A Triage of Books

When the parents of a friend of mine finally had to leave their home and re-settle in a nursing home, it became Nadina’s task to dissolve their old apartment. Her parents had lived there for many years, and it was heartbreaking for her mother to leave. But since both old people were frail and had suffered accidents, it was time to look for a more secure and more supportive environment. This was found quickly, in the same city, and the change of quarters went more or less smoothly. Harder was the liquidation of the old apartment in the second floor of this old, somewhat run-down house.

Her father had been an engineer and a lover of books. He had collected them his whole adult life, and even after retirement he went to the stores and markets always coming back with more books. Nadina’s mother seemed to have complained from time to time, as the study and the apartment increasingly stuffed with them, but as both were lover of books and he stored the main bulk of them in his study, she went along with it. When the time came to clean out the apartment, we were confronted with the weighty task of dissolving this huge library. 

The study was a room not that big, about 20 m², the walls covered with book-shelves from the bottom to the ceiling. I don’t remember how many books there were, they were standing two and three rows deep in every shelf. (Even as there were books everywhere, the room itself was clean and tidy. Everything was at its place.) We were overwhelmed. What should we do with all these books? Second hand bookshops had no interest even to look at them, friends neither, and even as we chose some for ourselves, there still remained this mass of books left, homeless, without a place to go, unappreciated. We were stunned.

We went through the books, shelf by shelf, and most of them were rather cheap. Illustrated histories of sports, Olympic Games of the 70s and 80s, popular books, paperbacks from the 60s and 70s, nothing that stroke or touched us. But still, it was the collection of her father, so we were more than ambivalent. In the end we decided to bring them to the recycling centre as waste paper. We began packing the books into cardboard boxes, carrying them down to the street and into the car for Nadina to transport them to the centre. We did this a while until we recognized that we would need a whole week just to get the study empty. In the end we ordered a garbage container and threw all the books through the window down into it. We needed two containers for all the residual books.

Still the memories hurt. Throwing books out of the window had such a cruel and disrespectful air. In the moment of their disposal they became stuff. Turning objects of attention, of curiosity, of whatever it was that had enticed him to acquire and bring them home to his study, turning them to waste we had to get rid off was, well, insufferable. A collection of a life time we couldn’t relate to.

When the father of another friend died, Sharon had to decide what to do with his library too. Her father was a former professor at the university and a rabbi, and the collection of books he had in his house was a reference library he kept in his private study. Mostly theological and historical works, encyclopedia and dictionaries, it must have been a very impressive collection. When he died, Sharon didn’t know what to do with all the books. She donated them in part to seminaries and retirement homes. When I try to imagine how this library, collected over many years, having accompanied a whole career spent in different parts of the world, was torn apart, it makes me ache. These books were chosen from a myriad of books to accompany a thinker’s life, to help him find and give expression to thoughts both necessary for the synagogue as for the university. Separating them felt so wrong. Not that I didn’t understand Sharon and her plight in doing so, but the simple thought to break up a library collected and curated over so many years made me grieve.

When I was a freshman at the university I studied, inter alia, history of languages, esp. the Germanic ones stemming from the Indo-European. I was lucky to attend a course given by an old scholar in Indo-European studies, a man who was said to have spoken (or at least understand) 30 languages. I don’t know whether that was true, but the whole seminar and its library was built around this one old scholar in this tiny Department of Indo-European Studies. The whole department had about 20 to 30 students – from freshman to doctoral candidate! And when he died it was incorporated into the Institute for General Language Science nearby. A few years later, when money got tight and all universities started slashing and disbanding their small departments – never the big ones, of course, always the small ones, the important ones  this Institute for General Language Science was dissolved as well, its library stored for a while in some old sports hall (sic!), inaccessible to both the interested public and university researchers. Later its inventory was dispersed over several department libraries in the Humanities. All that was collected over the years, coming from different sources and directions, that had seen so many different people, students, researchers, vanished into the anonymity of faculty libraries with their task of efficiently serving the information needs in times of non-exiting public budgets.

I had studied Philosophy, History of Arts, German literature and linguistics. The library of the Department of Philosophy had been a famous one. Scholars had come from all over the world to spent a sabbatical or a research tenure in this library. It was one of the four or five distinguished collections of philosophical literature on department level in Germany. This department library was rather old. Founded around the beginning of the 20th century it had seen generations of librarians consciously and diligently collecting primary and secondary literature on Philosophy and related fields. The collection was old and interwoven. New directions were added as Continental Philosophy started to acknowledge and interact with Analytical Philosophy, and fields like Philosophy of Mind, Epistemology, Artificial Intelligence, Environmental Ethics, Deep Ecology (to name just a few) were added. Even when proper teaching staff wasn’t available or accentuated different areas, the librarians kept collecting the literature of the new and the old, “classical” fields, the new research, the new text editions, or former unavailable and still missing literature to fill the gaps. [1]

