It has been said, by my wife and by others, that I have too many books in my care. And this may be true. Save my mother, who turned the room in which I grew up into her personal library, there are few others I know who have more books in their own personal libraries. This is a matter of pride for me.
Nine months ago this excess of books did not matter; the books and bookshelves were free to occupy my office but also spilled into the guest-room [ξενία] and even downstairs. However, because Laura and I are now within the last month of pregnancy with our baby girl, the guest-room has been converted into a nursery. Thus many of the books that I had safely tucked away in there and elsewhere around the townhouse have had to return to the office, which is not large enough to hold all of them.
What to do? I first did a large pillage of my shelves of anything that met one of two criteria: a) I had double/triple copies, e.g., St Augustine’s Confessions; b) I could readily find it at the local public library. After that, I crated a number of Divinity School books from my last two semesters, books I would need at the read for my current course load, and tucked them away in the attic.
This still leaves a large number of books stacked in not-so-neat piles upon my floor and on the tops of bookshelves in an unkempt manner. Now, I’d like to think I know where every book I own is, were you to ask me for this title or that author, and that I do collect books and that many in my library serve no other purpose than to have them. These include old Latin and Greek Primers and Grammars, nice editions of the Greek dramatists, Loeb Classics, or a few small first editions of Southern novelists.
This still leaves a large number of theological works by both Church Fathers and contemporary theologians, hard-to-find works of American Southern fiction and prose, and many books on Greek and Roman history. You cannot find all of these at the public library, and I will not have access to the Divinity School library in perpetuity.
Years ago, before Laura and I met and began dating, I would spend perhaps $100 of each paycheck on used books from The Reader’s Corner or Quail Ridge Books and vinyl records from Raleigh’s Schoolkids. 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.
Some years I even gave up book purchasing as a Lenten discipline. But in the last two years, since my enrollment at Duke, the floodgates have once again opened up to an endless stream of theological, historical, and literary works.
However, in reading Seneca, the great Stoic mind of the First Century (see below), I have been somewhat convicted on my rather whorish approach to authors, books, and my library. Now I do have certain Senecan guards on my reading habits; for example I do have a well 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. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
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, Flannery O’Connor
These are all good books; they would certainly make up my desert island library. But are they enough to satisfy my appetite for reading but also adhere to Seneca’s standards? Are they even good enough?
There’s so much not on this list. Again, I could make good on my public library rule or simply borrow books from friends and have a two-week deadline on returning them. Perhaps, I could spend more time on my own writing habits (as well as the requirements of fatherhood and discipline).
What’s certain, however, is that reading and books are important. “Reading,” Dr. C. Kavin Rowe, one of my theology professors, has stated, “is writing on your soul,” and I think this is true. Reading the well-formed sentences of the great masters and mistresses of language is important for development of one’s character and soul, even in your thirties, and I would like this house to be a place of literature and scholarship as we add to it with children.
If you have any suggestions, please let me know below.
When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends. And the same thing must hold true of men who seek intimate acquaintance with no single author, but visit them all in a hasty and hurried manner. Food does no good and is not assimilated into the body if it leaves the stomach as soon as it is eaten; nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent change of medicine; no wound will heal when one salve is tried after another; a plant which is often moved can never grow strong. There is nothing so efficacious that it can be helpful while it is being shifted about. And in reading of many books is distraction.
Accordingly, since you cannot read all the books which you may possess, it is enough to possess only as many books as you can read. “But,” you reply, “I wish to dip first into one book and then into another.” I tell you that it is the sign of an overnice appetite to toy with many dishes; for when they are manifold and varied, they cloy but do not nourish. So you should always read standard authors; and when you crave a change, fall back upon those whom you read before. Each day acquire something that will fortify you against poverty, against death, indeed against other misfortunes as well; and after you have run over many thoughts, select one to be thoroughly digested that day. (II)
Seneca, Epistulae morales ad Lucilium
At the advice of Dr. Paul J. Griffiths, another of my professors, I have decided to invest my time in reading, though not buying, the 2012 Longlist of The Man Booker Prize:
Nicola Barker, The Yips (Fourth Estate)
Ned Beauman, The Teleportation Accident (Sceptre)
André Brink, Philida (Harvill Secker)
Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists (Myrmidon Books)
Michael Frayn, Skios (Faber & Faber)
Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Doubleday)
Deborah Levy, Swimming Home (And Other Stories)
Hilary Mantel, Bring up the Bodies (Fourth Estate)
Alison Moore, The Lighthouse (Salt)
Will Self, Umbrella (Bloomsbury)
Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis (Faber & Faber)
Sam Thompson, Communion Town (Fourth Estate)
Read Full Post »