Umberto Eco (1932-2016) – the Italian philosopher and novelist, author of The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum – had a personal library of 50,000 books. He thought of books as medication, each volume appropriate to different ailments, moods and moments of ennui.
He said: ‘Those who buy only one book, read only that one and then get rid of it … consider (books) a consumer product. Those who love books know that a book is anything but a commodity.’
Cicero, the Roman statesman and writer (100 BC) would have agreed. He wrote: If you have a personal library and a garden, you have everything you need.
Eco believed we should always keep extra supplies of certain essential items and books was one of them. He said it was foolish to think that you had to read all the books you buy. ‘It would be like saying that you should use all the cutlery or glasses or screwdrivers or drill bits you bought before buying new ones.’
The English word bibliophile – a collector and lover of books – translates with an inspiring twist in Japanese. Taking the words: tsumu – to pile up, and doku – to read, the marriage creates the word tsundoku: the art of buying more books than you can read. Aristotle said the more you know the more you know you don’t know. By that token, the more books you have the more you need.
Just as music brings back memories, so do books. A personal library is an autobiography of your life’s changes and turning points. You enter a novel as if you are setting out on a journey and, if it is a good book, you will be a different person when you reach the end.
I remember being dumped by a girl at age eighteen when she caught me reading Albert Camus’s The Outsider while I was driving. She called me absurd and I burst out laughing. I have a copy of Seven Years in Tibet signed by the author Heinrich Harrer, whom I met in Dharamsala, India. On the same shelf, there is an annotated and underlined copy of Cadaqués by Josep Pla, a gift from my friend Eloy Ferrer when he thought it was time I learned Spanish.
A Personal Library is an Elixir
Writers are prone to depression and are rarely if ever satisfied with what they have written. As Leonardo da Vinci is purported to have said: ‘Art is never finished, only abandoned.’ This is where Eco’s conviction rings true, that books are medicine and a personal library the ultimate elixir.
The books on my shelves are not arranged by genre, author or size but randomly, some upright, others stacked, among photographs, trinkets, seashells, Buddha sculptures, cases for glasses, lens cleaner, pencils, notebooks, folders of newspaper clippings from my published books and manuscripts long and short for unpublished projects with the musty smell of dead dreams.
As you search for one book, other titles demand your attention. As you read a few paragraphs from one volume, an underlined section from another, the very act of searching and exploring transports you to another mental state where the eggs of depression die before they hatch. Writers block is real and a perusal among the shelves is like drain cleaner poured down a clogged sink.
A personal library differs from a public library in that librarians create collections that respond to wide ranging needs. Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian poet; philosopher David Hume; Lewis Carrroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp all at one time worked in a library. George Orwell took a job at Booklovers’ Corner, the Hampstead bookshop, and Patti Smith, singer, songwriter, punk poet and author of Just Kids worked – and occasionally slept – at Brentano’s Bookshop in New York.
Writers have a complicated relationship with books. When you write a book, it takes on a life of its own. You learn from your characters after you create them. They come from you and you become them. The process is like a long illness; no doubt why Umberto Eco needed his medicine. A published book is like a new-born child. The cover, titling, inside font, the white space are the beating heart and features of your new-born. You want your book to be loved as it takes its first steps into the public arena. Writers want to be reviewed, celebrated but most of all: they want to be read.
This is the double-edged sword of a personal library. I don’t want the books I have written sitting like coffins among the dead with uncreased spines on laden shelves. I want people to share them, give them away, make them feel engaged or angry or happy or moved or thoughtful. I enjoyed The Name of the Rose, but I would be doing Umberto Eco a greater service taking the novel to a charity shop where it will have a new life and bring pleasure to a new reader before travelling on. Books are not a commodity. They are a ticket for another journey.