The Idler: A Taste for Books

After a fierce round of visits to the local second-hand book-shops one day, I hurried back to my house to gloat privately over my treasures. When I arrived home, however, and surveyed the piles of previously gotten treasures heaped unceremoniously along the walls, a question of greater urgency presented itself. This question was the organization of these treasures, rather than their acquisition—an aspect of my mania, book collecting, I had neglected too long.

This dilemma, I’m sure, is familiar to anyone who shares my love for books. We bibliophiles often develop the habit of obtaining our books, by hook or crook, much more swiftly than we are able to integrate them into our existing libraries. While I still think that much of the pleasure lies in the hunt for the rare book (and even more in the reading of it), I have received a lot of satisfaction in the organization of the results of the hunt.

Organizing my library became an issue only recently, after two simultaneous developments. The first was growth; after the acquisition of a certain number of books, which varies according to the situation, libraries become disorganized. In my own case, that point was reached some months ago, and so I began a process of organization. The second factor was of a different nature. I have the pleasure to work in a library part-time, and therefore have had the chance to observe, first-hand, the process by which a library organizes its growing collection.

The initial fruits of this first-hand observation were grandiose plans of organizing my own (rather tiny by comparison) collection according to elaborate classification schemes modeled on those of the library. Before putting any of these plans into action, however, I chanced to come upon a delightful, yet sadly neglected book by a British writer of the last century: Dreamthorpe, by Alexander Smith. In this volume, Smith included an essay entitled, “A Shelf in My Bookcase,” which changed the way I think about books and book collecting.

Not for Smith the scientific organization of books according to the Dewey or some other system; books for him are individuals, to be treated as such, and not to be straitjacketed into ill-fitting categories. He has singled out the books in his collection, he tells us, as he has singled out his friends from the rest of the world: “I am on easy terms with them, and feel that they are no higher than my heart.” The shelf that is the subject of his essay contains no particularly great works of literature, and the books there look “somewhat the worse for wear.” Yet these few books are as dear to him as his closest friends; indeed, he begins his essay with a discussion of friendship and sees a link between an affection for certain books and an affection for certain people. The organization of his collection, then, reflects his own personality, and not that of scientific principles, just as his friends do. I know not whether Smith would oppose a systematic classification of books for public libraries, but he certainly advocates a more organic and personal mode of organization for his own collection.

After reading this essay, to which I have not done justice, all my previous plans for my library were swept away, and new possibilities opened themselves to me. I realized that, for personal use at least, books should not be organized by something as mundane as alphabetical or some other imposed order, but rather should spring from the mind, habits, and interests of the collector. Perhaps I had favored this option all along, for I never did get around to organizing my books by coherent principles. I prefer a jumble of sorts, where books of all kinds stand side by side, the results of a hundred journeys to used bookshops and book sales.

Like Smith, I, too, have a certain shelf in my bookcase—not, however, surmounted by a bust of Dante, as his is—where I keep those volumes to which I return again and again, and which have provided me with unflagging edification and pleasure. These, perhaps, are not among the greatest of books, and perhaps will not suit the taste of everyone, but then, I am not among the greatest of those who love reading the great books, and the only taste I am responsible for is my own.

Although there are quite a few books on this shelf, three stand out above the rest. Each I have read more than once, and each has deepened my intellectual or spiritual life. The first is a collection of Anglo-Saxon verse. More than the longer poems, such as Beowulf, these short compositions portray the full range of the experiences of this great people. The alliterative form of Anglo-Saxon poetry lends itself to conjuring moods perfectly, whether the mood is one of sorrow, as in “The Wife’s Lament,” loneliness and isolation, as in “The Wanderer,” or religious rapture, as in “Caedmon’s Hymn.” This last poem, originally found in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, is of great importance. The short, nine-line poem unites Christian subject matter with formerly pagan verse forms, and so heralded a new age of English history, one of Christian expansion. The old forms were adapted to the new religion, and a vibrant new culture was born. The historic changes represented by this little poem should not be underestimated. With this poem, the Anglo-Saxons now had a way to express their love and adoration for the “Measurer and Glory-Father,” terms by which they denote God. When I read these poems, I feel connected, not only to the time of the birth of Christianity in England, and to the dim past, but also to all those who have read these same poems throughout the ages. These words, preserved for so many centuries, are a link, a lifeline, to the past. Without these works, each generation would be cut off from those that had gone before it, and we would live like flies of a summer. These ancient works are like a stone dropped into still pond: the ripples created expand farther and farther, affecting everything around in a growing arc.

Leaning against that volume is another, likewise a book of another culture and time; this latter volume, however, is far removed from Anglo-Saxon England. The book tells the story of Sundiata, a king of the African kingdom of Mali in the thirteenth century. I originally picked this book up because I hoped to increase my knowledge of the non-European world, for I have discovered that those who know little of other cultures sometimes have very little to say of their own. Yet my pleasure in reading this tale has extended far beyond this original purpose, and now I often return to it from sheer delight. The story of Sundiata, son of Sogolon the hunchback princess and Maghan the handsome, has an epic quality about it. The story that we have was transcribed from an oral account of the story; the tale includes many comments from the griots—the storytellers and keepers of history—on human nature, and their remarks contain much wisdom. I recommend it highly, both as a great story and as an insight into a culture alien to our own, as well as a resource to use against those who say that Africa was a kind of paradise before the coming of the Europeans. The account of Soumaoro, the king who wore clothes of human skin, is enough to make one realize that Africa had its own share of evils long before the arrival of the Europeans.

The third volume I wish to mention was written in our own century and evokes, as few works can, the feeling of an era now gone forever. The book is Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, a story of the Sicilian nobility of the last century, written by a member of one of Sicily’s most ancient and noble families. The story he creates is magical: one can feel the heat of the summer sun, hear the music of a ball, smell the incense of the churches. Lampedusa conjures up a world so different from our own that the contrast is startling. We begin to see how much our culture has changed from that of our European forebears, steeped in tradition and faith, and how much we have lost in the transition. This book, in my opinion, is the most moving account of the death of the old European order in print.

Each of us has a shelf of this kind in our libraries, where we place those books that, to us, are more than books. Each is a reflection of ourselves, even as our friends are, in some fashion, a reflection. Taken together, these books provide an image of the most complex tome of all: our soul.


  • Gerald J. Russello

    Gerald J. Russello is a Fellow of the Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall University and editor of The University Bookman. He is also the editor of the 2013 edition of Christopher Dawson’s Religion and Culture from Catholic University of America Press.

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