What are books for?

What are books good for?

There is a long, complex, and highly academic essay here with this title: What are books good for? In the middle of it, the following appears, and I thought it worth posting on the blog to see what you think of it.

The selection (bold face additions are mine):

… there are classic arguments in favor of the book. Consider four.

The epistemological argument: Books are the material evidence of what we know. They are knowledge, and through them we discover what we know and who we are.

The cautionary or monitory argument: In their function as record-keepers, books transform history into the present and the present into history. Books cause us to remember and to prevent future generations from forgetting or misunderstanding us and the long collective story of particulars.

The technological argument: No predigital means of transmission has been as effective as the codex. Books don’t need batteries. They’re cheap in the scheme of things, and remarkably permanent. They travel well. The so-called invention of distance education, in the mid-20th century, was preceded at least 1,500 years earlier by books sent long distances from one early Christian community to another.

The autobiographical argument: Little else can demonstrate as clearly as a shelf of books (or possibly a refrigerator) who we are or imagine ourselves to be. This last argument has been given less respect than it might. Great and fancy libraries astound us, but it’s the personal library where a scholar’s serious work begins. Lose the personal library, and we become less than we are.

end selection.

I wondered about this after Brad decimated his large library, and recalling how I felt when I gave away 5000 books from my library.

What do you folks think about this?


9 replies »

  1. In many ways, I started to view that collection of books as a manifestation of ego, which is something I suffer from – and I’m also happy to have at times. I’ve also wondered if my writing would be better if that aspect of myself was dampened. Really, the prevalence of voice is another blooming of ego and though it’s desirable and unique-making, it can also overwhelm fundamental aspects of a text and so perhaps a periodic muting might aide other aspects in maturing the way the blind often learn to really hear.

    That the books are gone doesn’t mean that what they gave me has left with them. All that I read is still a part of me, still informs my quotidian life, still directs me. In many ways, I’d sit at night with my Rum and stare at those shelves and think how much better I was than people that didn’t read so much. I looked at the shelves and felt extremely self-satisfied.

    This is the sort of thing that can get out of control. It ends up polluting my writing, I think, makes me self-indulgent. One can imagine Pynchon, for instance, smug in a room full of books.

    There’s a better way, a more honest way, a way to write that’s more involved with character and narrative than verbal gymnastics and haughty allusions.

    That’s part of why I got rid of the books. I’m trying to shed things that are holding my writing back. In that strange logic all those books with their well-thumbed pages and caressed spines were distracting.

    We’ll see what happens. After all, I can always buy more.

    • That’s what happened to me … I bought more. Not 5000 more, but the 50 or so I kept back then has since grown to maybe 600 or so.

      As a writer, I am environmentally impacted. That is, what’s around me, the environment of my life, effects how I write, and how much I write. Like not being able to create in my wonderful home office, only edit what is created elsewhere.

      But that is a subject more complex than I can enter at this hour.

  2. It was more to do with having a specific information at hand for me, being able to pick out a reference read long ago just by reaching over and tilting the cover to find a marked page. These days I don’t feel the need so much and have mostly forgotten why I marked the page in the first place and then of course the Internet has made information instantly accessible too. It’s the same with note books, there are dozens all over the house begun with a particular subject/project in mind but they all end up as bits of this and that with the date that I wrote it marked somewhere on the page for future work until the urge to buy more stationary overwhelms me and I come home with another pretty journal that caught my eye. God help the person who sorts out my paperwork when I reach old age, they have my complete sympathy.
    I agree with Brad about letting them go, especially the ones I would never read again. It took me a long time to do that but I feel better for it and yes, they get replaced with others because we just can’t resist then in the end can we although I see them more as visitors passing through than tenants living on the shelf indefinitely.

    • Another thing. Books are a kind of decor, as well. Like art on walls. Besides being up front with visitors to your home about what kind of person you are by the books you keep and read, but also to make a statement about reading itself.

      When I visit a home where there are no books, or only a few of the standard sort of books, on public display, I wonder about those people, not certain I should trust them, or their judgment about things

      If you visit a home and there is simple a Kindle or an iPad lying about, what do you know about that person? Except that they have some electronic toys.

      A wall filled with books is an art form, it warms up a room or a space, gives it an intellectual character. That is why some people keep books around they have already read and are not likely to ever read again.

      A room filled with books helps in a significant way to define the character and intellectual capacity of the the person(s) who inhabits the room.

      My books are not visitors. They are my family.

  3. i tried to leave a note the last two times i looked at this entry but then refrained – what are books for in my life? the only real answer i could think of was that it’s a reminder of an bygone and pretty lonely time…when i had the luxury to indulge in reading for days…and now when i see the books on my bookshelf i try to think, hey, you’re still that person, in parts.

    i have an aversion to iPad owners who ‘read’ on the train. and like you, i always check someone’s bookshelf when i visit their home for the first time – those who only have the typical travel books or popular novels or even worse, self-help books, i pretty much decide we won’t get along.

    i read your blog posts but don’t note as much coz these days my head is just cobwebs!

    • Thanks for your comments here, Nicole, as always. I am writing this from an airport lounge in Santiago, Chile, on the way further south shortly to Punta Arenas, so I won’t add more now, but stay tuned.

  4. Oh dear, I feel I have misrepresented myself here Don and actually lost a little sleep last night because of it.
    A couple of years ago I decided to try and sell a few books on eBay as well as buy – it seemed common sense to me especially when it came to the ones I knew I’d never glance at again because they meant nothing to me in the first place. Anyway, after selling a couple, I began to feel sad about some of the others I had ear marked and eventually put them back on the shelf. The problem is that we live in a small house with a growing family and so recently in a bid to create a modicum of order and ‘show the kids the way’, I once again decided to let a few old friends go to the charity shop etc. I’ve kept only the ones I couldn’t bare to be parted from, (and then some,) and the rest are in boxes awaiting transport elsewhere. It is these that I consider to be tenants only because like you I love to delight over someone else’s reading material and have people delight and take an interest in mine. The Internet has replaced some of my needs when it comes to information but you can’t beat the feel of a good old shaggy book in your hands, nor would I wish to.
    It drives me crazy to think that I worried what you thought but I did and probably always will.
    There we are then.

    • You flatter me too much, Tracey. It will go to my head and I’ll be useless without it.

      If I have anything else to say about this right now — I am writing from a hotel in Punta Arenas, Chile, with a dynamic view of the Straits of Magellan out the window — it is simply that people ought to do what pleases them and hurts no one, and it is seldom a good thing for someone to worry about what some stranger thinks of what they do or don’t do.

      It is judgmental of me to walk into someone’s house and flat and decide what kind of person they are by the books they keep, or if they keep no books at all, but hey, I’m just an old guy, and that means I get away with stuff.

      I always enjoy it when you comment here, Tracey.