My good friend Neil was around at the weekend and, wandering around the house, he exclaimed at the books on the shelves: ‘Oh, I’ve read that! I’d forgotten you lent me that.’
Later that night, working my way through William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, I came across this:
Esther liked books out where everyone could see them, a sort of graphic index to the intricate labyrinth of her mind arrayed to impress the most casual guest, a system of immediate introduction which she had found to obtain in a number of grimy intellectual households in the EastVillage.
The two moments converged in my mind to form a crucial (if hardly original) clause in the Future of the Book debate: books’ utility extends far beyond the reading of them. The fact is, at the point of reading, the actual decoding of their text, a dog-eared paperback and a Kindle are roughly equivalent, give or take the odd pencil inscription and the instinctual, tactile, even multi-sensory, interface the one gives that the other lacks.
But books are at work before and after this moment, and particularly on the shelves, though I don’t mean in the Powellian sense of merely furnishing the room. They do indeed, offer a “graphic index to the labyrinth of the mind” – a wonderful phrase, no matter that Gaddis seems to be sending poor Esther up, lumping her in with those East Villagers for whom all books are coffee table books, even when they’re correctly shelved.
My point is that the index is available not just to visiting hipsters, keen to get an angle on who I am by where I shelve my Snyder, but to me myself. My book shelves, to be obvious for a moment, carry those books that I’ve read (all or part of) and those that I haven’t. I should be able to find them when I need them, but their permanent presence, at an almost ambient, background level, continually reminds me that I have read them, helps me keep them in mind. They are the subtle mementos of themselves that Neil, having returned my books – good lad that he is – no longer had.
I haven’t used a Kindle enough to know what happens to the books once you’ve read them. Obviously they can stay on there, space is not an issue, but how is their continuing presence felt? If it is only as an verbal entry on a list of titles, then that is a poor index indeed to what I have read, learned and experienced in my encounters with them. By putting my finished and unfinished books on my shelves, rather than deleting or recycling them, I am building an external, physical mnemonic to my personal, private intellectual life, a machine to help me live and think. If they look nice too, well that’s just a bonus.
Two further posts following this line of thought:
January reading: Mann, Bolaño, Royle, Griffiths, ‘slow criticism’, the graphic index of your mind Part III (what happens when my kids want to go online to research their homework…)