The True University of these days is a collection of books.

Thomas Carlyle


For the true bibliomaniac, libraries are temples, shrines, shulsplaces of worship. They trace their lineage back to the great library of Alexandria begun by Alexander the Great’s lieutenant Ptolemy and his son. The library, variously estimated to contain somewhere between 200,000 and half a million scrolls, was said to have been accidentally destroyed in a fire set in a nearby harbor by Julius Caesar during his intervention on the side of Cleopatra in her war against her brother Ptolemy XIII. The great extant libraries are thought to include the Bodleian at Oxford, la Bibliothèque interuniversitaire de la Sorbonne, the British Museum, the Vatican Library, the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, the Peabody Conservatory Library in Baltimore, and a few others.

Most of these began life as personal collections of books built up and added onto over the decades, in some instances over the centuries. The bibliomaniac can only fantasize owning or even superintending as chief librarian the many books stored in such institutions. Meanwhile non-bibliophiles, even some philistines among them, often wish to attach themselves to the prestige of great libraries. The library, among other things, is a symbol of learning. In Margin of Hope, his autobiography, Irving Howe recounts how Abram Sachar called together a number of wealthy Jewish philanthropists in the hope of acquiring funds for a library for the newly founded Brandeis University. He regaled them with the prominence of Widener Library at Harvard in the lives of students, noting: “when the students at Harvard go to the library, they don’t say, ‘Let’s go to the library,’ they say, ‘Let’s go to Widener.’” Howe could sense in the men Sachar had gathered the thought: “Someday maybe they’ll say, ‘Let’s go to Shapiro!”  Without great difficulty, Sachar got the money for the Brandeis library.

My own first distinct memory of being in a library was in the fifth grade at Daniel Boone Elementary School, where the Chicago Public Library had sent round a representative to talk to us about the splendor of books. A heavily bosomed woman, giving off a strong odor of perfume, the Library Lady began by remarking that books—which she pronounced as if the word had five or six O’s—were our friends and would take us to exotic foreign shores and bring us treasures hitherto unimagined. She went on to say that, books being such valuable friends, we must not earmark their pages, or bend their spines, or write in or otherwise deface them, and continued in this manner for another 20 or so minutes. Before this talk, I had little interest in books; after it, I felt something closer to an antipathy toward them.

It was in the early-18th century that the rule of silence was first invoked and enforced in libraries. The users at the main library in Amsterdam, for example, were met by this greeting:

You learned sir, who enter among books,
don’t slam the door with your tumultuous hand;
nor let your rowdy foot create a bang,
a nuisance to the Muse. Then, if you see someone
seated within, greet him by bowing,
and with a silent nod: nor waffle gossip:
here it’s the dead who speak to them who work.

At the Boone School Library, run by another heavyset woman, a Miss Holmes, if you were caught talking, you would soon discover a tap on your shoulder and, in her low whisper, the words, “You’ll have to leave.”

When a boy, then, libraries were distinctly not my milieu. I felt more comfortable on playgrounds, ball fields, and pool halls than in them. In the dreary halls of libraries, disapproving spinsters seemed everywhere in charge. (Librarianship by World War I in the United States had become a largely female occupation, with 85 percent of American librarians being female.) If one were disorganized in one’s life, as I clearly was, books taken from them were likely to be returned late with small but irritating fines charged for tardiness. (On the subject of library fines, a friend told me that, having moved back into the neighborhood where he’d grown up, his wife learned upon attempting to take out a library card that he had a biography of the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Jesus Zapata 14 years overdue. The story would be rounded off nicely if she had asked if it were possible to renew it, but I gather she did not.)

Nor were books part of my home life. Both my parents were intelligent and well-spoken, but books had no place in their crowded lives or in our commodious apartment. My father read the Chicago Daily News, with its large cadre of foreign correspondents thought to be the newspaper of choice for thoughtful people in the Midwest in that day, and Time and Life magazines arrived weekly. But I cannot recall any books on the premises when I was growing up, not even a dictionary.

What turned me bookish was the University of Chicago, where I, never a notably good student, nevertheless caught the book bug big-time. At Chicago, where no second-line works were taught, I came to understand that nothing was more likely to widen my experience and deepen my understanding than books—and only good, or great, books. To this day, though I much enjoy detective and crime stories on television and in the movies, I do not, I cannot, read either. Reading, somehow, is reserved for more serious business.

Much as I came to delight in books, I cannot recall when I first developed an interest in owning them. Borrowing them from libraries sufficed. Traveling light was never my desire, but, as a single man, living alone, books never, to borrow a phrase from the novelist Anthony Powell, “furnished my rooms.” Nor did they in the early years of my marriage. I’m not certain even now when the desire to own the books I had read, or one day hoped to read, kicked in. But it did, to the point where I now live in an apartment with no fewer than 12 book cases, all fully packed, with a need for at least one or two more in which to store the books piled atop some of these cases or lying around the apartment on various tables and other flat surfaces.

