Harping on a Theme

I think a lot about the subject of an unread library. As someone with an enormous number of books that I have not read or have only half-read, I have a personal stake in explaining the whole business in a way that is favorable to me. But I think there is so much that is revealed in this peculiar tendency, and it's that that I can't help exploring, as much in an act of seeking after self-knowledge as it is self-justification.

My thought yesterday was to link this personal library, abounding with mystery, to a public library, which doesn't favor the tastes of any one individual, but deliberately seeks to provide a diverse range of titles and subjects, so that it may better serve a broader community. I am free to load my shelves with classics and tomes of philosophers long dead, but the library has all of those and also books on volcanoes and tarot card reading and autobiographies of famous lacrosse players whose lives are of no interest to me. The public library, on a much grander scale, always gives one the impression of a super-abundance of knowledge and of the bounty of subject matters. Take a walk through the non-fiction section and it is difficult to believe that you have a monopoly on wisdom and understanding, for you, frail and evanescent human, have not enough life to read a tenth of these books, and were you to do so, could your mind hold all those ideas within its grasp?

While the personal library, usually curated to the tastes of the one who owns it, can never attain to that degree of magnificence, there is monetheless a feeling of a similar type when simply confronting all the books you have yet to read. If I were only to look to my bookshelves, I would be occupied for years. And they are but a drop in the ocean by comparison with, say, a single hall of the Parkway Central Library branch of the Philadelphia Free Library. Even accounting for duplicates, my mind can't grasp the number of books they have circulating. And even if I were never to do aught else with my life but read, I'd still fail in attempting to read them all.

The key here is a sort of humility that we must all face in the attaining of our projects and our desires. We can do so much that is amazing, beyond imagining (except clearly not, for someone dared to dream that we could go to the Moon), and yet we can only do that as one of a particular species, and not as ourselves. Were I born alone in the dawn of the world, I could not in my limited life reach even a small number of the civilizing elements of progress that mark our lives today. There is something to be said for reaching similar conclusions at an intellectual level: we are ready in our criticisms of dead geniuses of a bygone era, whether it's Descartes' magical pineal gland or Socrates' justified true belief theory of knowledge, but as individuals we are the beneficiaries of a vast, depthless pool of knowledge, learning, and break throughs, and we are certainly not the holders of all wisdom, nor will we ever be.

That was yesterday's thought.

Today's thought begins with an observation. That part of the reason why I have so many books I haven't read is because I cull the ones I do read and pass them on to new readers. Some survive, and that's the interesting part to observe. Yes, I have my Harry Potter series, much loved and well read (the more so because I deliberately collected used first versions of the original English paperbacks), and those I'll keep forever. Those are an exception to the interpretive analysis.

Which is this: that the books I give away are not necessarily inferior or somehow undesireable. The difference is simply that the ones I've read and kept have been almost exclusively those that I have had the opportunity to discuss in some setting or another, drawing out their meanings in such a way that they have become as friends rather than as mere objects to be traded and given away. Hence most of the books I read in college and high school literature classes remain on my shelves, but a supply of contemporary fiction is ever rotating in and out.

I suppose in this way, my personal library has been molded by my communities. For they have been the bridge to bring me insight and understanding, connections to a text where I had none before. Through them, I have befriend unusual characters with whom I have no other sympathetic link. And so they have kept these books for me, giving them a greater place in my life and affections than they might otherwise have warranted.