“Have you read all those books?” With variations, it’s a common question in the face of a collection covering more than a couple of shelves. But, to coin a marketing slogan, books R us.
In “Object Lesson: Why we need books” (New Republic, 19 April 2015) William Giraldi writes:
“For many of us, our book collections are, in at least one major way, tantamount to our children – they are manifestations of our identity, embodiments of our selfhood; they are a dynamic interior heftily externalized, a sensibility, a worldview defined and objectified. For readers, what they read is where they’ve been, and their collections are evidence of the trek. For writers, the personal library is the toolbox which contains the day’s necessary implements of construction – there’s no such thing as a skilful writer who is not also a dedicated reader as well as a towering reminder of the task at hand: to build something worthy of being bound and occupying a space on those shelves, on all shelves.”
Many people’s lives are, well, book-ended by a kind of bibliographic hall of mirrors which reflect changing interests, tastes, and perhaps even identities. After all, if we are what we eat, we are certainly what we read. Blithely ignoring issues of gender equality, Giraldi continues:
“Across a collector’s bookshelves, upright and alert like uniformed sentinels, are segments of his personal history, segments that he needs to summon in order to ascertain himself fully, which is part of his motive for reading books in the first place – whatever else it is, a life with books is an incentive to remember and, in remembering, understand.”
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus gets the credit for having said “You cannot step into the same river twice, for other waters are continually flowing on.” Heraclitus lived in the town of Ephesus, near the coast of Asia Minor opposite mainland Greece, not far from a river known as the Meander (and so notorious for its numerous windings that its name became proverbial).
In the same way that a river is never the same, Heraclitus would have understood that you cannot step into the same book twice. Reading a book for the first time changes the reader; reading it for a second time changes both. By reading Shakespeare, Cervantes, Austen, Balzac, Trollope, Turgenev, Wharton, Proust, Munro, Calvino, García Márquez, Shin Kyung-sook (and many others), we deepen our knowledge of life, of ourselves, and of the world’s myriad highways and byways.
In 1482, when Leonardo da Vinci travelled from Florence to Milan, he set off without a single book. A few months later, he recorded five in his possession. Eventually, he would amass a library of more than 100 volumes, a significant number for someone who called himself “an unlettered man”. The universal genius we know as Leonardo da Vinci would instinctively have sensed the truth of Alberto Manguel’s words in The Library At Night (2006):
“The suspicion that we and the world are made in the image of something wonderfully and chaotically coherent far beyond our grasp, of which we are also part; the hope that our exploded cosmos and we, its stardust, have an ineffable meaning and method; the delight in retelling the old metaphor of the world as a book we read and in which we too are read; the conceit that what we can know of reality is an imagination made of language – all this finds its material manifestation in that self-portrait we call a library.”