Blog Till You Drop, Day 96: The Endless Shelf

January 4th, 2011

For Christmas, Mun’s and my friends, Peter and Pauli Sanderson, gave me a really nice bag with a quotation on one side from Abraham Lincoln: “My best friend is someone who gives me a book I have not read.”

Just read a great piece in The New Yorker about the Vatican Library (or “the Vat” as the people who do research there call it).  Most of the Vat’s ancient books were hoarded, stolen, seized by kings, shipped under armed guard, and locked away for (in some cases) centuries.

In one of Larry McMurtry’s memoirs he tells how, when he was nine or ten years old, a cousin came by on his way to fight in World War II and left a box containing 19 books, the first books ever in the house, other than the Bible. Sixty years and hundreds of thousand books later — McMurtry is now one of the world’s biggest dealer in used books — he remembers the exact number of books his cousin gave him.

A few days ago, Munyin fell in love with Colin Firth.  She had read he’d played Mr. Darcy in an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and she decided to read it before she saw it.  My copy was in a whopping edition containing Austen’s complete works; so I opened my Kindle, pushed about five buttons, and 30 seconds later, we had a new copy of Pride and Prejudice.

Books are as common as dirt now.  We’ve gone from hand-lettered tomes on vellum to the printed book to mass-produced hardcovers, to cheap paperbacks, and now to bytes and pixels on the fly.  There is literally no reason  now for anyone to want a book he or she can’t have.  It may not be a Gutenberg, but you can find a free Bible in any hotel room.  Half the great books in English are available free for e-readers.

Has the ubiquity of books degraded our relationship to them?  Do we know individual books much less well than people did when they were scarce?

In Lincoln’s time, I would imagine, most literate people knew a few books very, very well.  Now we (I, anyway) have a glancing acquaintance with thousands of books.  Is one relationship to books better than the other?  Are we in danger of developing a frame of reference that is, as someone said of Victor Hugo’s, “As wide as all the seas and five inches deep”?

Francis Bacon said, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”  And he said it around 1600.  I doubt whether he was able to “taste” one-fiftieth of the books I’ve skimmed.  And he probably knew by heart some of the ones he chewed and digested.  Was Francis Bacon worse-educated than I am?  I don’t think so.  He knew about fewer things than I know about, but what he knew, he knew well enough to transmute it into wisdom.

Anyone got any thoughts about this?  The questions above are not rhetorical.  Come on, give me a hand here.  Why should I do all the work?

15 Responses to “Blog Till You Drop, Day 96: The Endless Shelf”

  1. Gary Says:

    I get your point about the ubiquity of books. But I’d still prefer not to go back to the days of hand copying, and private libraries considered large if they contained twelve of them.

    Much less risk to our human condition, I think, in too many rather than too few.

  2. EverettK Says:

    It’s a very interesting and valid question that you ask, and it’s not an easy one to answer. At least, the answer is not simple.

    I think that the answer depends a great deal upon the reader. This ties back into your earlier blog (Oct 16, Day 15, The 10,000 Hour Rule) about how long it takes to become a master of anything. Only now we’re talking about experience and understanding and grokking. You can still, today, consume and absorb thousands of books and still study and know well just a few of them. It’s a matter of choice and self-discipline.

    But… in modern times, we have such a WEALTH available to us for consumption, that it’s very easy for most folks to become distracted by the multitude and not be able to focus on any one area. (I’m talking about Butterfly Behavior, which totally different than the Butterfly Effect, but the Behavior can certainly have an Effect on society.)

    However… in the times of Francis Bacon, the percentage of the population that had the OPPORTUNITY to know a subject in depth was quite small. The majority of the population was still mired in struggling for survival. So, I think that there are still just as many (probably far more, given the population expansion) people who study and know a subject (or books) in depth as there was 300-400 years ago. It’s just that the number of people has exploded dramatically who are able to study ANYTHING AT ALL.

    When there are very few fish in the pond (most of the population are tadpoles) it’s very easy to be the sturgeon and stand out from the crowd. REALLY stand out. But when the pond is filled with coho salmon, the sturgeon doesn’t stand out as much, even though it’s still there.

  3. Robb Royer Says:

    I think the human condition is like, totally screwed, man.