We spent a lot of time in this library, my student pals and me. We worked on our papers, criticized those of our friends, exchanged hints, suggestions for readings, the treasures we’ve found on some shelves on some outlandish themes. The Warburg Circle I didn’t met the first time in my seminars in Art History but in Philosophy, pursuing some obscure hint from a footnote of Ernst Cassirer’s translation of a treatise of Nicolas of Kues. Ernst Kapp’s Greek Foundations of Traditional Logic was here – until someone filched it. “At least the thief showed some sense of quality,” our professor of Ancient Philosophy quipped. Or Lynn Thorndyke’s A History of Magic and Experimental Science, this great investigation into the history of the experimental and natural sciences. Endless stuff, links, footnotes, doors to open, possibilities to guess. And with more and more time passing in the library we grew a sense where the books had their places. We could sense where in this building Aristotle, the church fathers, Descartes, Kant, the textbooks on logic, set theory or model theory were. You knew where to look to find what was needed without even bothering looking it up in the catalogue. The feeling of all the books around with all their thoughts inside them just added to your sense of place, your sense of your own understanding of the subject matters, your own bewilderment. Your astonishments had a place where they resided. The wonder, the curiosity, the questions, the intellectual defeats, they all waited at their places to be summoned by you as you walked by. The ars memoria that presumably Cicero had elaborated in the book Ad Herennium on rhetoric wasn’t simply something inside your head to organize the order and succession of topics of a sermon. Rather, it mirrored the ways thoughts and ideas seemed constantly to be outside you, in the rooms, on the shelves, in the order of the shelves, that you could physically walk by, stop, and attend to. You immersed into the library until the library became your outside form of organizing the themes, questions, histories, times, and fates. The library was the way a whole history of thought taught you to perceive and relate to. The courses with the professors were just a minor part of this education; the main came from the library itself, teaching you to hold the manifold of ideas and suggestions simultaneously in your hands, always trying to balance the immensity of things.

When we are invited for the first time into the house of a new friend, we often feel a kind of shyness when we see, mostly in the living rooms, the book shelves. “What is he reading?” “What does she like?” And, at least until a few years ago, we politely asked our new friend whether he’d allow us a glimpse on his books. We asked for permission. We did so because we sensed it was something very intimate to see. We wouldn’t go straight towards the shelves without having asked. That would have been as rude as entering a bathroom without a knock just to find someone half-naked. In approaching a book shelve we knew that this was something very intimate and revealing about our new friend. And it is not that we would encounter what interests he had, what predilections she pursued, what slightly embarrassing might lurk around. That was part of the hesitation. The main reason for our hesitation was that we sensed we would see (or even touch) a part of our friend’s soul. His soul not residing somewhere in his body, but dispersed, spread out through this area of soul an apartment really is, and condensed somehow in the book shelves, in the books that were residing there. [2] The outer is not a projection of the inner, as some fancy psychological traditions teaches us, the outer is the enlargement of the inner, a way the inner steps beyond the borders of the person’s body. A body is what keeps a person moving in space; a room with its traces and paths, with its books shelves and stuff is what keeps a person moving in her soul. A book shelve is not a collection of tomes, it’s a collection of dedication, curiosity, affinity, longing, mourning, of idiosyncrasies, of repeated endeavours. Books and their shelves are a way the soul can be kept and forced to encounter a thought – that is: a world – again and again. When we ask for permission to look more closely at the book shelves of a friend, we ask for permission to touch his soul. Deference and courtesy are of utmost importance here. [3]

When we threw the books into the garbage container, we had to shut down our souls. We knew we were throwing a man’s life out of the window. We knew we were disposing within a tiny amount of time not only the collected tomes, but the memories, thoughts, the dedication and peculiarities this man’s life was made of. Not only was it shocking that we proceeded that way. It was equally shocking that it could so easily be done. The embarrassing devaluation we placed on his life was topped by the cruelty with which life permitted us to do so. Of course, we had our reasons. There was a time schedule to be met, there were problems to be solved. And I don’t say we shouldn’t have done so. I rather state what we did when we did it. And these ramifications into the subtle, the unseeable but nonetheless real, is what bothers me. What we do when we decide that instrumental reason and purposes have to have their priority over and above the more subtle, tiny, unseeable things. Only because something cannot be seen doesn’t mean it isn’t real. On the contrary, it’s mostly the unseen and unseeable that is real and important, regardless what modern inclinations to conceive as real may muster. To decide which book is gonna live and which is gonna die may be as cruel and crucial as on the battlefield. One may have all the reasons there are, but the sting stays the same – what if we could have rescued him too? And why couldn’t we?


