The Booky Man: A Case for Books

Books Features Charles McNair
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Think you love books?

Consider this historical tidbit, revealed in A History of Reading, by Alberto Manguel.

“In the tenth century…the Grand Vizier of Persia, Abdul Kassem Ismael, in order not to part with his collection of 117,000 volumes when traveling, had them carried by a caravan of four hundred camels trained to walk in alphabetical order.”

Holy cow. Camel. Whatever.

I love books, but I feel like a rank amateur. I only have thousands of books. One corner of my office actually sags, separated from floor joists by the weight of bookcases. It won’t change until the floor caves in, I’m afraid. Not so long as I can glance to my left and see Moby Dick; Atonement; Mystery Train; Winter’s Tale; Beowulf; The Ginger Man; To Kill A Mockingbird; Beloved, and many groaning shelves more.

I love having my old and faithful friends right in the room where I can see them.

There’s a shelf lined with copies of my own novel, Land O’ Goshen. After positive reviews in the New York Times Book Review and The Washington Post and other influential publications, my first book sold close to five copies. My mother bought three. The publisher threw in the towel after overprinting a paperback edition. Rather than one day face coming up on my sad remaindered copies with their covers cut half off in some book bin, I bought them all. Many, many boxes of them. I’m down to just one last box now.

That’s the only book I’ve ever been able to give away.

It’s not the world that’s too much with us, Mr. Wordsworth—it’s our books.

Why is this? So what is it that makes books so sticky, readers so acquisitive? What comforts do we possibly gain from accumulating shelves and boxes and stacks and piles of books? Do they save energy by insulating walls? Could they be eaten in time of hardship? Are they like our pets—troublesome to a point but so dear that nothing, ever, could take them away from us but big bad Death?

Consider the book lovers you know. Most would sooner burn at the stake with their books fueling the pyre than imagine their beautiful libraries reduced to a simple hand-held thingie like a Kindle, Nook or iPad.

Old habits die hard, you see. Most of humankind knows books the way they know stones and clouds and trees. Books have always been there. In the cases. On the shelves. In the libraries. A house without books is a cell.

Books also serve as mile markers of your life. See that Updike? The girl I married was reading it the day we met. See that Civil War book? I brought it away from my home on the day of my dad’s funeral. He wanted me to have it.

Books have an aesthetic too. They’re a familiar form of household furnishing, like sculpture or lamps. Spaces look better with books in them. I have a designer friend who stages sales models for luxury apartments. The final touch of her design work is a visit to a book store, where she buys lavish art books and photography books for the apartments. Books make a place feel real, human, smart.

Books are handheld dreams. We look over the shelves of books we own and treasure. We know that opening any one of them fires the engines of the time machine. Off we go to India, or below the sea, or through the looking glass.

I believe there’s a heaven for book lovers. It’s the place we go after this vale of tears and press releases.

Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, holds the famous Book of Kells. That’s the best known of the illuminated manuscripts created by Irish monks in the 800s who kept blowing on the embers of civilization during Europe’s darkest hours, those blasted Middle Ages.

The Book of Kells is a Bible, with fantastic illustrations from Irish minds that were fundamentally wild-ass pagan under a thin veneer of Catholicism. Every day, authorities at Trinity flip one page of the Book of Kells. Visitors see a different work of art every time the sun rises.

But the Book of Kells is simply a sideshow, to my view.

The Book is housed in Trinity’s famous Long Room. Here rise 200,000 bound volumes of books, a vast collection standing two stories high and stretching – no kidding – 70 yards. All this under a barrel-vaulted roof.

Behold—the Heaven of Books, Valhalla of Volumes.

In the Long Room, you momentarily feel all the knowledge of all humankind is in one place, ready when you reach the end. Bound for glory.

Every book lover I know—every one—secretly covets a library just like that. And they’re working on it.

They’d settle for a caravan of four hundred camels loaded down with books … plus one more.

Always one more.