By Andrew Bass
Literature is a kind of intellectual light which, like the light of the sun, enables us to see what we do not like; but who would wish to escape unpleasing objects by condemning himself to perpetual darkness? — Samuel Johnson
When asked whether he had read all the books in his library, my father once replied that he had: “Every title and most of the jackets,” he said.
Tongue planted firmly in his cheek, he went on about his day without giving it a second thought. I, on the other hand, never let it go. The question was confusing. It intrigued me: “Have you really read all these books?”
There are few library owners who are not familiar with the question. It usually comes in one of two inflections: intimidated awe, “have you really read all these books?” or condemnatory incredulity, “have you really read all these books?” The question, in either inflection, puts the library owner in an awkward position. Readers know full-well that they have not read all of their books. In the exceedingly rare cases when they have, such readers will not be found in their libraries, but on the way to their favorite bookstores. So, when presented with the question, library owners face a dilemma. They can either wittily acknowledge the naiveté exposed or insult rendered by the question, or they can politely bite their tongues. Generally, as in my father’s case, wit wins out.
“Have you really read all these books?” By answering in the negative I am forced to take account of my unread or unfinished volumes. In what follows, I provide meandering thoughts, not true arguments, about the unread bits of our libraries, why they are important, and what they reflect about their owners.
Visitors who ask if I have read all my books seem to believe I collect mementos and keepsakes from the dead on my shelves. I finish a book and then, having conquered my foe, burnish the empty armor and enshrine it as a testament to my victory over the text for all the world to see. This viewpoint would have us believe that our libraries reflect mastery over our books, that our books serve no other purpose than to provide the knowledge they are said to contain. Furthermore, this view makes the creation of a library into an act of pretentiousness, a product of the owner’s desire to be recognized by others.
But my books are not trophies. They do not shine. I am certainly not their master. There is always more to explore on their pages. Some books, as good readers know, can swallow up entire lifetimes of reading and re-reading and still remain unfinished. This is the truth behind any reader. Loving readers are the readers of many good books but the acknowledged masters of none. It is the same with our libraries. We are perpetually behind, always reading, but never to completion.
A friend and former student of the distinguished Kant scholar Lewis White Beck once told me that Beck would walk into his seminars with a copy of The Critique of Pure Reason that was falling apart, held together with rubber bands and paper clips. Dust would billow out as he dropped the pile of pages on the lectern, saying “This is how I am now reading Kant.” Beck lectured well into old age. His understanding continued to grow and to change.
That we continue to read while knowing that our search is unending is itself an accomplishment. As Montaigne says, “The learned person is not learned in all things, but a man of talent is accomplished in every respect, even in his ignorance.” Montaigne echoes Socratic ignorance here. John Keats noted that ignorance can be seen as a capability, that we can be accomplished in how we handle our lack of knowledge. Uncertainty, Keats thought, is an opportunity—perhaps even a necessity—for openness and objectivity. We can choose to live through our perplexity, choose to let our confusions guide our lifelong search for knowledge, and in this way become (to repeat Montaigne) learned people. Book lovers freely admit to this uncertainty by way of the untouched and unread books on their shelves, joining Socrates, Keats, Montaigne, and many others in believing that perplexity can be a beneficial state of our existence rather than a detrimental one. Libraries remind us that there will always be more for us to explore, more possibilities to bear out, more pathways to follow.
Though the use of a book is to be read, this fact makes our unread books no less important. Umberto Eco wrote The Name of the Rose based on a book from his library that he had misplaced, forgotten, and never read. He tells the author Nicholas Basbanes that “sometimes the forgotten book is the most important book you can have.” I agree. There is no need for lamentation over the unfinished or forgotten books, the books that may never be touched, the dust collectors, or the collector’s items we keep on our shelves. The book that can change my life may be hidden anywhere in my stacks collecting dust. These are the darker parts of a libraries reflection, our unread tomes which define us as faithfully as any of those we have read. This, we must remember, is a good thing. To own and love a library is to walk happily in twilight, facing and embracing the darkness ahead of us with only the book light enveloping us as we read. Books are worth loving in much the same way other people are worth loving. We may never meet more than a few hundred new faces, nor may we read all of our books in our lifetime, but it is nonetheless right of us to love and respect those we will never meet as well as those we do.
“Have you really read all these books?” A list might be made of great writers who were also librarians. Recent entries include the American poet Archibald MacLeish, the English poet Philip Larkin, and the Argentine writer and translator Jorge Luis Borges. Borges also wrote a story about a fictional “Library at Babel” at the entrances to which were mirrors reflecting both the library and its inhabitants. According to Borges, each of these mirrors “faithfully duplicates appearances.” His narrator tells us that while some thought the mirrors were proof of the library’s finitude, he has always preferred to “dream that the polished surfaces feign and promise infinity.” For Borges, to walk into any library was to see the world and the self in a giant mirror. In an unending library, one containing all possible combinations of letters, Borges saw the entire universe in reflection.