  4. Suzanna Says:

    Sadly since the internet has somewhat taken over the way I receive news, communicate with friends and family, research everything from how to plant a maple tree, to how to deal with my teenage daughter, my relationship to books has diminished. I just don’t read as many books as I used to.

    But there will always be books that are life changing either because of what they teach me or because of how they were written, or both, and I hang onto those books like a treasured friend or family member. I don’t lend my favorite books easily and when I do I usually get the person who wants to read the book to promise they will return it when they’re done. Some of my favorites never make it back to me but what the hell I can always buy a new one, right? Thank goodness for that.

  5. Gary Says:

    Suzanna. South Asian proverb: Only a fool lends a book. And only a bigger fool returns it.

  6. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I think the simple answer is that certain books will stand out for us to relish and and remember. No matter how many books I read, a few stand out. Is that what you meant, Everett? I think, based on my own life experience, and the work I do, certain books will have weight for me, which is true for all of us. ( The Queen of Patcong is one).There are more of us reading, and there is more to choose from, and, yes, a lot of it is forgettable, but at least people are reading. On some other website, there was a poll taken, and Firth’s Mr. Darcy won the most admired hero award or something. He is the epitome, apparently, of the romantic hero. I am not arguing with that. Just warning you, Tim. (And Bonnie, we read a lot of the same people-just a crossover from DorothyL).

  7. Suzanna Says:


    …”I know not of any greater sign of a trusting friendship than lending a book.”

    This according to Guive Mirfendereski, a professor of international relations and law, (love the interweb) who was told by his father how foolish it is to lend books, and more foolish to return them.

    When I think about it more carefully the books I never got back were loaned to people I am no longer friends with.

    To add to GM’s thinking, maybe there’s no greater sign that you want to maintain a trusting friendship then making sure you return the books you’ve borrowed.

    I have to say I felt like a heel when the mother of my young nephew asked to borrow the first book of my daughter’s Harry Potter series. It pained me somewhat but instead of immediately handing it over I encouraged her to get the entire series. Terrible aren’t I? Did I trust her to return the book? I guess I didn’t! Plus, it wasn’t my book to loan anyway.

    Good news is that she recently wrote to say that she and my nephew are reading the Harry Potter books together, and she now understands what all the fuss is about.

  8. EverettK Says:

    Lil: Not entirely. I was more getting at the “changes in society” that have allowed 99% of people alive to have spare time to READ books and spare money to BUY them, which wasn’t the case until the past 50-100 years. With more people reading, there is more reading available.

    But Sturgeon’s Law applies (as much as it ever does): 95% of everything is shit. Of course, that’s a gross (in a couple of ways) generalization, but is (like most ‘laws’) generally true. When thinking about people who study something in depth and master it, 95% of them don’t, whether they have the time and means to do so or not, whether they have too many distractions or not. 95% of all books (or printed material in general) are crap (ie, forgettable). I read probably in the neighborhood of 100 books this past year. How many would I feel badly about if I lost them in a fire (assuming I had paper copies…)? Maybe a half-dozen. (And, yes, Tim, Crashed is among that half-dozen. 🙂 )

    I have thousands of paper books that I’ve acquired and (mostly) read over the past 45-50 years, and that collection has been winnowed down once or twice, and even out of that collection, there’s probably a total of 100-200 that would go along with me to a desert island. Several of them I’ve read multiple times (some as many as 5 or 6 times).

    So, while the plethora of printed matter that we have today DOES ‘cheapen’ the value of ALL of it in the eyes of many people (thus resulting in less deep-study of any of it), there’s still that 5% of the population with the will and the ability to focus and to study deeply, and the plethora only enriches the depths of their study.

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thanks for the comments, all. Gary, I think I owe you a couple of those Iain Pears books, but I’m keeping them until he learns how to spell his first name. Also, didn’t I steal THE DAUGHTER OF SCIENCE, about Ada Byron, from you?

    Everett, to take your posts as one overwhelming furlm, seems to me that the one of the big differences between people of the last, say 65 years and those of longer (and much longer) ago is that we have much more idle time and many, many more ways to fill it. And I agree that 90% of everything is shit, although I believe that some individual members of any group will expose themselves to a lower percentage of fecal fun than others. Taken as a whole, though, I think the wealthy West suffers from a cultural case of ADD, brought about by the fact that 90% of what we turn our attention to isn’t good enough to hold it. So we hopscotch to the next distraction. The eyes of people in 19th century photos seem to have a gravity ours don’t, although that might just be because they had to stare at the lens so long before the exposure was complete. But that might not be the reason, either.

