Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Have You Read Them All?

Maverick Philosopher, "Have You Read Them All?":
It is not unusual for a non-bookman, upon entering the book-lined domicile of a bookman, to crack, "Have you read them all?" The quip smacks of a veiled accusation of hypocrisy, the suggestion being that the bookman is making a false show of an erudition and well-readedness the likes of which he does not possess. I invariably reply, "This is no show library, this is a working library." That tends to shut 'em up.
Umberto Eco, How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays, tr. William Weaver (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994), pp. 116-117 (from "How to Justify a Private Library"):
The visitor enters and says, "What a lot of books! Have you read them all?" At first I thought that the question characterized only people who had scant familiarity with books, people accustomed to seeing a couple of shelves with five paperback mysteries and a children's encyclopedia bought in installments. But experience has taught me that the same words can be uttered also by people above suspicion. It could be said that they are still people who consider a bookshelf as a mere storage place for already read books and do not think of the library as a working tool. But there is more to it than that. I believe that, confronted by a vast array of books, anyone will be seized by the anguish of learning and will inevitably lapse into asking the question that expresses his torment and his remorse.


But the question about your books has to be answered, while your jaw stiffens and rivulets of cold sweat trickle down your spine. In the past I adopted a tone of contemptuous sarcasm. "I haven’t read any of them; otherwise, why would I keep them here?" But this is a dangerous answer because it invites the obvious follow-up: "And where do you put them after you’ve read them?" The best answer is the one always used by Roberto Leydi: "And more, dear sir, many more," which freezes the adversary and plunges him into a state of awed admiration. But I find it merciless and angst-generating. Now I have fallen back on the riposte: "No, these are the ones I have to read by the end of the month. I keep the others in my office," a reply that on the one hand suggests a sublime ergonomic strategy, and on the other leads the visitor to hasten the moment of his departure.

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