Saturday, August 10, 2019


Too Many Books?

Seneca, On Peace of Mind 9.4-7 (tr. Aubrey Stewart):
[4] Even literary pursuits, the most becoming thing for a gentleman to spend money upon, are only justifiable as long as they are kept within bounds. What is the use of possessing numberless books and libraries, whose titles their owner can hardly read through in a lifetime? A student is overwhelmed by such a mass, not instructed, and it is much better to devote yourself to a few writers than to skim through many.

[5] Forty thousand books were burned at Alexandria: some would have praised this library as a most noble memorial of royal wealth, like Titus Livius, who says that it was "a splendid result of the taste and attentive care of the kings." It had nothing to do with taste or care, but was a piece of learned luxury, nay, not even learned, since they amassed it, not for the sake of learning, but to make a show, like many men who know less about letters than a slave is expected to know, and who uses his books not to help him in his studies but to ornament his dining-room. Let a man, then, obtain as many books as he wants, but none for show.

[6] "It is more respectable," say you, "to spend one's money on such books than on vases of Corinthian brass and paintings." Not so: everything that is carried to excess is wrong. What excuses can you find for a man who is eager to buy bookcases of ivory and citrus wood, to collect the works of unknown or discredited authors, and who sits yawning amid so many thousands of books, whose backs and titles please him more than any other part of them?

[7] Thus in the houses of the laziest of men you will see the works of all the orators and historians stacked upon bookshelves reaching right up to the ceiling. At the present day a library has become as necessary an appendage to a house as a hot and cold bath. I would excuse them straightway if they really were carried away by an excessive zeal for literature; but as it is, these costly works of sacred genius, with all the illustrations that adorn them, are merely bought for display and to serve as wall-furniture.

[4] studiorum quoque quae liberalissima impensa est tam diu rationem habet, quam diu modum. quo innumerabiles libros et bybliothecas, quarum dominus vix tota vita indices perlegit? onerat discentem turba, non instruit, multoque satius est paucis te auctoribus tradere, quam errare per multos.

[5] quadraginta milia librorum Alexandriae arserunt; pulcherrimum regiae opulentiae monimentum alius laudaverit, sicut T. Livius, qui elegantiae regum curaeque egregium id opus ait fuisse. Non fuit elegantia illud aut cura, sed studiosa luxuria, immo ne studiosa quidem, quoniam non in studium sed in spectaculum comparaverant, sicut plerisque ignaris etiam puerilium litterarum libri non studiorum instrumenta sed cenationum ornamenta sunt. paretur itaque librorum quantum satis sit, nihil in apparatum.

[6] "honestius," inquis, "hoc se impensae quam in Corinthia pictasque tabulas effuderint." vitiosum est ubique, quod nimium est. quid habes, cur ignoscas homini armaria e citro atque ebore captanti, corpora conquirenti aut ignotorum auctorum aut improbatorum et inter tot milia librorum oscitanti, cui voluminum suorum frontes maxime placent titulique?

[7] apud desidiosissimos ergo videbis quicquid orationum historiarumque est, tecto tenus exstructa loculamenta; iam enim inter balnearia et thermas bybliotheca quoque ut necessarium domus ornamentum expolitur. ignoscerem plane, si studiorum nimia cupidine erraretur. nunc ista conquisita, cum imaginibus suis discripta sacrorum opera ingeniorum in speciem et cultum parietum comparantur.

James Baker Pyne (1800-1870), The Library at Windsor Castle

Hat tip: Eric Thomson.

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