Magazine April 8, 2019, Issue

Our Personal Libraries: A Symposium

National Review asked some writers and collectors to describe their personal libraries. Here’s how they replied:

Richard Brookhiser

My books are almost all properly shelved, though the shelves are wedged into the crannies of a New York apartment: two built-ins in the bedroom, two in the dining room, planks on brackets hugging the ceilings, clutches hiding in cabinets. There is little organization, however. Most of my history books sit to the right of my desk, for easy access while I work, but otherwise the Brookhiser Decimal System depends on memory. Why is volume 2 of My Struggle (Karl Ove Knausgaard) next to Churchill, Roosevelt & Company (Lewis Lehrman)? Because I put them there, and I know that is where I can go to find them. (Sometimes I am distracted by ghost memories of the locations of books I have given away.)

At my desk itself, chaos — books stacked on top of one  another — finds its toehold. I know this is the first step on the road to the pawnbroker in Bleak House who spontaneously combusts, but the exigencies of work require it. When I am done with the batter’s-box books, I return them to upright slots on shelves, whereupon others take their place.

What is my favorite of all these books? They are all my favorites, but my first favorite was The Elephant’s Child (Rudyard Kipling). I have never forgotten Kolokolo Bird, the Bi-Colored Python Rock Snake with his scalesome flailsome tail, or the Crocodile who lives on the great gray-green greasy banks of the Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees. My mother read it to me as I sat in her lap. Did she realize how subversive — how encouraging this story is? After the Crocodile pulls the Elephant Child’s nose into a trunk, he proceeds to spank all the elders who have been spanking him. Probably she didn’t. Thank you, Mom, for reading it anyway, and for instilling in me the love of books.


Joseph Epstein

On two separate occasions I radically cut back my personal library, lest it take over my apartment. Each time, like the detached tail of the iguana, it grew back. No matter my efforts at literary population control, my books seemed relentlessly to multiply. Do they, I sometimes wonder, copulate and reproduce while I sleep?

I’ve not done a count, but I estimate I have somewhere between 1,500 and 1,800 books in my personal library. Apart from those arrayed on kitchen counters, night tables, lamp tables, the backs of commodes, these are stored in eleven bookcases. Four of these, their five shelves covered by glass, reside in our living and dining rooms. One contains the works of the authors I most admire along with books about them: Henry James, Marcel Proust, Edward Gibbon, Leo Tolstoy, Max Beerbohm, and George Santayana. A bookcase alongside it contains exclusively Library of America books, which look, if I may say so, better than they read (the typeface and leading leave much to be desired), a number of which I’ve not read, and a few more of which I have no wish to read.

Eight or so yards away is a bookcase containing the works of Thomas Mann, T. S. Eliot, Paul Valéry, Jane Austen, Desmond MacCarthy, Donald Tovey, Edward Shils, and the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Across the room from it, alongside the chair in which I spend the early hours of the morning reading, is a three-shelved bookcase devoted to books about Greece and Rome. Farther down, at the beginning of a long hall, is another glass bookcase, this one containing Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Borges, Robert Musil, Isaac Babel, the Duc de Saint-Simon, Mencken’s American Language, and a 26-volume set of the works of William Hazlitt.

Books in other bookcases in other rooms are less organized. One shelf in the room where I watch television is given over to dictionaries and other reference works. Other books in this room include those of W. B. Yeats, Marianne Moore, W. H. Auden, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and the Russian novelists Chekhov, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, and Goncharov. Various Penguin classics and New York Review reprints are scattered in no particular order along these shelves.

In the hekdish — Yiddish for slumhouse, poorhouse, a mess — I call my office are books by Isaiah Berlin, Michael Oakeshott, Samuel Johnson, Tocqueville, Taine, Montesquieu, Edmund Wilson, Stefan Zweig, Heinrich Heine, Joseph Roth, S. Y. Agnon, Milton Steinberg, Willa Cather, and others. One shelf in a bookcase in this room is given over to poetry, ranging from Alexander Pope to Philip Larkin, but nothing written later. Another shelf is given over to books I have myself written, for as Walter Benjamin somewhere says, “of all the ways of acquiring books, the one considered most reputable is to write them.”

