On Having Too Many Books

This morning, we took delivery of three more bookcases. They went directly to one of the only rooms that doesn’t have a bookshelf in it: we call it ‘O’Hare’, because when we moved in, that room served as the storage point for the luggage we used to help move our clothes, linens, and related matters. I had stacked some book boxes along the back wall there, and these shelves displaced the book boxes.

In fact, not only did they take all the books from those boxes, they’ll fit numerous other boxes of books that currently reside in the library (Margaret’s study) and in the closet of my study. We’re really making progress on getting books unpacked.

In the process, I’ve seen innumerable old friends emerge from their cardboard hostels. Books that touched me profoundly (The Man in the High Castle, 1962 book club edition from Putnam), that changed my mind (Derrida’s Margins of Discourse), books by friends, books I long to have time to read, books I long to reread, books I need to consult for my own writing once I get the time, books I hope some next generation reader will cherish….

Some may have read the interview with Umberto Eco that’s been bouncing around the internet (cited here from Open Culture) — the one wherein he goes hard for having unread books in one’s personal library, constituting what he calls an anti-library. Eco testifies to books’ importance to personal research. He notes that ‘a private library is not an ego-boosting appendages but a research tool.’ Fair enough, and point very well taken; I have numerous books stored up against the day I begin writing out my big book about hermeneutics, more for work on parables, more for liturgical guidance, more for the history of the reception of the Bible in English, and I could go on indefinitely.

But books are also like a network of friends and acquaintances. Some are so close that one can hardly imagine living apart from them. My copy of The Genesis of Secrecy, of Paul, the Corinthians and the Birth of Christian Hermeneutics, of the Philosophical Investigations, of course my Bibles and prayerbooks, The Wind in the Willows, and a few others are as close to being physical expressions of my heart and mind as could be. Others are your close friends, the ones who tell you the truth about yourself and the world while they aren’t part of you. Some are everyday friends, great to see them, have a cup of coffee, refresh the relationship. Others are long-lost BFFs, emerging unexpectedly and reminding you of great times from ages ago. Some are acquaintances, some are strangers who look interesting, who might become friends when you have time to sit with them for a while. But going from in-transit, in-storage, to circulating among this Kings Cross station, this vast cocktail party, this congregation, this city of friends and could-be-friends — that’s one (sometimes the only) redeeming aspect of having to pack up and move homes. Today I had the deep, deep pleasure of meeting some mentors, some buddies, some playmates, some informants, some exotic strangers, and that feels so good.

They’re more than just an untapped research resource. They’re relationships waiting to happen.*

* Those of you who have been paying attention for a long time may be holding back the urge to say, ‘Wait, aren’t you the guy who resolutely opposes ascribing personhood or agency to inanimate entities, like books and images and tunes and objects?’ Yes, I am, and I do. But note the difference between ascribing autonomous qualities to a text (on one hand) and observing, relishing, the relation between me and a recorded complex of expressions, which expressions may have surprised, or delighted, or instructed, or defeated me, all in different ways at different times in my life. I have a relationship with Questions of Evidence by virtue of its embeddedness in the timeline of my life, and my associations of it with conversations I’ve had, with people who have their own relations to these texts, and with changes and continuities in y perception of it. It’s not that a particular collection of essays has agency, or personhood; it’s that it constitutes a nodal point in the intensely recursive and also exoteric and emergent constellation of meaning that the centre of which you may find… me.

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