Post Scriptum

A few month ago there was a big discussion about Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains and his thesis that the Internet has decisive influence on our cognition, showing itself in an apparent loss of our ability to read, understand, to contemplate, and concentrate. I don’t want to offer any argument in this debate but just want to note that besides the huge increase in the text we became accustomed to absorb via screen (regardless whether it is the Internet or some text-file from our machine’s hard-drive), there may be two further factors involved: Firstly, looking into a screen means looking into a light source. This is a rather new situation as over the centuries we were used to look at indirect light sources to absorb a text. And secondly, the information stopped being embodied in a material form. Put simply: There are no book shelves anymore. We don’t engage via our different senses with the thought, the content, etc. anymore. But more importantly we lost the possibility to find this information in book shelves, in rooms, in a space where a soul may wander and orientate itself. The loss of the spatial sense makes the information intangible, unreal, virtual, one beside another. With the loss of spatial orientation comes the loss of history the information may acquire by residing in a book in the neighborhood of others, appreciated and cared about by a person that collected it and all the others. Information, as it is now seen, cannot form a history with other information; as data it resides somewhere and cannot be remembered by a person to be there. (As there is not there there.) Search engines have to keep track.

For the 10th anniversary of Wikipedia this weekend Nicholson Baker has a nice article in The New York Review of Books remembering the history of this huge endeavour. I like his former dedication to rescue articles and entries from deletion. The debate between inclusionists and exclusionists in Wikipedia concentrates on content. But as I have tried to remind you: It is the dedication with which someone collects books, the dedication that lies in an article that is despised both when a library is dissolved or an article in Wikipedia is deleted. As we have the capacities to store them Baker’s suggestion to create a “Deletopedia” – a place where all deleted articles from Wikipedia might reside – is important. In respect to their authors as well as to our understanding that knowledge is so much more than mere aggregation of patterns. [4] Even semantic ones. The knowledge that resides on the book shelves and the “knowledge” that resides in the clouds of the web are very different. The latter may help solve problems. But the former reminds us what we are. And where. And that the pursuit of goals and efficiency most often comes with the price of lovelessness and unkindness in thought and action. Sometimes it is better to aspire for less. 


[1]  Librarians never strove for the completion of their collections, but for a representative selection of the best and most important contributions to the field. (In other words: They wanted not a complete but a fine collection.) From this a specific version of knowledge-gathering and storage arose that kept the connection between information and person. Today this attitude changes drastically, in that thoughts, knowledge, information, ideas, etc. are severed from the persons who brought them about. Such unconnected information becomes data; the goal of a library becomes data storage. And as the search for data is more dependent on the appropriate tool to find it than on the expertise of a librarian to weigh relevance and importance, the goal of libraries and the job of a librarian change accordingly. An informative article in favour of this (from my point of view: regretable) development is Towards a new Alexandria by Lisbet Rausing (June 26, 2010). Thanks to @glynmoody (on identica and twitter) and @silner (on identica and twitter) for pointing it out and our discussion on topics involved with the different approaches.
[2]  More on that here.
[3]  That book shelves are an enlargement of our souls, not its projection, may become clearer when one compares them with TV series like Star Trek, Andromeda, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc. What is depicted in such series is not the endless adventures of a crew of people. Rather the adventures that the crew faces are the setting in which the different persons of the crew get stage and occasion to interact in their specific manners. These interactions are repeated over and over again with only slight variations. This makes sense in the very moment in which we regard the personnel of such a crew, surrounding some hero figure in the middle, as the different voices our own soul entertains, interacting with each others with the help of an adventure. It is important to see that most characters of classical TV series are mostly painted with some reduced characterizations and tasks. They make sense only in and as a whole. As far as I can see The Wire was one of the first series (after perhaps Homicide) that painted every character of the crew as a complex individual in itself, with its own history and destiny. The play showing the enchantments and derelictions of a soul became a reportage showing the state of an environment.
[4]  Thanks to @johnmiedema (on identica and twitter) for pointing to this post.


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2 Responses to A Triage of Books

  1. Sis Jakeway says:

    Absolutely beautiful!!!! As a book collector and a writer, I connected with this post so deeply–thanks! One of my favorite poets, Polish-born Czeslaw Milosz, wrote:

    And Yet The Books

    And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
    That appeared once, still wet
    As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
    And, touched, coddled, began to live
    In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
    Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
    “We are,” they said, even as their pages
    Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
    Licked away their letters. So much more durable
    Than we are, whose frail warmth
    Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
    I imagine the earth when I am no more:
    Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
    Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
    Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
    Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.


  2. simsa0 says:

    Sis – thank you very much for you kind comment. Had I known this poem before, I guess I wouldn’t have written the post. So thank you for this too. For me, it’s not only or not primarily about the books, though, even as I clinch to them with all I have. It’s about the realization that our souls reach farther than our skins, that ideas are real, and that in this world around us the stuff wouldn’t be the stuff it seems to be without being permeated with soul. In this sense, our world is of utter timelessness. This timelessness I could enter with every sitting down at the desk in the library, when in opening the book everything became calm, the wind faded, and in this silence the book spoke. Moments of happiness – ages long.


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