“My library was dukedom large enough” William Shakespeare
There must be a word, in a language somewhere, to describe the conflicting feelings a bibliophile experiences in a large bookstore or library: joy in the ready availability of knowledge and wisdom that the shelves upon shelves of volumes contain, combined with despair in knowing that one individual cannot possibly ever read all of the books that are of interest to them. It can be an overwhelming – and downright existential – thought to know that you will die before you read all the books on your reading list.
Such dismay then turns to indecision, as you recognize that each time you choose a book to read, there is a near-infinite opportunity cost to your choice. “I hope this is a great book, because think of all the other ones you are forsaking to read this one.”
As my collection of books has grown over time, the way I view my personal library has evolved.
Originally, it was mostly ego-driven. I filled my shelves as a source of pride, to demonstrate to guests (and myself) all the books I have read, and therefore all the knowledge I had presumably acquired. It was through that lens that I considered which books to buy, and which to keep. Under this thought process, any volume in my bookcase or on my reading list not yet read was a task not completed, and therefore a source of anxiety.
As I aged and became somewhat wiser, I learned to appreciate Umberto Eco’s concept of the anti-library: the idea that unread books are far more valuable than read books, and that one’s library should be proportioned accordingly. Such a thought simultaneously humbles and liberates, as it reminds us of all that we still don’t know, yet helps absolve us of that gnawing guilt of books not yet tackled.
In the last few years, I have come to view our modest office library in an even more valuable light: as the legacy it will represent. I may not read all of the books I have bought, but they will be there for my children as they grow older. Now as I consider which books to acquire, I focus on our goal of developing them into culturally and spiritually literate adults. I think in terms of the reference materials (beyond wikipedia) they will need at their fingertips in high school and beyond: Bartlett’s Quotations, the Oxford History of the United States, biographies of world-changing men and women. I imagine idle afternoons as they peruse the shelves in the office and grow acquainted with names that will serve them well throughout their lives: Austen and Tolstoy, Lao Tzu and Emerson, Steinbeck and Morrison. And I grow content with the scores of unread books I will leave behind…