30 July, 2013

Medicine For The Soul

"I cannot live without books" Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Adams in early June, 1815. There is more but you are less likely to have seen the rest of the quote: "I cannot live without books; but fewer will suffice where amusement, and not use, is the only future object." I'm not certain, but I believe this followed the sale of the bulk of his library to Congress as a replacement for the collection destroyed during the War of 1812.

By 1814 when the British burned the Capitol and the Library of Congress, Jefferson had the largest personal collection of books in our young country. Congress purchased much of his library in 1815 although another fire decades later destroyed two thirds of those 6,487 volumes. It seems logical that Jefferson's June comment to Adams reflected his feelings following the May shipment of the books to Washington. His library was now much smaller.

I understand how he felt. Isn't there something magical about a book? Just as many of you, I have trouble not buying them - even when I have dozens lying about and awaiting their turns to etch themselves into my mind. They are Medicine for the soul - as it said over the door of the Library at Thebes.

There really is something comforting about a book, both the physicality of the book as well as its content. I also have an iPad with dozens of digital books stored, but that's not a book. No heft, no sound for a page turned, no worn edges from multiple readings, no marginalia (not encouraged), no signs whatsoever of age, no shelves lined with reminders of places been or journeys yet to come. No comfort. And nothing you can share with another.

I tend to keep my books forever - which is why I'm thinking about them. Eighteen months ago I gave away many, some that I had not touched in any meaningful way for four decades, and recently I parted with a few more. In my office there were perhaps 400 volumes, and there were twice that many at home. The office books mostly supported my teaching and research but not entirely. Those at home were mostly, but not entirely, for "amusement" to use Jefferson's description. There was, of course, considerable cross-fertilization of function.

At home, however, I can splash them across many rooms. At work, I was well past the point of running out of space, and as a working library it was becoming quite inefficient. So I gave at the office and placed at least 150 volumes for adoption. When I thought a volume would be of special interest to a colleague, I gave it to them. I sent quite a few to the college library to fill gaps I knew to exist in the collection. The remainder I just put on shelves in the hallway with a sign encouraging students and others to help themselves. They have, but after a couple of weeks, I donated what was left to the Wounded Warrior Project which converts them into cash to support their programs.

Now ... I have room to acquire more. It seems, dear reader, that I cannot live without books.