19 October, 2007


There are few activities more pleasurable than transferring one's collection of books, theretofore coacervated all hobson-jobson in unlabelled boxes, to a newly-acquired set of shelves. Thanks to the munificence of neighbours, my wife and I have recently landed, gratis, no fewer than five bookshelves, of various sizes and shapes. Some of them are even antiques. I spent the evening turning over the piles sprawled out from upturned boxes, unexamined since our departure for Arizona three long years ago. As each item surfaces, I can recall exactly the time and place of its purchase; and so the experience as a whole recapitulates my life, and also, in a peculiar way, the structure of my mind.


The collector Robert Cotton (1571-1631), whose enormous library—or at least what remained of it in the wake of a great fire (1731), the remnants nonetheless replete with priceless treasures—was later donated to the national collection, arranged his books on shelves marked by the busts of Caesars. Thus, our sole surviving copy of Beowulf was (and still is) designated 'Vitellius A.xv', denoting that the manuscript was found on the top shelf (A) below Vitellius, fifteen along. (One rather suspects that Vitellius was too nugatory a Caesar for a text of such importance.) At any rate, I have decided to revive the practice, only using great literary figures instead of Roman clown-emperors. Thus, atop the first case I have placed a small bust of Goethe, presiding. I have yet to pick my next hero.

The Warburg Library is organised to maximise suggestiveness, all chronological and alphabetical plans having been abandoned, so as to provoke thought (and, dare I say it, often confusion) by unusual, though rarely irrational, juxtapositions. I like the idea. Indeed, it is difficult to know quite how to sort. As with translations, all solutions fall short one way or another. So I tend towards a loose order, with books grouped by size and vaguely by subject, though arranged for a pleasing curve on each shelf. I wanted to get Substantific Marrow onto the shelf of literary essayists, but there was no room, so instead I put him between Duval on Rabelais, and the copy of Mineshaft magazine I picked up in San Francisco. (I offer Emerson the choice of switching Mineshaft for an Aporia Press reprint of a few Thomason pamphlets (1642-61), collectively entitled Anomalous Phenomena of the Interregnum.) I have Hegel next to Lewis Spence and Extraordinary Popular Delusions, which, I'm sure you'll agree, is a fitting apposition. Phineas Fletcher's anatomical epic The Purple Island is next to George Chappell's neo-Rabelaisian Through the Alimentary Canal with Gun and Camera, which in turn neighbours an old, peeling Béroalde de Verville. Daisy Ashford's The Young Visiters makes a cute companion to Christopher Ward's Gentleman into Goose.

Some conjunctions just amuse me. The Book of Mormon sits next to Josiah Royce's Principles of Logic; a biography of Mao next to a two-volume Leben und Werke of Schiller, in Fraktur, kindly given to me by my dear uncle; the works of Molière beside The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí; und so weiter. I'd like to get an octavo Shakespeare to put next to the contes of Voltaire, just to spite the pair of them. At the moment Voltaire's next to Swift and a 1906 Kommersbuch, which is almost as good, I think.

The shelf above the Loebs and other classics is too small for almost any book, so for now I have left it empty. Perhaps in shelving, just as in jazz, and Chinese painting, the notes you leave out count just as much, if not more.

The 200-odd books on these new shelves account for about 20-25% of my total collection, by my estimate. It is mostly second-tier material; although I refuse to have anything on my shelves that I dislike. (There is, of course, plenty that I haven't read.) I once read—damn if I can't remember where—about a French collector so determined to possess a perfect library that he would buy the Works of an author, cut out all the bad bits, and have the book rebound. Now that's my kind of collector. The ordonnance of these shelves is not perfect yet. It needs some tweaking. But it's almost there. I have heard the human body with its DNA compared to a vast library in which every book is the same. I like to imagine that when all my books are assembled in one place, perhaps at the end of my life, and placed in the correct order, I will have disclosed myself to the world more perfectly than in any book or conversation—shemhamphorasch.

Update: As it happens, I stumbled within a week across the reference to that French collector. My mind had embellished the matter, from Matthew Arnold's essay on Joseph Joubert, referring to 'the treasures of a library collected with infinite pains, taste, and skill, from which every book he thought ill of was rigidly excluded—he never would possess either a complete Voltaire or a complete Rousseau'. My version, as usual, is better.

