Rooms Full Of Books: Soulful Abodes

In Books: A Memoir Larry McMurtry writes:

[I]t puzzles me how bookless our ranch house was. There must have been a Bible, but I don’t remember ever seeing it. My father did read the range cattle books of J. Frank Dobie, but the only one I remember seeing in our house, which, by this time, was a small house in the village of Archer City was The Longhorns, which I borrowed for my father Mr. Will Taylor, a wealthy and elderly oilman who lived in a great mansion just south of our hay field.

I now own Mr. Taylor’s mansion and have filled it with about twenty-eight thousand books, which took a while.

That’s quite a mic drop right there. (The jacket inscription notes that McMurtry “lives in his hometown, Archer City, Texas, where he owns and operates a vast bookstore comprised of nearly 400,000 used, rare, and collectible books.” It also makes note of the fact that McMurtry “is the author of twenty-eight books including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove.”) I remember being awed by the size of Susan Sontag‘s personal library–which ran to some fifteen thousand books; McMurtry’s library runs to almost twice that. This wonderful video shows Umberto Eco walking around his personal library; it is mind boggling. Of course, the number of books means little in terms of erudition if a significant percentage of them remains unread, but these worthies clearly seem to have read a great many of the books they collected. Their collections generate envy and respect in those of us who love books and like having a lot of them around.

My living room and my office are where my books live; they’ve traveled with me to Australia and back; I will take them with me wherever I go, to wherever we next decide to set up home. I did not bring any books with me when I moved to the US some thirty years ago, and I couldn’t have; my collection then, thanks to my budget, was very small, and I relied largely on libraries to keep my reading habit going. At home, they take up eight shelves; in my office, another three. Over the years, many have fallen apart, been lost, or been borrowed never to be returned. (I loathe loaning my books out and hope to never have anyone again ask me to borrow one.) But those that have survived contribute, in no insignificant measure, to making our living-room the ‘soul’ of the house. (As one recent visitor to our humble abode described it–and he was right.) When I sit at my work-desk in one corner, to write, to read, to browse and waste time, and look around on occasion on the books that surround me, at their dimly visible titles which speak to diverse intellectual domains and inclinations and interests, their colorful jackets, their histories of procurement jostling for attention in my memories, I feel a curious, calming, pleasure; I am reminded of the fact that as a child I had often told my mother that I “dream of living in a room full of books”–and that that dream has been realized.

Buying ‘Used’ and Loving It

It’s a bit of a perfect storm, really, of triggered memories and associations: Larry McMurtry’s post on selling second-hand books makes me think about my recent travels out in the American West, which included a small book-shopping spree at a used-book store in Boulder, CO. And thinking about that in turn reminded me that whenever I travel in the US, I find myself obsessively hunting for the nearest used-book store and brewery combo. (Boulder had plenty of both; a week or later, I found myself in another town that did well in both those dimensions: Madison, WI. While we are at it, I might as well make note of two other outstanding cities in this regard: Chicago, IL, and Portland, OR. )

Like any reader with a half-way decent reading career, I’ve frequented second-hand bookstores and have purchased used books for my shelves.  Without the used book and its associated stores, my forays into the world of reading would have been considerably less venturesome and rewarding. Indeed, so significant has the used book been in my book reading and purchasing habits that there have been some years that have seen me buy only second-hand books. At those times buying ‘used’ has become a hard-to-break habit; books can come to seem not quite right if they don’t have a ‘read’ look and feel to them. But this tends to be a cyclical thing; I return to only wanting to buy brand-new books, reveling in their biblio-virginity as I carefully transfer them to my shelves.

To explore a travel destination has meant, as noted, the tracking down and mapping of its bookstores, with careful notes made on a variety of desiderata that enable its ranking in the Grand Used Book Store Parade: knowledge and courtesy levels of staff; quality of stock; organization of stacks; the usual suspects.  Like a true academic philosophy snob, I also trot out an evaluative criteria all of my own: Does the store stack ‘philosophy’ books with ‘religion and new wave’? Are the ‘philosophy’ books just ‘self-help’ and pop psychology? An affirmative answer to the first question does not sink the store the way an affirmative answer to the second does. (I continue to steadfastly fantasize and daydream about the perfect travel writing assignment: to boldly travel–by plane, train and automobile–from one used bookstore to the next, room and board paid for by a sympathetic, deep-pocketed, commissioning editor at an imaginary book-lovers magazine.)

My shelves, like those of many other bibliophiles, creaks under the weight of unread purchases, and my panicked reckonings of reading speed, number of unread pages, and my life expectancy grow ever more desperate every year. There is only one way to assuage such anxiety: to carefully convince oneself, that in this endeavor, like so many others in our lives, one acts not just for the limited span of our life but for that of others as well. This enables a rather grandiose vision of my dilettantish book purchasing: I am putting together an Inheritance for Future Generations.

That’s the ticket: keep buying, someone will read ’em.