Updated: Aug 27, 2019
In F. Scott Fitzgerald's great American novel The Great Gatsby (1925), there's a priceless scene in which an owl-eyed man is sitting in the library of the self-made mastercard millionaire, Gatsby.
The owl-eyed man is a character whose glasses may symbolise wisdom, but it's the wisdom of the farce that appears reflected in those lenses. He sits in stupendous curiosity in the library while the flappers and playboys dance around him, excited that all the books on Gatsby's shelves are "real books":
"See!" he cried triumphantly. "It's a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella's a regular Belasco. It's a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too - didn't cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?"
What do we expect? To open a book, read, and learn. These uncut volumes are pages folded over each other and cannot be opened without tearing them. The owl-eyed man is also not fooled into believing that Gatsby is well-read: Gatsby's a regular Belasco, a theatre manager. The owl-eyed man is impressed instead by the effort of the collection of books, the performance itself, the triumph of stagecraft, and the profane illumination of the fact that everything that Gatsby has done is for show. There is a foreboding in this scene, as it offers the drama of Gatsby's impending ruin, the synthetic tragedy of the novel.
If such a library doesn't truly impress anyone who is truly wise, perhaps we can absorb the lessons of the great American novel of the twentieth century. We can learn how to enjoy literature for its own sake. How to genuinely create a library and rediscover the usefulness of arriving at reality, rather than merely following those techniques that make make realism great again. If we want to find a way to socialise our reading and turn the evidences of our reading into a reality to be enjoyed, we need to do more than engage a realism that beats on, wifi against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. The internet absorbs us in moveable images and transforms books into light and tricks, so a personal library seems a spectacular dereliction of our social media duties. Not everyone though wants to get lost in the theatre of the internet that monopolises our lives - if we let it.
This blog post is all about social change for the benefit of readers. It provides a literary change.
This is the story of my personal collection and how I brought it together. On the way, you may learn some steps to take to bring together a personal library that actually impresses.
Perhaps you already have a book collection of your own? Or you're a reader, and you want to build up your personal library? This is rare enough today, so you're already taking steps if you answer yes to these questions. You may not know where to start. This is where you can start.
6 steps to creating a private book collection that impresses unlike any other
Step#1: Inherit your ruins
Anyone who gives away a book is, in some ways, creating ruins. Today, books are treated more as ruins than as inheritances. Our cultures once cherished these pieces of the heritage of our literature, that guided us forward, but they are now more likely to be unwanted remainders. They are discarded signs of knowledge overcome or frustrations and unwanted property that clutter our garages and end up auctioned off for noting in estates.
The origin of my personal library belongs to the heritage of my family, a ruined and glorious inheritance.
No matter who you are, from the wealthy to the poor, you'll have some kind of inheritance that no one wants. Catholics know what it's like to inherit ruins after histories of reformation and violence, and my family on my mother's side are best described as Irish Catholics, farmers, students and seasonal radicals, neither well off nor poor. My mother's books were her college books, ruined and used to write philosophical papers about the nature of reality and overused to remain sane in trying times. Her dictionary was a study in ruins.
Later, what made its way into my collection were my mother's teaching books, mathematical texts or my sister's college books, linguistic manuals, or my brother's stray books, broken scout guidebooks or chemical sundries.
I've always held on to books, having no logical sibling to give them over to, and because I savour them and read them over. Now, perhaps, they belong to my son, my only child.
A collection can be borne by inheriting ruins. Once people know that you collect these ruins, and have some pretensions to literature, they come to you with the unwanted remainders. The gratitude and distress of such a collection is a reality a true collector learns to cherish.
The step you must appreciate is this living in the transmission of ruins, this excess of private life that's everything that culture aspires to be.
Every collector disappears into their library, into their ruins, and is only understood in extinction, as Walter Benjamin in Unpacking My Library might tell us.
And a library used for study is a certain sign of intemperance, as Isaac D'Israeli might tell us. No library is worth its salt unless it has been at least partly earnt because public stations have gone neglected. There's a reason that a library for show or accumulation alone never admits ruins, and has many neat volumes that are always freshly opened. Even today there's always a lock on human understanding, as that gag goes, wherever libraries become resistant to ruin. If the enemies of books are damp, light, rats and worms, humans are among the worst predators. It's a reality that not everyone saves books and they fall to the prey of this world. Knowledge only exists because people resist. There's a story I read recently of Abdel Kader Haidara, a 51-year-old book collector and librarian from Timbuktu, in the West African country of Mali. Timbuktu is fabled for its collections and transmission of world heritage, and Haidara and his fellow citizens from 2012 faced the insurgence of over 1,000 al Qaeda jihadists in Africa.
Haidara's own private collection contains many important Arabic manuscripts that show, as he put it, that "Islam is a religion of tolerance" and an important secularising heritage. He knew that his collection was was under threat, as the jihadists were burning, looting and destroying. Books that showed a tolerant Islam would never be allowed to survive.
