Film/Music/Literature

Ex Libris: A Lover’s quarrel

This post is, in part, a response to my co-editor Win Bassett’s piece on giving books away.

I have too many books. So says my wife, at least, and this is likely to be true. Apart from my mother, who turned my childhood bedroom into her own library, there are few others I know who have more books in their personal possessions. This is a matter of pride for me and likely not of the good kind.

Years ago, I spent perhaps $100 of each paycheck on used books from Reader’s Corner or Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh. This habit became the single greatest burden when I found myself moving to six different locations in seven years. Books, as you may know, are some of the worst items to move.

Eight months ago, this excess of books did not matter. Books and bookshelves occupied the open floor of my office, and piles upon piles spilled into the guestroom and downstairs into our living room. But because my wife and I have welcomed into our family and into our home our baby girl, Mary Margaret, the guestroom has become a nursery. Many of the books I had safely tucked away in there were moved into to the office, which is not large enough to house them all.

I did a large pillage of my shelves of anything that met one of two criteria: (1) Did I have double/triple copies of the book? (2) Could I readily find the book at a local public library? Both of these determinants may seem rational and untheatrical, but to me, they were wildly unfair. Not every copy of Augustine’s Confessions is equal. Sometimes a chorus of translations or editions is a nice resource to have.

Before I became a father, these books were my children, and their marginalia were evidence that these copies were mine; they bore my DNA in the notes and highlights throughout their well-worn pages. These books are the high points of a lifetime of high school and college reading lists, afternoons spent at used book stores and library remainder sales, and gifts from charitable others who had neatly inscribed the inside cover with a dedication on the occasion of the gift. The inside of one book, a birthday gift from my best friend, reads: Charlie, Happy 23rd birthday! Enjoy this book along the journey. Michael, Nov 13, 2004. I have enjoyed this book numerous times, and I couldn’t think to part with it.

Even with the above criteria met, there are still a large number of books stacked in not-so-neat piles upon my floor and on the tops of bookshelves in a most unkempt arrangement. These include old Latin and Greek primers and grammars from the 18th century, nice editions of the classical dramatists, Loeb Classics, and a few small first editions of southern novelists.

This still leaves a large number of theological works by Church Fathers and contemporary theologians, hard-to-find works of American southern fiction and non-fiction prose and poetry, and many well-tested, hard-to-find books on Greek and Roman history. You cannot find these at the public library.

This problem is not mine alone. Anyone who has ever collected books into a personal library comes to a point where she has to evaluate its contents and the living space allotted. She might have to ask questions similar to the criteria above. Seneca the Younger, the Roman philosopher of Stoic note and a favorite of mine, has been instructive on this matter:

A multitude of books only gets in one’s way. So if you are unable to read all the books in your possession, you have enough when you have all the books you are able to read. And if you say, ‘But I feel like opening different books at different times’, my answer will be this: tasting one dish after another is a sign of a fussy stomach, and where the foods are dissimilar and diverse in range they lead to contamination of the system, not nutrition. So always read well-tried authors, and if at any moment you find yourself wanting a change from a particular author, go back to the ones you have read before.[1]

At the heart of Seneca’s enjoinment is not only the question of why we keep multiple books around but why we even read. “Reading,” one of my teachers once told me, “is writing on your soul.” Reading the well-formed sentences of the masters of language and thought is important for the development of one’s character and soul. Or, as Seneca continues:

Each day, too, acquire something, which will fortify you to face poverty, or death, and other ills as well. After running over a lot of thoughts, pick out one to be digested thoroughly that day.[2]

In reading Seneca, I have realized my hoarding–of authors, books, and my library. Boethius, a Christian philosopher of the 6th century, had only the Bible and Augustine’s City of God. But I do have certain Senecan guards on my reading habits. For example, I do have a tailored short list of novels and monographs I read yearly:

  1. The Moviegoer, Walker Percy
  2. The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene
  3. A Theology of History, Hans Urs von Balthasar
  4. Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar, Paul J. Griffiths
  5. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
  6. Winston Churchill: An Informal Study of Greatness, Robert Lewis Taylor
  7. Iliad, Homer (trans. Robert Fagels)
  8. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, Flannery O’Connor
  9. Confessions, St Augustine of Hippo
  10. Letters from a Stoic, Seneca the younger

These are all good books, and they would certainly make up my desert island library. But are they enough to satisfy my appetite for reading and at the same time adhere to Seneca’s standards? For some like me, reading has always been about volume more than quality or character. If I can just get my eyes on the pageIf can just read everyone, I’ll know I’ve probably read the right ones at least once or twice. But if I take Seneca at his word, then there are only a handful of authors and books that should fulfill my reading appetite and thus, my library. A good library, like reading, requires a lifetime of discipline.


**ex libris, from the books (of) – a common bookplate to denote ownership, often on the inside cover.
[1] Seneca. Letters from a Stoic. Penguin: London, 2004. Print, 33-34
[2] Seneca, 34

One thought on “Ex Libris: A Lover’s quarrel

  1. I have this problem as well…the hoarding of books but the bad thing is that it is both my wife and I that do it. Every time we buy a book we say to ourselves, and each other, this is the last one for awhile. It never is.

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