A personal library is likely to reflect its owner’s seriousness and to serve as a key to his intellectual autobiography. Sir Thomas Bodley (1545–1613), the founder of the Bodleian Library, wanted nothing to do with “idle books and riffe raffes,” a category that for him included Shakespeare. Most of Bodley’s own books were in Latin. I am reminded of going to dinner with my friend Edward Shils at the apartment of a former graduate student of his, on whose coffee table lay a 700-or-so-page biography of Robert Kennedy; Edward could not but convey his deep disappointment that anyone would waste his time on so trivial yet thick a book.

On a rough estimate, Shils’s own library contained no fewer than 16,000 books, English, French, and German, none of them “idle” or “riff raffes.” (Lord Acton apparently had a personal library of no fewer than 70,000 books.) One day I entered Edward’s apartment to find him razoring an introduction by Alfred Kazin out of one of his books. When I asked him why he was doing so, he replied, “I don’t want that Jew in my house.” (Shils was himself Jewish.) In his will he asked that these books be given to the library of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. (He also bequeathed me, along with two Jacob Epstein busts, his 26-volume set of William Hazlitt.) As Edward’s executor, I contacted a faculty member at Hebrew University about this generous benefaction, only to learn that the library could not accommodate so many books, which would cost roughly $100,000 to ship and catalog. The library did, though, accept a thousand books, which I sent and which they set out in a special section under his name. I later sold the remaining books for $166,000, which went into the Shils estate.

The fate of Edward Shils’s extraordinary personal library is, apart from the number of its books, not in itself out of the ordinary. No one in my own extended family is likely to wish to acquire the 2,000 or so books in my personal library, which will doubtless be sold off after I depart the planet. All this reminds me that I was once touted on a recently published book by an acquaintance, whom I asked if I might read his copy. He said that wasn’t possible, for after he finished reading a book—any book, hardcover or soft—he dropped it into the garbage. I was appalled, but could it be that he had the right idea?


IN THEIR NEW BOOK, The Library: A Fragile History, a splendid study of the institution of the library from its origins until today, Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen recount the initiation, the innovations, and the dissolution of library after library, personal as well as public, scholarly as well as lending, over the centuries. The word “fragile” in their subtitle touches on the unsettled conditions of libraries throughout history. For books have everywhere and at all times been lost, stolen, vandalized, spoiled by neglect, while entire libraries have been abandoned, systematically despoiled, set afire, even deliberately bombed.

The Library chronicles the change in the manufacture of books from papyrus to parchment (between the third and sixth centuries c.e.) to print, with Gutenberg’s truly revolutionary invention of moveable type in the 1450s. (Thomas Carlyle wrote of it: “He who shortened the labor of Copyists by the device of Moveable Types was disbanding hired Armies, and cashiering most Kings and Senates, and creating a whole new Democratic world; he had invented the Art of Printing.”) The effect of these changes were all gradual; 90 years after Gutenberg’s invention, for example, the Merton College Library at Oxford still contained no printed books.

As for individual collectors, no more is known about the personal library of Aristotle, who inculcated Alexander the Great with a love of books, than that he had “assembled a personal collection of considerable size.” Strabo, Euclid, and Archimedes were, in effect, fellows at the original library at Alexandria, which they used to conduct their research. Fernando Colon (1488–1539), the son of Christopher Columbus, was the greatest collector of the early-l6th century and attempted to duplicate the library of Alexandria, near the city of Seville. After his death, Colon’s library was inherited by an uninterested nephew, who passed it along to a monastery and subsequently to the Seville Cathedral, where later many of the books were eliminated by the Spanish Inquisition.

Napoleon, one learns from The Library, “employed Stendhal to cherry-pick the libraries of Italy and Germany on behalf of the French national library.” Goethe was for a time supervisor of the ducal libraries in Weimar and Jena. Aside from Philip Larkin, for years the librarian at the University of Hull, the last important writer to have a full-time association with a library was Jorge Luis Borges, who in 1955 became the director of the Argentine National Library. It was a job he held through 1973, even though he had begun to lose his eyesight in the late 1950s. In “The Library of Babel,” Borges produced the only fiction set in a library that I know, one that contains a few volumes in which “the universe was justified” and “the fundamental mysteries of mankind… might be revealed,” but which no one is able to locate. How very, you might say, Borgesian!

Many of the great Greek and Roman works discovered in Italy during the Renaissance were salvaged and restored by monks set to full-time work as copyists. Many others were lost—works by Livy, Tacitus, Plutarch, and no one knows how many others. As the authors of The Library write: “This was but one of many examples we will see of the operation of a whimsical lottery that some texts would survive, poked away in some Bavarian monastery, while others would be lost forever.” In the 14th century, Boccaccio reported coming upon a trove of promising-looking texts in a monastery library only to discover that many of these works had been mutilated in various ways, “their sheets pared, cut out, used for making psalters; others were torn, burned, abandoned and left to the mercy of insects and weather. For all we know a now-lost essay of Seneca’s may have been used to wrap two cucumber sandwiches.” Who knows how many crucial works were destroyed during the dissolution of monasteries under Henry VIII?

