Our Books, Revisited.

It has been a seeming eternity since my last post, and for that, my sincere apologies. It seemed I needed a break, and it came unexpectedly when I was swamped with work. Since then, I’ve been trying to figure out how to re-start this, and the answer came just a couple of days ago while attempting, once again, to tackle the disorganization of my library.

When I wrote about that ill-fated last attempt, I was writing what was, in effect, a story of defeat. No sooner had I started piling my fiction books on the floor in neat, alphabetical piles, that I was overwhelmed by such a sense of loss over all that was missing, and I just couldn’t continue. I remember feeling a strange brew of anger and sadness at what the loss of those books represented for me (for the background story read here and here). The books had become symbolic of a life that was my own, that came before him, and that he should not have been able to touch, and to quantify the loss just brought home the point that no part of my life had escaped his violence. By the end of my attempt, I was a sobbing mess, surrounded by books, unable to continue the task. I suppose that “big girl pill” wasn’t as effective as I’d hoped, and I quickly re-shelved the rest of my books as haphazardly as possible, so as not to realize the full extent of the loss.

Over five months have passed, and things, as they are wont to do, have changed. Someone new, and pretty damned fantastic, has found his way into my life (hi, Greg!) and in the past couple of months he’s managed to make me feel wonderful again. Add to that a relaxing summer with my funny and curious daughter (who turns four this Sunday), and well, instead of looking for strength, I’m back to counting my blessings.  Feeling buttressed by that, I knew it was time to face the library once again; this time, I’m happy to report, with decidedly greater success.

There were more books missing than I had feared, and the loss of them and all they represented made it difficult to get through the task. Instead of crumbling at the realization, however, I chose to focus on simple, solvable tasks, like playing “What’s the field?” with Greg via text (was Motion and Time, Space and Matter: Interrelations in the History of Philosophy and Science history? Philosophy? Science? Philosophy of Science? History of Philosophy? History of Science?). His support lightened the heaviness of the effort at hand, and eased my sense of anger and sadness that at times threatened to overwhelm me. That, along with the simple act of simply taking it one book at a time, helped me see the task through to the end.

I now know exactly what was lost then, and that knowledge that I thought would be unbearable, is not. Although upsetting, I realize that this was a final step in closing the door to what happened back in 2009; a last bit of hurt that I needed to process. The loss is real, but something much greater has come of it (even better than actually being able to find my books), and that is knowing that my library, like my life, is back under my control. It’s so easy to become mired in a past that’s filled with negativity, and our inner masochist tends to keep us locked there, even through things as subtle as a disorganized library. I know the books are ultimately replaceable. Even more importantly, however, for the first time in a long time, the empty spaces on my shelves no longer represent what was lost in the past, but instead they speak to the seemingly infinite possibilities that still lie ahead. For some of us, our collection of books tells our story, and sometimes we cling very tightly to those things that we think speak to who we are. I’m learning, however, that sometimes it’s okay to lose a little of what we thought defined us, in order to make a little room for what’s to come.

Occupy Wall Street Library: Update

What remains of the Occupy Wall Street Library

I had posted earlier that it seemed that the majority of books were saved, when quite the opposite is true.  Its tragic when we so casually and callously destroy our cultural and intellectual legacies. The very fact that these OWS encampments not only had, but valued, their makeshift libraries speaks volumes.

  • Here’s a great post speaking to the same thing.
  • You can get more information from the OWS Library Blog, including any information about donating books or supplies to help them rebuild.

Sacred Stacks


This gallery contains 13 photos.

Writing the previous post about the OWS library started me thinking about libraries in general. For most of us, libraries are truly sacred spaces. I remember the first time I visited the New York Public Library when I was about … Continue reading

The destruction of books…

The thought of books being destroyed, discarded, or God-forbid, burned is intolerable, and it evokes feelings of repression and censorship. Members of the Occupy Wall Street movement are reporting that when Zuccotti Park was cleared last night, the books in their makeshift library (5,554 volumes!) were thrown away. Someone tweeted,

NYPD destroying american cultural history, they’re destroying the documents, the books, the artwork of an event in our nation’s history… Right now, the NYPD are throwing over 5,000 books from our library into a dumpster. Will they burn them?

Another report (from the Occupy Wall Street Library site) stated,

it was clear from the livestream and witnesses inside the park that the property was destroyed by police and DSNY workers before it was thrown in dumpsters.

Other reports have mentioned that the books have been taken by the Department of Sanitation for storage, and that they can be claimed by their owners with “proper identification.”

