As an academic, I’m used to seeing large personal book collections in homes and offices. Many of my colleagues and friends–some very accomplished and smart folks–have, rather effortlessly, put mine to shame. This is the story of, in contrast, a small book collection. But a very impressive one, one that revealed its owner to be a true savant–in the best and original sense of the word. It also tells us something about a possibly lost art associated with books: quality curating and diligent reading.
During my post-doctoral fellowship at the University of New South Wales, I became friends with a mathematical logician specializing in–among other topics–computational learning theory. His work was forbiddingly mathematical and I soon developed a rather awestruck appreciation of his competence in his chosen field. Even more impressive was his attention to elegance and conciseness in both his verbal and mathematical expression; we co-authored a journal paper together and I was–for lack of a better word–blown away by his insistence on getting our written and technical formulations just right. No superfluous words, no bloated definitions, no vague sentences were to be tolerated. (Needless to say, I left the mathematics to him and concentrated on getting the exposition right.)
During this period, I had ample opportunity to visit his office. On one such occasion, I wandered over to the solitary bookshelf present. It was stacked with books, but compared to the many book collections I had seen the collection was, numerically speaking, a rather undistinguished one.
I looked closer. Most books–hardcovers–on those few shelves were covered with a protective plastic cover; they were a historical classic or an authoritative treatise of some sort. This was not a lightweight collection, making up with quantity for what it lacked in quality. A discerning mind had clearly sifted the dross out and selected merely the gems.
I picked out one of the books on the shelf; a selection of papers by the Bourbaki collective in the original French. I leafed through its pages, fascinated by the history on display. I reached the end of the book. On its last page, a series of elegantly handwritten numbered notes were written on a sheet of paper and stapled there. I peered at them; the following might have been a sample entry:
Pg 33: y ‘ should read y“ in line 41
This list continued for a page or so.
I put the book down and looked at others on my friend’s shelves. Many of them had a similar erratum sheet attached to them.
I’ve never quite forgotten the feeling I experienced then, and have repeated this story many times over the years. My friend didn’t just have a book collection of exceedingly high quality, he had actually read them all. And he had read them carefully, closely, comprehensively, and made note of any errors he had noted. Then, with a final nod to his painstaking, diligent scholarship, one that disdained ugliness in every form possible, he had refused to markup the text itself with a pen or pencil, and had instead, attached a separate sheet detailing the mistakes he had found.
A not easily emulated model.