In an earlier day, books—scrolls, really—were stored in boxes or crates. Later, in their more bookish form, books were often chained to desks, lest, owing to the silver and illuminated pages wealthy collectors trimmed them with, they be stolen. When shelves came into play to display books, they were at first set out horizontally, only later to be set up vertically as we now customarily do. Most libraries were restricted to the use of their owners or university scholars. Many, given the sumptuous decoration of many books, became status objects. On the fate of personal libraries, the authors of The Library write:

The essential problem was one that has not changed through the history of book collecting, from Alexandria to the present: no one cares about a library collection as much as the person who has assembled it. Only the library’s creator records the place of a fortuitous purchase, the identity of kind donors, or remembers how a particular text changed their lives or opinions. Only they experienced the joy of tracking down a long desired edition, and the network of friends that helped in the quest.

The Library recounts the redesign of libraries in aristocratic homes, “where one could receive visitors and conduct business, all the while impressing upon guests the host’s erudition and wealth.” One thinks here of those multiple-volume sets of Scott, Thackeray, Dickens, and others bought even in the last century as a form of expensive wallpaper to decorate the homes of the wealthy. They sometimes still show up in used-book stores in our day.

The craze for buying first or early editions of books first began with the discovery of incunabula, or books from the early age of printing in the 15th century and occasionally carried over today in the high prices sometimes attached to first editions. Lord Chesterfield’s advice to his son on this score still seems sound: “Buy good books and read them; the best books are commonest, and the latest editions always the best.”

Only in the mid-19th century in England did libraries, to match the growing literacy throughout the nation, go public. The United States had to wait until the late-19th and early-20th centuries, with a benevolent push from Andrew Carnegie, for the onset of public libraries. The so-called Robber Barons were astonishingly generous in their public benefactions to American universities and libraries, and at a time before they could claim a tax write-off for being so.

The Great Depression was good for libraries, providing free entertainment during a time of scarcity, while World War II was disastrous for them. British libraries were destroyed, targeted in fact, during the Nazi blitzkrieg. No one knows how many Russian books were destroyed. The Nazis systematically eliminated the libraries of Poland, especially targeting Jewish books, so the pre-war plans for a world Jewish library had to be abandoned. (Jewish books seem always to have been in peril. In 1553, by papal order, the Talmud was condemned, and burnings of it throughout Italy were undertaken.) The authors of The Library estimate that during World War II some 60 million books were lost in England alone.

Public libraries remain one of the great democratic institutions. One recalls Richard Wright, in his autobiography Black Boy, recounting how discovering books in the public library in Memphis opened the world for him and left him determined to become a writer. I gave one of the Mencken lectures at the Pratt Library in Baltimore in 1979, and the wonderfully diverse crowd that attended included a man who was Mencken’s bartender at one of his favorite hotels. He showed me a letter, framed in glass, from Mencken commending him on his high level of competence and devotion to his job. The library in Skokie, Illinois, has so many clubs and discussion groups that I have heard it said that people in their retirement years have moved to Skokie chiefly to avail themselves of the sociability to be found there.

Among the benefits of the apartment where I live is that the main branch of the Evanston Public Library is less than a block away. BN, or Before Netflix, I used it frequently to take out DVDs of George Gently, A Touch of Frost, Murdoch Mysteries, and other English detective shows as well as for occasional books and its excellent collections of classical and jazz music. I came to have pleasingly jokey relationships with many of its staff, and still do.

Three blocks away from my apartment is Northwestern University’s library, from which, as a retired teacher in the English Department, I used to take out books unavailable at the Evanston Public Library. I never kept a carrel there, which reminds me that my friend Arnaldo Momigliano, the great historiographer of the ancient world, used to tote around what I took to be at least two pounds of keys, most of them to carrels he occupied in libraries around the world.

The note of serendipity is one of the grand things about large libraries, discovering things one didn’t know were there. Strolling the CD section in the Evanston Library, I discover a Paul Robeson CD devoted to American folk songs; on another occasion, I find two Jean-Pierre Rampal jazz CDs. Among the DVDs, an early Humphrey Bogart film I hadn’t known about, If Only She Could Cook, turns up. I always enter the Evanston Public Library with a sense of pleasurable anticipation. In the days when libraries still had card catalogues, one regularly came upon books one hadn’t previously known about that proved pleasurable or important or both. The library of the future, alas, is likely to provide few such beneficial surprises. The authors of The Library note that the city of San Antonio has the first fully digitized library. I’ve made a mental note never to visit it.

I have what I suppose is a continuing relationship with the Library of Congress and the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago. The former houses my correspondence and manuscripts during my 20-odd years as editor of the American Scholar, the intellectual quarterly of Phi Beta Kappa; the latter has, you should pardon the expression, my “papers,” which until they officially became my highfalutin “papers” I had thought of as my lowfalutin “mess, detritus, dreck.” I have never visited either. Should you ever be in the neighborhood of either library, you might want to drop in and check them out—being careful, of course, not to earmark their pages, or write in, or otherwise deface them, lest you bring down upon yourself the estimable fury of the Library Lady.

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