Sunday, September 05, 2021


Building a Library

Howard Jacobson, Whatever It Is, I Don't Like It (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011), pp. 100-101:
Few things convince a man of the vanity of life more than relocating his library. What am I carrying all this lumber around with me for? Into boxes, out of boxes. Why am I breaking my back for them? Throwing away money on removalists, on shelves. Why am I repeating patterns of ownership that have served me only fitfully in the past?

Some of my friends have sold their libraries now. They have that preternaturally fresh-faced look of people who divorce late in life, or on the spur of the moment give up a job they've toiled at for forty years. They look free suddenly, disencumbered, not quite themselves. It's terrific, they tell me, having got rid. It’s a liberation. And I incline my ear to their lips, letting the poison drop, wondering if I am capable of such treacheries myself. Although I know I'm not.

'Not more books!' my father used to complain when I came back from the second-hand barrows of Shudehill, weighed down under another filthy cardboard box, excited by my finds. A complete Thackeray for five bob, for God's sake! The Caxton illustrated Balzac in a translation by Anonymous, incomplete but only sixpence a volume . . . !

'Bargains!' I cried.

'I believe you,' he said. 'And the bargains you got last time? How many of those have you read?'

How do you explain to somebody who doesn't understand that you don't build a library to read. A library is a resource. Something you go to, for reference, as and when. But also something you simply look at, because it gives you succour, answers to some idea of who you are or, more to the point, who you would like to be, who you will be once you own every book you need to own.
Hat tip: Jim K., with thanks for the gift of Jacobson's book.

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