Mr. Epstein is the author, most recently, of Charm: The Elusive Enchantment.


Micah Mattix

I can’t remember when I first started keeping books. I was not an insatiable reader growing up, but I held on to my Narnia and Hardy Boys for a while — I can see them now on the inset shelf in my childhood bedroom — until I either gave them away or lost them. Of Mice and Men was an early favorite, but my original copy of that is gone, too.

I suppose I first started consciously collecting books my first or second year in college, when I decided not to sell back my course texts at the end of the semester. This wasn’t easy, since they offered cash and that was one thing I rarely had. But I kept the books anyway — and not because I thought they’d be useful later, though that’s what I told myself at the time. I kept them simply because I wanted to keep them, and they included (what was I thinking?) a calculus and a microeconomics textbook, both of which I still own and haven’t opened in over 20 years.

I’ve held on to nearly every book since — some for pleasure, some for business. There’s Wellek and Warren’s Theory of Literature, Walker Percy’s essays, Frédéric Lenoir’s Du bonheur, which was a birthday present from my wife’s parents, a beautiful book on Valais bisses, a small-press edition of Dana Gioia’s The Ballad of Jesus Ortiz, and the galleys of James Wright’s 1968 poetry collection Shall We Gather at the River that a retiring colleague put on a table outside his office one day.    

They sit with the roughly 3,000 other books (small-time for serious hoarders) on IKEA Billy bookshelves in our family room. My wife and I still have and use the first one we bought 19 years ago in Switzerland, which has somehow survived our many moves. It must be one of the oldest pieces of intact IKEA furniture in the world. As we’ve needed more space, we’ve bought more Billys, and on it goes, since IKEA keeps making them.

I used to arrange them carefully, but now disorganization reigns. They are on the shelves in three unsatisfactory categories — philosophy and criticism, literature, theology — and within those loosely demarcated sections everything’s in a bit of a mess. Andrew Young’s poetry is sitting on top of one shelf, and while the lit section is roughly alphabetical, exceptions abound. Tom Wolfe is next to Aphra Behn, and an anthology of First World War poetry is stuck between Mikhail Bulgakov’s Diaries and the Book of Common Prayer.

While I’ve told myself I am going to get things in order this summer, I probably won’t. I have developed an attachment to the inefficiency of trying to find that damn Sophocles or godforsaken Gregory Corso. Plus, it reminds me of life — disordered, exasperating, but punctuated by the momentary thrill of finding just the thing you’re looking for.

Mr. Mattix is the chairman of the English department at Regent University and the literary editor of The American Conservative.


John J. Miller

In my library, the keepers tend to fall into the categories of utility or nostalgia. The best books combine both.

I’m a regular user of that most utilitarian of volumes, the dictionary. I still prefer the old-fashioned kind to what’s online. My favorite editions are by American Heritage, which, coincidentally, put William F. Buckley Jr. on its “usage panel” to deliberate over definitions and grammar. I have copies for work and home. One of them belonged to my mother, dead for more than 20 years. That one’s at home.

When I was a kid, she encouraged me to read, and some of my middle-school conquests have stayed on my shelves: The Hobbit, Watership Down, the heroic-fantasy stories of Robert E. Howard, science fiction by Jules Verne and Arthur C. Clarke, and westerns by Louis L’Amour. From high school, I’ve hung on to my Folger Shakespeare paperbacks of Macbeth, Othello, and King Lear. I can look back in mild wonder at the underlined passages and the scribbled notes beside them. Perhaps this is an occasion for a neologism that combines marginalia and juvenilia. “Marginuvenilia”?

Today, I have plenty of Shakespeare, and lots of other classics, too. I’ve read many, marking them up along the way. Others I’d like to read and their presence serves to remind. I finally got to Moby-Dick a couple of years ago. The Silmarillion? Maybe someday. We’ll see.

