Know people by the books they read

“I ask myself repeatedly: Why do I keep all these books that only in some distant future may be of use to me, titles so far away from my usual interests, which I once read and have not re-opened their pages in years. Perhaps even never! But how to get rid of, for example, Call of the Wild, without destroying one of the bricks of childhood; and Zorba the Greek, which sealed with tears the end of my youth; Twenty-Fifth Hour, and so many others, expelled some years ago to the highest shelf, where it lays untouched and silent, with holy fidelity that we ascribe to ourselves.

It is often more difficult for me to get rid of a book than to acquire a new one. Tomes adhere to the shelves in this pact of necessity and oblivion, as if they were witnessing a moment in our lives, which we long consider gone. But while they are still there we consider them part of ourselves. I notice sometimes that people inscribe day, month, and year when they read a book, build a kind of secret calendar. Others write their name on the front page before they lend a book to someone, they write in their diary who borrowed it, and add the date. I saw stamped volumes, as in public libraries, or marked with a business card inserted discreetly between the pages. Nobody wants to lose a book. We prefer to lose a ring, a watch or an umbrella rather than a book that we may never even read again, but which retains in its title a lost emotion.

It is true that the size of a library is important. We show off books as though a great open brain; a miserable pretext and false modesty. I knew a professor of classical languages who specifically prolonged making coffee in the kitchen to allow a visitor sufficient time to admire the titles on the shelves. When he realized that the visitor had ample opportunity to study the collection he entered the room with a tray, smiling with satisfaction.

As readers we spy on our friends’ libraries, if only for fun. Sometimes to find a book we want to read, but do not own, sometimes to find what the animal of our acquaintance has consumed.

We leave the friend sitting in the living room, and when we return we find him standing and sniffing among our books. But the moment comes where volumes exceed the invisible boundary that we designate for them, and pride turns into burden, because from now on the space will be a problem.”

Carlos Maria Dominguez, The House of Paper [my quick / rough translation]

Spying on our friends’ libraries? Stalin said that if you want to know the people around you, you ought to find out what they read. But how do you go about it in the age of e-books?

One response to “Know people by the books they read

  1. tcnorwood

    Outstanding post!

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