Haidara worked to ensure that the many books held publically in the city’s repositories and privately in families would not end up in the hands of the jihadists. Supported by the Timbuktu library association, Haidara saved the city's collection of books and manuscripts by smuggling them to freedom, among them his family's own inheritance.
When I read such stories, I'm convinced that librarians will save civilisation. We need to channel something in the make up of libraries when we collect books or shape our personal collections. Librarians confront the toll that intolerance and power can take on people who learn and aspire. Today's libraries are becoming refuges for the poor, ill and homeless. Librarians are confronting the human waste of neoliberalism and decades of attacks on community and welfare. Our collections always encounter the remainders and ruins of cultures, the inheritances no one else wants or that others suffer from having no way of sharing.
It makes sense to accumulate the leftovers around you, and every personal collection must confront the violence of history or be just another victim of it.
Step#2: Read and study your books
The most tasteful personal library is a reader's library, is a library in which the books have a chance to be read. If you own books, a library loses all status if you don't read them. Imagine if someone asks you, as they have asked me many times, if you've read your books. In parties this shameless level of curiosity happens, especially if you hold parties around your personal book collection. At a party I once threw a person tried to feign curiosity by turning my knowledge into a game. This is a most enterprising way of avoiding an actual literary conversation. I was to be tested as to my reading of my books. This acquaintance picked up random books, and he asked me what the book was about. I answered and linked several books in the vicinity with memories and details that weighed down the entertainment. He soon grew tired because he was asked to think again, and the fellow party goers were inspired enough to pick up books.
He never again asked if I had read my books.
Reading your books is the best way to learn how to keep them safe and how to confront your own inheritance of history.
Libraries grow and transform as your knowledge grows. Libraries bear in them the state of individuals, and as well as whole cultures. If you fail to understand this, you can become the victim of your own book collection, and people at your parties can laugh at your misfortune.
Step#3: Benefit from a lack of interest
If you collect the books that few value, you not only acquire interesting or even choice books, you get to know secret history.
In one corner of my library is my collection of little blue books.
A specific size of pocket book (approx. 3.5 x 5 inches), the little blue book is a 20th Century marvel that almost no one knows these days.
They may look like they belong in the waste bin, but little blue books are precious. They transformed the nature of knowledge of self, society and politics in America. It's true that few people would know that just by looking at them.
Over 50 million of these little books made their way into the pockets of workers and aspiring classes across the United States.
We remember Henry Ford, who created cars, but we do not remember Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, the Henry Ford of literature.
As the publisher of these books, Haldeman-Julius built an empire from the remainder of An Appeal to Reason, a socialist weekly that featured Jack London and others but had lost its interest. It was all run out of Girard in Kansas.
Haldeman-Julius married into a well-to-do literary family in Girard, when he married Anna Marcet Haldeman, and became one of the most famous men in his times. The Haldeman-Juliuses were an intellectual tour de force. Although Haldeman-Julius was an atheist, Jew and socialist, he attracted the brightest intellectuals of his age and educated a nation with his subscriptions of little blue books, which contained excerpts from classics or small original tracts and introductions.
The variety and usefulness of these works of literature, across self-help and self-education, cannot be underestimated. My favourite book in my collection bears a direct relation to the story of the little blue books. It's an odd one.
It's a popular memoir of the time, at least that's what the cover is: Elliot Paul's "The Last Time I Saw Paris" (1942). Inside is another memoir, altogether different, glued into the cover to throw anyone else from discovering its illicit contents. It's E. Haldeman-Julius' The First Hundred Million (Simon and Schuster, 1928). This book requires some deciphering. In 1948, Haldeman-Julius attracted FBI attention as J. Edgar Hoover's network of surveillance began to tighten. In 1951, Haldeman-Julius was found guilty of tax evasion, and at home barely a month after he was found floating in his pool in mysterious circumstances.
To own a copy of Haldeman-Julius' memoir in the 1950s was to you up to questions about your politics, and perhaps even your communist affiliations. That's why hiding such a volume - much as people then might hide an erotic novel - made sense.
This book is a specimen of the post-war landscape in America and a physical trace of what it was like to live in the censorship of communism under Joseph McCarthy and cold war paranoia. We need to re-remember that the twentieth century was a century of censorship and book burning.
Over there on an entire bookshelf in my personal library is found my collection of Isaac D'Israeli's books, among them one little blue book published by Haldeman-Julius that excerpted D'Israeli's thoughts on printing. Like Haldeman-Julius, D'Israeli was Jewish, and may have been atheist or at least reformist. D'Israeli enthralled masses of readers from the 1790s onwards, and shaped the taste for Romanticism. Like Haldeman-Julius, he receives little credit, but he was something of a Henry Ford of Romanticism.
