Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Anchored to one's house

"For books are a desperate nuisance; a library of even a few thousand volumes anchors a man to one house, because it is such a task to shift them."

Robertson Davies, Holiday magazine, 1962

This wonderful sentence was written by Canadian novelist Robertson Davies (1913-1995) for a magazine essay, which was later reprinted in his 1970 collection The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies and then again in A Passion for Books (1999), which is where I found it. Rather than comment on the sentence as a whole, I thought I would break it down into phrases.

For books are a desperate nuisance

I like the author's chosen modifier: desperate. Books are not just a nuisance, but a desperate nuisance. They are costly, they take up space, they collect dust and, as Davies goes on to point out, they are hard to move from one place to another. As with nagging spouses, unruly children or barking dogs, one has to really love them to put up with them.

a library of even a few thousand volumes

The word that jumps out at me here is even. I would love to know how many books Robertson Davies owned to use the phrase "even a few thousand volumes." I own about 5,000 books, which apparently falls into the "even" category. Writer Pete Hamill claimed to have 10,000 books. I notice that one member of the LibraryThing website owns almost 18,000 books. Many other members have many more books than I do.

anchors a man to one house

Here the key word is anchors. Once your library begins to expand, you simply don't want to move, not even to a bigger house with more room for books. It's not just the thought of moving tons of books that anchors a book lover. It's also the fact that no matter how many books you own, you probably have a pretty good idea where each of them can be found. They are organized in a way that makes sense to their owner, even if not to anyone else. Moving those books to a new home means losing that disorderly order and that unorganized organization.

because it is such a task to move them.

But, yes, the real problem is the task of moving them. It can take many years to collect "even a few thousand volumes," and by that time the collector is no longer young. That makes the task of moving all the more taxing. Most of my own books are shelved (or floored) in my upstairs library. So that means not just boxing and lifting those thousands of books, but also carrying them down a flight of stairs. Yes, I can hire someone else to do the work, yet I still think of it as my task, not something to be entrusted entirely to a stranger.

Also, as one ages, any possible move is likely to be to a smaller home, not a larger one. That means an additional task of sorting through one's books and deciding which to keep and which must go. I would prefer to delay this task as long as possible. Thus I remain anchored to my house.

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