FEBRUARY 22, 2012
The oldest book in my library was published in 1538. It is Sefer Hasidim, or The Book of the Pious, the first edition, from Bologna, of the vast trove of precepts and stories, at once severe and wild, of the Jewish pietists of Germany in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Next to it, and towering over it, which is as it should be, stands Moreh Nevuchim, or The Guide of the Perplexed, the handsome Bragadin edition from Venice in 1551. And next to Maimonides’s masterpiece stands the great 1669 edition of Thomas Browne, the Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or Enquiries into very Many Received Tenents, and Commonly Presumed Truths, another sort of guide to perplexities, along with Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus and their fine engravings of the urns and the quincunx. Nothing elevates a room more than the presence within it of objects whose significance is in no way derived from oneself. These things are not mine; I am theirs. (This can be true also of younger objects: further along the row of treasures is the exquisite first printing, in Boston in 1895, of The Black Riders and Other Lines by Stephen Crane, a small book with a black flower swirling like a vice on its front and its back, and an undistinguished copy of the Book of Job, published in Zhitomir in 1872, that I rescued from the trash in a ruined synagogue in Lvov, or more correctly Lemberg, which is the volume in the room that burns my fingers.) But really the oldest book in my library is a beat-up copy of The Portable Nietzsche—the edition with Seymour Chwast’s woodcut-like image of the master and his unfortunate moustache, not the later one that Oliver Stone anachronistically placed in the hands of Val Kilmer in one of the most risible scenes in The Doors—because it is the book that has been with me the longest. I bought it in 1969 for $1.95 at the Eighth Street Bookshop. I was taking an evening course on the pre-Socratics—I was a monster of voracity, even at seventeen and under a yarmulke—a few blocks away at the New School, and my masterful instructor, a certain Professor Jonas, urged me to read more philosophy, including Nietzsche. The dog-eared passages from Thus Spoke Zarathustra are embarrassing now (“Light am I; ah, that I were night!”), but then this was Nietzsche’s only book for adolescents. After some years I learned who Professor Jonas really was, and after some more years he and I enjoyed a warm laugh when I told him the story of his impact upon me in those Village evenings. But all the miles of shelves on all the walls of all the apartments and houses and offices in which I have lived and worked were erected on the foundation of that paperback, Viking Portable Library P62. This is the other variety of significance that attaches to books, the subjective sort, which transforms them into talismans. Many books are read but some books are lived, so that words and ideas lose their ethereality and become experiences, turning points in an insufficiently clarified existence, and thereby acquire the almost mystical (but also fallible) intimacy of memory. In this sense one’s books are one’s biography. This subjective urgency bears no relation to the quality of the book: lives have been changed by kitsch, too. What matters is that one’s pores be opened, and that the opening be true. “What is the Ninth Symphony,” Karl Kraus declared, “compared to a pop tune played by a hurdy-gurdy and a memory!”
THE LIBRARY, like the book, is under assault by the new technologies, which propose to collect and to deliver texts differently, more efficiently, outside of space and in a rush of time. If ever I might find a kind word for the coming post-bibliographical world it would be this week, when I have to pack up the thousands of volumes in my office and reassemble them a short distance away—they are so heavy, they take up so much room, and so on; but even now, with the crates piled high in the hall, what I see most plainly about the books is that they are beautiful. They take up room? Of course they do: they are an environment; atoms, not bits. My books are not dead weight, they are live weight—matter infused by spirit, every one of them, even the silliest. They do not block the horizon; they draw it. They free me from the prison of contemporaneity: one should not live only in one’s own time. A wall of books is a wall of windows. And a book is more than a text: even if every book in my library is on Google Books, my library is not on Google Books. A library has a personality, a temperament. (Sometimes a dull one.) Its books show the scars of use and the wear of need. They are defaced—no, ornamented—by markings and notes and private symbols of assent and dissent, and these vandalisms are traces of the excitations of thought and feeling, which is why they are delightful to discover in old books: they introduce a person. There is something inhuman about the pristinity of digital publication. It lacks fingerprints. But the copy of a book that is on my shelf is my copy. It is unlike any other copy, it has been individuated; and even those books that I have not yet opened—unread books are an essential element of a library—were acquired for the further cultivation of a particular admixture of interests and beliefs, and every one of them will have its hour. The knowledge that qualifies one to be one’s own librarian is partly self-knowledge. The richness, or the incoherence, of a library is the richness, or the incoherence, of the self.
“I HAVE ALWAYS IMAGINED that paradise will be a kind of library,” wrote Borges. I would not go so far: paradise had better be more than a tweaked version of what I already know, even if the price I pay for such a conception of it is that I never see it. And if paradise lies in the future, it will certainly not be a library. A different arrangement awaits our minds. But there is no disgrace in historical obsolescence. There is only solitude, and fewer interruptions. (Paradise is fewer interruptions!) We are regularly sustained by what is gone. So into the movers’ boxes again the books go—this morning, for example, an abraded copy of the 1946 printing by Schocken of The Great Wall of China: Stories and Reflections, which I cherish for the Hebrew stamp on the title page, which reads “Cultural Service/Central Library/34-516/Israel Defense Forces,” and for the English stamp below it, which reads, “Presented by the Women’s International Zionist Organization ‘WIZO’ to men and women serving in the Israel Defense Army.” They gave Kafka to the troops.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This article appeared in the March 15, 2012 issue of the magazine.