So you don't have your own personal library? Why not start today?

December 15, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

There are a dozen or so reasons for accumulating books in personal spaces. I know no better reason than this one, from a treasured friend the other day: "They're my friends." But books ,, also can be tools, resources, obsession, insulation, nourishment, assets, ballast, entertainment and ornament.

Primitive logic suggests that if you are reading these words and do not have a library already you should. I know a man, of great wealth, who reads a lot and yet in his enormous apartment has virtually no books except telephone directories and a handful of other such referential necessaries. He's not happy. Riches included, you wouldn't want to lead his life. If he had kept a few dozen volumes for specific purpose or simply for joy or comfort (which would constitute a legitimate library) he would be a happier - and I would argue a better - man.

The point was sweetly made in the final paragraph of "The Enemies of Books" by William Blades (London: Trubner & Co., 1881. 5 shillings, 3rd edition):

"Even a millionaire will ease his toils, lengthen his life, and add a few hundred percent to his daily pleasures if he becomes a bibliophile; while to the man of business with a taste for books, who through the day has struggled in the battle of life with all its irritating rebuffs and anxieties, what a blessed season of pleasurable repose opens upon him as he enters his sanctum, where every article wafts to him a welcome, and every book is a personal friend."

Abominably sexist, of course. Antique in its limited inclusion, but the thought cannot be improved upon.

Perils lurk

Of course, for writers, scholars and teachers, books are the material of craft or art. For people in other pursuits, books necessary or useful to working life or intellectual activity include all sorts of workaday volumes: instructions, guides, technical references, reflections on pleasures, catalogues, anthologies.

Perils lurk. Years ago, a friend used to make a very elaborate presentation that irrefutably predicted that at a given point the entire face of the earth would be covered by law reports - the official findings of courts. He had done the calculus, though I have now suppressed that date certain. We may be saved by CD-ROMs or other electronic storage, which came after his time. Sad to say, his time has passed; I hope he is in a lawbook-free zone of Heaven. We know what his Hell would be.

Such terrors aside, many personal libraries are comprehensive. I know of a man who has two entire rooms full of novels, the only books he collects, arranged alphabetically by author. He knows exactly where all are, all the time. It gives him solace, an anchor against chaos or some other ogre of the mind. He is a frustrated aspiring novelist (it should come as no shock); his compensation is 3,000 or so novels, which he reads, all the time. He may never be a great writer but he is a great reader, and that is a fine thing.

How should you organize an unspecialized library? There are the professional librarians' cataloguing systems, of course (and any bookshop will sell you a guide to one or another), but I rather prefer quirky personal systems.

The very extensive and various library of one particularly bookish close friend rattles randomly 'round her rambling house. She has had an entire lifetime to inflict a coherent order and has not. She says she knows where 80 percent of the (I would guess 2,000) books are and have "always" been. Those she can find in 30 seconds. But from time to time she needs take two hours to find books. She says this can be embarrassing, but is well worth whatever mysterious security she finds in the system itself. If it ain't broke, don't catalogue it.

Do not shy

Most private collecting is obsessive, even fanatical. Serious collectors of art and rare artifacts often use narcotic metaphors to explain their drive, their urge. But, then, most of the truly worthwhile things done in this world (as well as most of the truly evil ones, of course) are generated by obsession, achieved by fanatics.

Do not shy. It is amazingly simple and inexpensive to establish a personal library, or to expand dramatically the accumulation you already have.

At flea markets, country fairs, junk shops, garage sales and suchlike, you can probably set a ceiling of $1 a book and with a dozen weekends and a few hundred dollars build a library of amazing breadth and richness. The Baltimore Yellow Pages list almost 50 "book dealers - used and rare" and the Manhattan directory about three times as many. There are lots of deliciously dowdy places in country villages that have entire barns full of books that have come from estate sales and were going to be junked. Bargain for quantity -you can get some down to 50 cents each if you'll buy 50 books.

But think a bit. What is it you want the library of yours to do for you? If you are starting more or less from scratch, it may be well xTC to begin at least with an author, a genre, a subject, a region, a form, you find engaging.

For storage, any bookcase or shelving will do, so long as every book is visible and accessible. Books are to be read. Buying a book that is not to be reached for and browsed is precisely like buying paintings in order to hang them face to the wall.

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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