Last year, I decided to read Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. In 2014, Harvard University Press had published a handsome annotated edition and sent me a review copy, which I kept. But for years I’d also hauled around a Signet Classic paperback, with its brittle cover and cracked spine. So I pulled it down and dove in — only to discover that I had in fact read it, way back in college, when I was rooting around for a senior-thesis topic. Here was the proof: my penciled-in check marks and observations. Not quite marginuvenilia, but close. I had completely forgotten — and had a grand old time with a great old book that now has a permanent place in my library.


Otto Penzler

Collecting is a noble and optimistic decision that is at least partially responsible for preserving history and human knowledge. The uneducated sometimes dismiss it as a focus on the past, though of course it is mainly about the future. Attempting to navigate tomorrow without a thorough awareness of yesterday is impossible.

Of the multitudinous objects that mankind has created in its brief life on the planet, none is as important to save as the book, in which virtually all that is known has been memorialized.

I quickly concede that the books I chose to collect are relatively frivolous, but mystery fiction has produced extraordinarily poetic prose while turning a spotlight on the world as it was when the works were published. The genre’s most distinguished authors remain in print, to be read with pleasure a century and more after they were introduced to the world. Like all great works of fiction, the best mystery novels entertain and enthrall but also provide glimpses into the human mind, heart, and soul.

I started to collect right after college, so it adds up to 55 years of what soon became obsessive behavior. I’d read virtually no detective stories as a youngster but at 20 started with The Complete Sherlock Holmes (which should be required reading in every high school in America), and then moved on to the puzzles designed by Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, and their devious compatriots. When introduced to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, I realized that there were crime writers who deserved to be taken seriously as literary figures.

In 1979, I opened the Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan. All purchases were brought into my office and sorted into two stacks: one for the store, one for my private library. I built a house in the country to hold the torrent of additions to my collection, which hit the 60,000 mark — all first editions.

When I was about 25 years old, a sophisticated collector told me that a collection is measured by the condition of the books and by the amount of original material it contains, and I took the advice. Sadly, a limited budget left certain things out of my reach (a Sherlock Holmes manuscript, among too many others) and forced my bookshop to sell some books that I just couldn’t afford to put in the “Otto” pile. A superb copy of the three-decker of The Woman in White still haunts my memory, 30 years later.

They’ve gone to be sold at Heritage Auctions now, all of them, and the shelves are barren. I figured it was time. But there are no regrets about having embarked on the road of this gentle madness. It was the most fun I’ve had in my life with my clothes on.

Mr. Penzler is the owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, the founder of the Mysterious Press, and the editor of more than 70 anthologies.


David Pryce-Jones

Book collecting came on me when I was a teenager and it has conditioned me ever since. My parents were in the literary swim in London and new books were part of the household furnishings. Somerset Maugham and Bernard Berenson were among their famous friends who gave me signed copies of their books. Max Beerbohm used to draw elaborate cartoons on the title page of novels he mocked, but when he offered me one, I was too shy to accept. I have not made that mistake a second time, being brash enough to ask authors at book launches to sign their books. In one of the dusty bookshops that used to exist in London, I bought The Prussian Officer, a collection of short stories by D. H. Lawrence. What was he thinking, publishing a first edition with this title in December 1914, when everyone else was fighting Prussian officers? Ever since, I have felt that it adds something to relate a book’s history to its content.

Collecting is about completion, having all there is to have, knowing all there is to know. Cyril Connolly had the nice expression that whole-hogging book collectors like him are “at the Control.” It is a special thrill to be able to fill some gap or to have a volume with some association, best of all items described in dealers’ catalogues as “fugitive” or “v. scarce.” In front of me is The Life of Goethe (1855) by G. H. Lewes, the lover but not the husband of George Eliot. Henry James owned this book and signed his name on the flyleaf, writing as usual with a steel nib that scattered ink blobs over the page. A friend of mine, the novelist Hugh Nissenson, was so moved by the sight of it that he kissed the book. It’s not fanciful or sentimental to maintain that for us to be handling any book that its author once handled is white magic, a step towards authenticity and closer touch.