Update #2: More book collections assembled here. Mine is the smallest, but then, it's quality that matters.


John Emerson said...

Cotton Vitellius A.xv is an amazing relic, and it's worth learning enough Anglo-Saxon to look at it directly. Maybe Heaney's version will make it more accessible. I think that it's still underappreciated.

The same is probably true of Old Norse, but I don't think I'll live long enough.

Mrs. Lily-Plum Roth said...

Watching my dear Mr. Roth tenderly removing his books from their boxes and lovingly organising them on our new/old shelves was a truly delightful spectacle.

Mrs. Roth

P.S. Reading 'Beowulf' in the Anglo-Saxon is very rewarding, but I have yet to have the pleasure of drooling over the Cotton MS in person.

Anonymous said...

Whenever I wistfully mention getting our library organized, M. sternly reminds me that I have a Ph.D. to be working on.

The sheer disorder of my collection weighs heavily on my mind. One shelf of a case within my sight currently places Quine's Quiddities near Will Cuppy's Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, a Loeb volume of Seneca (which I used to read to M. at bedtime to irritate her), a small chapbook of Dee's The Hieroglyphic Monad, Volume 2 of the Baring-Gould Annotated Sherlock Holmes, and Kleinwagen (a Taschen photobook of unusual small automobile designs). My conjunctions are not by design, though, but are emergent patterns drawn out by use from the stochastic distribution of haphazard unpacking.

I, too, remember the story of each volume in my collection: the smell of the bookstore where it was found, the place where I first sat down to read it, its shelf locations through my previous residences.

It would be nice, perhaps, to be hard-hearted enough to cull out all those volumes that are not excellent, but I'm still too much a slave to nostalgia to cast them aside.

Conrad H. Roth said...

We do have a lot in common. Seneca, I can see, would be extremely annoying. I wouldn't mind getting a Monas chapbook; I've had an internet printout in a folder for a few years now, but it isn't the same.

Robert said...

I too have been shifting my books around into new shelves and you are right it is very pleasurable. I have done this before. Our collection of books which, at that time was in the region of 2,500, had to be arranged and catalogued. This fell to a very well read and literate “chap” who after a day or two told me that there were a few books that he thought were not really suitable for tender eyes however dyslexic and disinterested they might be in books. Many of the books were family books collected over some generations so I was surprised to hear that some might be inappropriate! On inspection they turned out to be Apuleius “The Golden Ass” and a few others of similar ilk.
On one of our inspections, by, surprise surprise, my old "A"English Teacher he made an observation that we did not have much of a library for our 30 odd pupils. Now 80 books each may be a little thin for some of us at any one time but for dyslexics who hated the very sight of a book I thought is was an unfair remark from an inspector who then conceded he had not noticed how many books we had! Now you know why I did so well at “English Literature” at school. Of course many of these books were not so much inappropriate as not intended for “the age”, either dated or for grown-up consumption in subject matter and language.
Sadly my books languish now and the few I have on shelves in my studio and home are dusty and unopened but still loved and cherished.
A daughter’s friend works at that great Oxford Library The Bodleian. He tells me that they are to move all their books soon. That will be some historical task.
I trust you and ily are thriving.

Anonymous said...

'I never ceased marvelling at the swiftness of his decisions. He knew at once whether he wanted a book or could pulp it. Some of his choices were puzzling indeed. His shop windows would suddenly display a shelf-full of what looked like worthless rubbish - prominently shown, and highly priced as a unit. Looking more closely, you saw that the first title was Living on Leprosy, and that the other items followed the same odd semantic pattern. Or that the successive titles composed some absurd and burr-like sentence.' (I.A. Richards on C.K. Ogden and the Cambridge Magazine bookshop)

I'm almost ashamed to confess my one experiment in this vein: when a friend of ours, an Anglican woman priest, came to dinner and held forth for the entire evening without ever noticing that the bookshelf directly behind her had Marie Corelli's Holy Orders alongside P.D. James's An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.

Brunellus said...

Have you considered using LibraryThing to keep track of your books? It's a wonderful site, and it gets better as more people join. Here's my library as an example.

Conrad H. Roth said...

I have considered it. I am not sure I could face cataloguing all my books, and I'm sure I would fritter away too much time in hopeless library envy.