My collections of his books from 1790 until the twentieth century is one of the largest collections of his published books in the world, this side of the British Museum. All under or thereabouts $100 on ebay or claimed from antique stores where they never sell. New editions pop up from time to time. D'Israeli's books were once ubiquitous because his writing entered the lexicon and transformed the way we spoke about literature and culture: an apple falling on Newton's head, angels dancing on the head of a pin, and geniuses transforming society wouldn't be discussed as they are without D'Israeli's popularisation of modern literature. D'Israeli was once part of the refinement and education of any person. His works were a library standard, when literature was treated as a universal inheritance. He set the taste for Romantic poetry and novels and for new critical perspectives of the periodicals of the time. Don't let Wordsworth fool you into thinking that he created the taste by which he was relished.
From about 1911, D'Israeli began instead to be treated as an eccentric who deserved to go extinct. The popular awareness of this Jewish philosophe who died in 1848 was eroded by the Tory politics of his son, Benjamin Disraeli, and was obliterated by decades of fascism and finally made seemingly obsolete by a modernist movement inspired by the literary influences D'Israeli himself had made popular for British readers. Books like these bear witness to the emancipation of readers. Literature is, as D'Israeli puts it, like a magic stream that runs through a sea of religion and politics. We wade out to find the a sea inundating us. Confusions of religion and politics have been with us since time immemorial.
Even today we've never managed to separate their influence. The complex effects of social change have no clear cause and effect, and history is driven by these cynefin-like tensions, never to be finally categorised. By learning more about our culture's lack of interest, we learn there is always more to learn about history. We learn its secrets.
Step#4: Arrange your books as you read them
So much fussing goes on in book collections. Categorising and cataloguing is for convenience and for our fastidious egos. I prefer to leave my collection in the wilderness. There's no clear order. I once tried to scan them all into goodreads. I failed. I realise why. There's no adventure in order. It's like having a map that shows you everything you need to know. My map doesn't guide me in the contents of the book alone, because knowledge doesn't work for me in that way. There's always doubt and curiosity. Knowledge that's only inside books isn't knowledge at all. It's control and closure. It's history for technicians and politicians. I don't merely arrange my books; I curate my knowledge and I confront my inheritance. An historical materialist cannot be satisfied with cataloguing a library, and this is perhaps where a book collector parts ways with a librarian, or what a librarian is forced to become. Victims do not challenge their times inside books alone. Certainly not inside books categorised by technicians and literary bureaucrats. Arrange your books as you read them, and you'll no better where they are and what they are.
Step#5: Intoxicate and seduce with every piece
"Literature, like virtue, is its own reward, and the enthusiasm some experience in the permanent enjoyments of a vast library, have far outweighed the neglect or the calumny of the world, which some of its votaries have received. From the time that Cicero poured forth his feelings in his oration for the poet Archias, innumerable are the testimonies of men of letters of the pleasurable delirium of their researchers; that delicious beverage which they have swallowed, so thirstily, from the magical cup of literature."
That's how Isaac D'Israeli in the first entry of Curiosities of Literature, "Libraries", explained the pleasures of literature in the 1820s, when "men of letters" and bibliomania were both in vogue. The pleasures of women of letters are likely even more intense and intoxicating, judging from the warnings against reading novels that flooded the popular press in the revolutionary era. As I reach my 40s, I know I am only half-way to finding the ultimate seductions. Everyone who puts together a library secretly hopes that others will indulge in their "magical cup". This erotic intoxication is crucial to finding a way to emancipation through the library. Everyone who obsesses over books hungers to be set free by the nourishment of the world.
In my library I added this year what I thought was a Georgian bookshelf and bureau, French antiques, including a crocheted chair said to be from the 1890s, and a museum reproduction rug made by Turkish ingenuity.
The Georgian bookshelf and bureau was a cheap pickup in an antique store for what it is, I think, but it turned out to be a nineteenth century reproduction, which an expert can discern because of the use of a wood shaper. It's a splendid reproduction and quite unique in its craftsmanship. It's also a splendid writing desk even for modern use. Sitting at it takes me straight back to my imagined country, the eighteenth century, with nods to the nineteenth century. In that cabinet sits Byron and Disraeli, and between them the collection that deciphers a revolutionary age.
Everyone is susceptible to the charm of such a library, except serious collectors, who are incorruptible in their curious passions. I have far to go before my library would be accepted by anyone with authentic taste, but thankfully I seek a much keener sincerity in understanding literature. If you are charmed by this space, you are my kind of reader. If not, you'll have to give me pieces to complete me in your eyes.
Step#6: Make your books play and sing
There's no point leaving books to themselves. Personal libraries are to be studied in, and enjoyed, and they are also for playing and singing. Over there, is my chess board, and near it is my record player, and voices that distract and enthrall me. Gladys Moncrieff, Paul Robeson, and numerous others.
The nineteenth century art critic, Walter Pater, said that "all art constantly aspires to the condition of music". So too a collection of books, a personal library, aspires to the condition of music. We have to perform our inheritance, and music is the most primal of transmissions. Such performance, such play, is perhaps the only way we attract our children. They can be read to, but as babies they may do little other than dribble and stare at the chess board.
One day they will learn more than to be bored. Bored. I will never be bored.