If those books were destroyed or thrown away it would truly be a great tragedy. Here’s to hoping that cooler heads and better sense prevailed, and that the books were saved.

A Bibliophile’s Paradise, Part II


For those of you that enjoyed the photos of Eco’s library in the previous post, might I suggest taking a peek at Martin Grüner Larsen’s flickr photostream.  What an amazing collection of images of Eco surrounded by his books.

The Post-Library

My library and post-library comfortably occupying the same shelves.

I’m at work waiting for my classes to begin (I teach European and World history), enjoying my coffee, and catching up on the blogs that I follow, when I came across this post about Eco’s notion of the anti-library, or that part of our libraries that house our unread books and untapped knowledge. What captured my attentionwas not so much the post itself (although it was a wonderful discussion of this idea, and I very much enjoyed reading it), but the first comment written by Sarah Arrow.  She writes:

I have around 3,000 books at the moment but only around 50 are anti library. This is out of sync for me as I am counting the books that I have bought, read and never looked at again (they live in boxes in the loft). I think they are actually post-library, their knowledge not required or desired any more. Is there room for post-library in the equation?

A post-library!  What a great concept.  Yes, there is definitely room for a post-library. Admittedly, I’m a hoarder when it comes to books, having given them up in significant quantities only when left with no other choice, and as a result,  there is a small part of my collection that can be classified as a post-library – books whose knowledge I no longer desire or require.  All of those Stephen King and Dean Koontz books that I devoured in my adolescence, the old math texts that I can’t bear to part with (although I was never on friendly terms with algebra), my Anne Rice shelf with every book she wrote through the mid-nineties …  those are all part of my post-library, and although I will in all probability never read them again, they remain on my shelves.

This idea that our libraries are complex, mutable entities, comprised of these ever-shifting categories is an interesting one.  They change to reflect our interests and obsessions, and speak to our intellectual, academic, personal, and emotional growth.  My library-library (which houses all the books I’ve read and non-read and still maintain their relevance) occupies most of the walls in home, with my post-library living comfortably alongside it. Evidence of where I am and where I have been.  My anti-library lives on my coffee table, as stacks of unread books reminding me of where I have yet to go.

The Antilibrary

As I was writing the previous post, I googled-imaged “Umberto Eco library” in the hopes to catch a glimpse of those 50,000 volumes.  Instead I came across this, which referenced Nassim Nicholas  Taleb’s The Black Swan, and wanted to share.  If nothing else, may it allay your fears of accumulating too many unread books in your libraries.

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and non dull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with ‘Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?’ and the others – a very small minority – who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight read-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

A room without books…

Starting this blog has had me thinking about personal libraries.  More specifically, about what our books say about us.  Of all of my personal possessions, my library is undoubtedly my most valued.  The thought of not living surrounded by my books is anathema; my books are a very real and tangible extension of me.  One of the first things that I do when first going into someone’s home is take a quick inventory of the books that line their shelves, and although I hate to admit it, I judge.  Are they readers?  Do they have an active intellectual life? Is that Danielle Steele on that top shelf?  Is there any Huxley or Eco? I mean, lets face it, a home without books feels almost… soulless?  I know that I would feel naked without my books.

That being said, I’ve been reflecting on my collection, which at this point, after having to part with well over 500 books after a messy break-up, consists of somewhere around 2,000 volumes (and it still feels like a blow to my stomach every time I realize that any one particular book is gone).

A wall in my home. If only my finances would allow, every wall would be lined with books that I've read, reread, and have yet to read.

I was looking through them tonight, and it struck me just how representative they are of who I am, and who and where I have been.  As I have grown and changed, so too have my interests, and my personal library has become the memory-keeper and storyteller of my life.  I have old Dean Koontz and Stephen King books from my high school days alongside the feminist essays and postmodern novels of my college years. The physics books that captivated me in my early twenties sit next to the primatology books (Sex and Friendship in Baboons, anyone?) that nearly had me convinced that I should move to Asia to study langurs.  There are more philosophy and history books than I can count, and the shelves are crammed with my tattered and well-loved Eco, Skinner, Robbins and Huxley volumes.

I was reading a Spiegel interview with Umberto Eco yesterday (he casually mentions that his personal library contains nearly 50,000 volumes!)  where he passes on this bit of wisdom.

“By the way, if you constantly change your interests, your library will constantly be saying something different about you.”

There are few certainties in this life, but one thing I can rely on is that I will never stop reading, and my library will continue to grow and change with me, always providing a more accurate reflection than a mirror.

As an aside, while I was looking up photos of personal libraries for inspiration, I came across this article.  Consider yourself warned, this is frightening.