    Robb, I always think of the human condition as, like, screwed because the first person I ever heard talk about it was James Brock, whose view of it was undoubtedly affected by a deep and richly deserved sense of personal inferiority.

    Zanna, you lie. You’ll lend anything to anyone. I have books I treasure, and I force them on people who never return them so I have to buy new copies. Oh, well, what the hell.

    Lil, THANKS for the reference to QUEEN, I’ll take that any day. Sure, some books shine and some are just popcorn, and I still wonder whether we’d read better if we read less and not quite so frivolously.

    I have to sign off for the day. I’ve done no writing and I have characters waving for attention. More tonight.

  10. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    Well, now, I am looking at reading from a person who works with kids and wants them to read. What do you think all those people who go to see Sarah Palin read? (Besides, her book, I mean, and no I haven’t). Yes, there is more spare time, but with all the things out clamoring for our attention, and our money, I still would have more people reading. And yes a lot of it garbage. I am reading less this week because I’m reading “The Book of Air and Shadows,” and I really like it. It is a much slower and demanding read than many books that I read.
    But I will also cop to reading a jolly regency once in a while just to rest my head, and just because. It’s very hard to tolerate the dumbing down of America, but there it is. but I think it’s always been like that; we just see it more now.
    As to the human condition, it has always been a puzzle. Why else are there so many philosophers, philosophies, and religons? Oops, got to stop, I’m a little buzzed on meds-sorry about that.

  11. Laren Bright Says:

    I only read sci-fi — and Tim Hallinan. I’m a cretin.

  12. Gary Says:

    Tim, I GAVE you the book on Ada Byron. I LENT you the book on the history of the Jews. That’s the difference.

    There’s always been a high garbage content in the available literature. Aristotle was revered for millennia, but his ideas on natural philosophy (physics, mechanics, etc.) held back modern science for centuries.

    But if we don’t have the 90 percent, we won’t get the 10 percent.

  13. EverettK Says:

    Lil said: As to the human condition, it has always been a puzzle. Why else are there so many philosophers, philosophies, and religons? Oops, got to stop, I’m a little buzzed on meds-sorry about that.

    Sometimes I think that’s the best way to consider “the human condition.” 🙂

  14. Robb Royer Says:

    Okay, since you bring up Dr. Brock, do you remember when we were racing up Nordhoff street, late to his class for the #@*&%teenth time, wondering how we were gonna get away with it when we passed a stand with a hand painted sign: MOTHERS DAY FLOWERS.

    Cut to class, we walked in, gave Brock a bouquet and said warmly, ‘happy Mother’s Day Dr. Brock’.

    I don’t know if we was actually moved (he looked like he was) but he accepted the flowers in a posture of gratitude and we took our seats without further incident or comment. ‘member that?

  15. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Sorry to have fallen behind, everyone. PULPED is arriving all the time lately and I write it pretty much all day. Got to grab it while it’s in the neighborhood.

    Zanna, you were absolutely right not to lend that book. Almost the only exception I make is books in series when I want to have the entire series. Those don’t go anywhere until I’m ready to get rid of the series as a whole.

    Lil (again!)I suppose I shouldn’t worry about people reading ANYTHING in this, the age of Snooki — unless they’re reading “Snooki’s” “novel,” JERSEY SHORE. Both sets of quotation marks are intentional. With good writers using their manuscript to stuff holes in the wall and keep out drafts (well, maybe not) it’s a travesty for Scribners, a once-literate firm, to be pubbing this book.

    A regency, huh? For me, it’s a Victorian. Love that period, and Anne Perry does it to a turn. What the hell ever happened to Caleb Carr?

    Laren, as long as you read Hallinan, no one will ever criticize you. For anything. I won’t even let Gary “criticise” you.

    Well, Everett, if the human condition is a puzzle, it’s one that always ends the same way. Still, I suppose what matters is how you get there.

    Gary, I will be forever thankful for the book on Ada, except that I left the damn thing in my apartment in Phnom Penh, and I want to read it again. And it’s not on Amazon or BookDepository. Drat.

    Robb, I do indeed remember. He looked as pleased as it was possible for a congenitally depressed sourpuss to look.

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