Sarah Ruden

Imagine the book reviewer at six, in her first “reading circle” of a rural public school. She slaps through the Dick-and-Jane-style reader, performing the little narratives sarcastically. Her parents treat her to Kipling and Thurber on their laps. She sneaks their paperback Lady Chatterley’s Lover away to ponder over, so often that certain pages are starting to flake loose.

But there weren’t actually many books at home, and the collection was somewhat scattershot, including botany guides and a strange amount of that sloshy Tennyson and that smirking Dickens. As a rabid young literary aesthete, I was not sanctioned to spend my earnings from chores and, later, from the Korner Kitchen on new books of my own choice. I was stuck mainly with leftovers from the public library and the local used-book store. My friend Jill worked at the latter, berating the boss for accepting “Reader’s Digest Condemned Books” and bodice-ripper paperbacks, whose covers she sometimes tore off and sent as scornful postcards.

At one point, I was slipped the drug of a Bowling Green State University bookstore gift certificate — value that couldn’t be saved for college tuition, that must go for literature within a few weeks. After hours of shopping, I acquired two collections of translated Icelandic sagas, and Chéri and Madame Bovary in French. As clearly as I still hear parts of the texts in my mind, I don’t know where those actual books are; they are, anyway, probably at some stage of dematerialization, shredded into my mind, like the first of the Greek and Latin reference books and literary works I acquired a little later and still have, within arm’s reach of my desk. Packing tape and Gorilla Glue reunite the brutally worn fragments.

Poverty, international moves, the quick assimilation of books I liked, and the quick disposal of books I didn’t — all this left me with a modest library until I settled down with a bookish husband ten years ago. Now we seem to own between us a lot that is excellent, as well as some appalling stuff like the complete Fu Manchu series. Further shelves would displace essential furniture, hinder movement from room to room, and cover windows. In middle age, I handle tenderly the leather-bound box set of Jane Austen, and it still looks like new, though I reread the major novels again and again. It was an early gift from Tom, when I was pining because his library dwarfed mine.

Sarah Ruden is the author, most recently, of The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible. She also has translated Augustine’s Confessions.


Terry Teachout

My Manhattan apartment contains a thousand-odd books, but I don’t think of them as a “library.” Unwealthy New Yorkers can’t afford homes large enough to amass libraries, and while degenerate city collectors keep books in the oven, I’ve never been reduced to that pitiful extremity. Indeed, I got rid of half of my books when, some 20 years ago, I moved to a much smaller apartment. I’d decided to collect art, which meant that I’d need wall space to hang it. I spent a whole day pitching volumes I’d thought I loved, and felt freer when I was done.

I keep most of my books about music, film, and theater in the small bedroom that doubles as my office. Books I myself have written are discreetly shelved in the rolling hutch that also holds our TV and DVDs. Everything else is crammed into three big bookcases and a built-in wall unit in the living room. I own two uniform editions, the Scribner’s reprint of Henry James’s New York Edition and the Aubrey–Maturin novels of Patrick O’Brian, as well as a few incomplete sets, most notably Oxford’s Trollope novels, and good-sized stacks of Library of America and New York Review Books reissues. (Mystery and spy novels are relegated to our Connecticut farmhouse.) Otherwise, my library is as unsystematic as my mind, an assemblage of old favorites to which I return repeatedly in search of pleasure and/or edification.

Because I keep books that I find rereadable, I usually own several books per author. One shelf is devoted to M. F. K. Fisher, John P. Marquand, and Anthony Powell, while another bulges with Evelyn Waugh and Max Beerbohm. My literary taste is moderately Anglophilic: Kingsley Amis, Somerset Maugham, Barbara Pym, and P. G. Wodehouse all take up plenty of space on the shelves, though so do Colette, Jon Hassler, François Mauriac, William Maxwell, and Dawn Powell. A few volumes are there in part for their own physical sake, including a shelf of art folios, and I also love my battered Viking Portable Fitzgerald and Hemingway, which are just the right size to be tucked into an overnight bag. But the rest were bought to read, not to ogle. Except for paintings, I’ve never been sentimental about objects, least of all books, which I unhesitatingly dog-ear — though I never underline, a tic of my own that I’m at a loss to explain. I buy what I expect to enjoy and keep what I expect to reread, and that’s the size of it. “My alma mater was books,” Malcolm X wrote. Me, too.

