elvis.) Books were not just stolen in those days; they were read. In fact, Plutarch, the master of anecdotes, tells a story of Lucullus, a Roman who had the good fortune of a good library: other readers would come to his library “as if to a reception hall of the Muses, and pass whole days together, happily staying away from their other duties.” Robert Benchley, that wit of New York, once said, “anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.” There’s a man with insight; and he speaks of what (in the estimation of my administration) as I contemplate reading Al Gini’s The Importance of Being Lazy, with its legitimating subtitle: In Praise of Play, Leisure and Vacations in my two-roomed library.
Libraries became mirror-shaped in Rome. Why? The Romans’ constant worry about the superiority of the ancient Greeks and their culture led them to read both Latin greats and the Greek greats, and that led to their “twin libraries”. That is, with a statue to some emperor or god in the middle, that statue was flanked on either side by a Greek library and a Latin library. (One must wonder what Freud or Rohrschach would make of such architecture. I’ve got an idea what both might say.) Such libraries, naturally, had sets of both Cicero and Plato. Nero, who never fell short of being a jerk, annexed his twin libraries with Roman baths – to provide not only mental but also physical pleasure. And here we have the beginnings of student distractions: will, they ask nightly, I go to the library or to the recreation center? What libraries, especially those in Rome, tell us remains vital for the desultory reader: we must move from our world (Latin) into the world of the other (Greek) if we want to comprehend this ever interesting and perplexing organism we call “human”. To do this, we must read widely and that means not only the Greeks and Latins and Hebrews and Egyptians, but find the sets of great authors throughout the entire world.