The Ideal LibrarySaturday, January 23, 2010
How to pack and order one's library
By Julio Nakamurakare
“You have all heard of people whom the loss of their books has turned into invalids, or of those who in order to acquire them became criminals.”
– Walter Benjamin, in Unpacking My Library, compiled in the essays and reflections book Illuminations.
After years of staunch book reading and collecting, and finding every room filled to the corner with books and the floor carpeted with volumes in complete disarray, I reached the conclusion that I ought to apply a dictum of my own: “When one goes in, another one goes out.” That way, one manages to at least maintain some measure of quantitative stability.
It took me long years of heart-wrenching pain and unsolvable hesitation to realize – better yet, to admit – that the passion for book collection has no boundaries, that the only thing one can hope for is arranging, achieving one’s dream-like Ideal Library.
Matías Serra Bradford’s latest book, La biblioteca ideal (La Bestia Equilátera), is a collection of essays on just that: book fever, pathologically incurable book lovers, hunter-gatherers of the printed page and the conundrums that they face (what books to share, how to compartmentalize a couple’s bookshelves, what constitutes marital assets, etc.). Here, Serra Bradford shares some of those insights with the Herald.
For an incurable book collector (an anally retentive one!) is it possible to get rid of some books? If so, how do you go about it? Which are the criteria?
It is, seldom do I get rid of some... in order to get hold of some more. Now and then I come across a book, unopened for ages, that I feel may finally be denied a chance... Sentenced for life, as it were. Criteria probably comes down to the simplest of questions: “Do I really need to keep it in case one day interest awakens? Or would it help me buy another one I’ll be more interested in today?” Sooner or later, it turns out to be a sort of gambling game against time, which decreases, and against identity, which tends to seesaw and swing according to the weather.
Tips for collectors or would-be collectors: how do you get some measure of order in your library? Your own, personal approach?
Various categories have learnt to live together. Books at home are more or less ordered by languages, countries or continents, genres, measures of adoration... But inside those simultaneous categories it is all rather hazardous. No alphabetical order, except for Argentine and Latin American literature. More often than not, certain names find themselves placed by most unlikely, grumbling neighbours.
When you have to share the space (with a partner), how does one go about it? Yours, mine, and ours? Any other possibility? What does experience tell you?
It’s good to live with someone who is crazy about reading but not as crazy about getting more and more books, so my wife’s (writer Débora Vázquez) mostly remain the ones she moved in with in the first place... As time goes by, it’s hard not to believe that one turns more and more into a loony uncle tolerated by the family only because it lacks the funds to send him to a decent madhouse.
For book collectors, does the moment come when they say, “Enough!”? What’s the limit, if any? How to set your own limits, if you’re an incurable bibliophile?
There must some kind of Grail-like superstition at work, because I feel biologically incapacitated to stop searching for and bringing books back home. You do sense at one point – which did seem unattainable until only recently – that you have reached a fairly decent number and array, so the pressure drops. But beware, it’s obviously a temporary illusion.
Walking around town and catching an unmissable item, how do you resist the temptation to buy it, no matter how expensive?
There is a most interesting though unfathomable relationship between cost, curiosity and a copy, and it has its limits, by all means. You let a book go when you feel somehow insulted by its price.
Which are the traits of the perfect haunt/s for a book collector?
Ideally, an out of fashion, middle-size seaside town in winter. Brighton? Piriápolis? Miramar? A smallish, second-hand bookshop in a slightly out of the way road. Neither too dirty nor too disordered. Womb-like, smelling of wood and owned by a freak not that overkeen on talking. Grey light streaming through the window.
What is it that makes somebody a true “book collector”? How does one make the cut? Is there some sort of implicit Masonic society?
La biblioteca ideal is more about bibliophiles than collectors, more about maniacs than about snobs. The characters, rather than hunting for certain first editions, are more into finding a readable copy of a long-cherished gem or a chanced-upon book they had never even heard of.
That is, readers who wish to read rather than spend radiant Sunday afternoons caressing the padded cover of an overpriced item with gold gilt lettering on the spine.
Finally, on to the digital revolution: e-books, Kindle, electronic ink, electronic paper, foldable electronic readers, portability, megasize storage possibilities, etc.?
It would be unwise to start considering the “old” way of reading just a question of entertaining a fetish for books as objects. There are ways of knowing that dealing with the physical thing – much like the difference between browsing through a catalogue and standing in front of a Turner at the Tate Gallery – prompts completely distinct impressions and responses in a reader.
There is also a peculiar sense of time afforded by a real book – both inside the book, so to speak, and in the period assigned by the reader for travelling through a given novel.
Shape, length, thickness, paper, typography and design call for a different kind of attention, provide other sorts of persuasion and require a different, more permanent kind of assimilation.
As Bernard Berenson used to say, the tactile qualities make all the difference.