Mr. Teachout is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the critic-at-large of Commentary. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his 2011 play about Louis Armstrong, has been produced off Broadway and throughout America.


Peter J. Travers

The outer wall of the public library in Princeton is adorned with Borges’s famous quote: “I have always imagined paradise as a kind of library.” An observation on paradise or on libraries?

My fourth-grade teacher read our class a book (it may have been Emil and the Detectives) so engrossing that I was devastated when it came to the end. I could not imagine another book that could ever be so good. To my delight and relief, I discovered that the library of the Community School in Tehran, where I lived, was filled with — hard to believe — even more-wonderful books: John R. Tunis’s The Kid from Tomkinsville, the rather layered Huckleberry Finn, and the clinically elegant stories about Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Of course, with National Review left about the house indiscriminately, I naturally sought out the sesquipedalian effusions of Chairman Bill.

I began to buy books at college, although most of my scarce funds went for textbooks. Dickens’s Great Expectations, Churchill’s My Early Years, and, of course, Bill’s Unmaking of a Mayor had to be checked out from the library. I made some purchases and began a small collection that was piled on boards laid across concrete blocks next to my dorm bed. That experiment in library construction ended one night when the Hayward Fault trembled and books and blocks tumbled inches from my previously slumbering head.

My years at Berkeley introduced me to the library aesthetic. The philosophy department at Moses Hall housed a cozy library with a wrap-around second-floor balcony. Plato and Aristotle, Kant and Leibniz, Locke and Descartes all made sense up there in the small carrels that looked down on the fireplace in the main reading room. After visits to Trinity College, Dublin, and the sublime Morgan Library in New York City, my library dream began to gestate: It would be two stories high, with a surrounding balustrade of wrought-iron spindles topped with a wooden railing on which my sure-footed orange tabbies would walk, as if suspended in air, blissfully unaware of the gravitational risk. 

A library offers tangibility in a world of disembodied ephemera. My daughter wrote her thesis on the physical wear observable on certain pages of an exquisite 15th-century manuscript of the Book of Hours; a “tactile expression of prayer,” she called it. Holding a book, discerning the fonts, touching the dry ink, feeling the thickness of the paper as one turns the pages, writing in the margins: All bring us into communion with author and message. We hold books, their heft a hint of their heft. Books are not simply instruments of information. They embrace you. The phrase “digital library” is an oxymoron.

Winston Churchill understood the emotional relationship one has with books: Even “if you cannot read all your books, . . . fondle them, . . . peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves, . . . arrange them on your own plan, . . . let them be your friends.”

Try doing that with your e-book. Assembling a library is a physical act, like gardening. One cannot cultivate flowers and vegetables online without a marked diminution in the experience.

So I built my library when finally I could. I also built a house around it to mask my true purpose. Wealth and Poverty, Modern Times, the Buckley oeuvre, and The Last Lion crowd upon their like. My attachment to fiction has grown: Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch, The Age of Innocence, Gatsby, Things Fall Apart, and much Wodehouse and Donald Westlake. The Romans are there, and so are their antidote: Christian apologetics and the Book of Common Prayer.

A library represents a way of living, an act of rebellion against chaos and heartbreak. “Come, and take choice of all my library, and so beguile thy sorrow,” writes the Bard in his worst play. To sit and read — perhaps in the company of a cigar — is to bathe in wisdom, poetry, and adventure. A library is a humbling place, speaking caution through its record of perfidy and foolish presumption. It also is a place of hope, reminding us that we can learn, if we would. 

As Prospero noted in The Tempest, to excuse his inattention to worldly responsibilities, “My library was dukedom large enough.”

The inscription is about libraries, not about paradise.

Mr. Travers is the chairman of National Review Institute’s board of trustees.

NR SymposiumNational Review symposia are discussions featuring contributors to and friends of the magazine.

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