Every library performs this task of duplication. My library duplicates me and my experience; my father’s library duplicates him and his experience. If I walk among my friend’s shelves, I can see my relations to my friend in the volumes and interests coincident with my own. If I walk through a public or academic library, I will find an image of the society that built it. The pages of our books approximate our world. But beyond these positive reflections is a library’s ability to reflect our ignorance. Our libraries define us by our possibilities, define us by incompleteness. They do this in our unread books. To stand in a library—any library—is to stand in front of Borges’s mirror. If we have not read, if we are not readers, then this reflection seems wholly negative, we only see that which we have not done and that which we do not know—the mirror reflects us as ghosts.
It is this ghostly visage that prompts “Have you really read all these books?” We grant our reflections far too much authority. We fear what libraries can reveal about us, and it is for this reason we hold superstitious beliefs about them and their owners. We grant this authority because of various views we hold regarding books. Such views include the beliefs that our books can be commodified, that they “contain” knowledge, that they are not meant to be enjoyed but worshipped as idols of power and wisdom, and that they are holy or mystical in frightening ways. In short, we grant books an authority that forces many would-be readers to run in fear from the ghosts they see in the mirror. Book lovers do not fear such specters. Instead they embrace ignorance and live both in and through uncertainty. Book lovers find value in the darkest parts of a library’s mirror.
“Have you really read all these books?” A final thought. I mentioned briefly that the good reader is always the incomplete reader. But this is not only because we cannot read to some absolute completion, but also because we will never write to that completion. Books provide the means to education, the means to knowledge. In this way, they are certainly powerful testaments to human ingenuity, cataloguing our intellectual history and preserving the progressive understandings of our race. But this catalogue is eternally, and naturally, unfinished. It is always growing, always changing. There are not, nor will there ever be, enough tomes to exhaust the realms of our experience, nor to capture all of existence on the page. The human library is as incomplete as those we keep in our homes. Happily so.
Andrew Bass is an essayist and poet from Birmingham, Alabama. He graduated from Auburn University where he studied Philosophy and English Literature. Click for pdf of Unread Books.
 Michel de Montaigne, “On Repentance,” Essays, trans. J.M. Cohen (New York: Penguin, 1958) 236-37.
 Nicholas Basbanes, A Splendor of Letters (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 223.
 Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel” Ficciones, trans. Emece Editores (New York: Grove Press, 1962), 79.
Top: Johns Hopkins professor Richard Macksey’s library, said to contain more than 70,000 books. From article on The Most Beautiful Home Libraries around the World.
Secondly, Raul Lemesoff’s transformation of an old car into a mobile library shaped like a tank. His Arma De Instruccion Masiva (Weapon of Mass Instruction) has roamed the streets of Buenos Aires, attacking people with knowledge. From Portable Tank Library Hands Out Free Books.
Thirdly, from one of French artist Érik Desmazières‘s illustrations for Library of Babel, an English edition of Jorge Luis Borges’s fiction.
Bottom: Photograph by Benh Lieu Song, who lives in the suburbs of Paris, of the facade of the library of Celsus, an ancient Roman building in Ephesus, Anatolia, now part of Turkey. Wikipedia states that this library, built in honor of the Roman Senator Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus, was to store 12,000 scrolls and to serve as a mausoleum for the Senator, who was indeed buried in a crypt beneath his library. The interior of the library was destroyed, supposedly by an earthquake in 262 A.D., and the façade by another earthquake in the tenth or eleventh century A.D. It lay in ruins for centuries, until the facade was re-erected by archaeologists in the 1970s.
I like this, Andrew! Sometimes I ask what we have in mind when we say we’ve read a book. Students mean they “got through it.” Skimmed it? Savored 1/3 of it? If I’ve read parts of Moby Dick one hundred times, and “gotten through it” a dozen times, does that mean I’ve read it? Every time I return to it, it seems fresh. Do I listen to Beethoven to “get through” to the end at least once? Do I view a Rembrandt at a glance? I guess I think no matter how many times I look at Rembrandt, or listen to Beethoven, I still haven’t really seen them fully, or heard them fully. So I’m willing to say, “No, I haven’t finished reading Moby Dick,” or “No, I’m still reading it,” even if this is the thirteenth time.
Wonderful post with terrific images!
Here’s a quote to add to your collection:
Books to the ceiling,
Books to the sky,
My pile of books is a mile high.
How I love them! How I need them!
I’ll have a long beard by the time I read them.
Thank you both for the kind words!
Ed, your comment has me thinking about the extent to which saying we have read a work carries some value judgement with it. It seems to me that the virtuous reader is, at least in part, one who stays acutely aware of the unexplored depths of a work. It also seems clear that we judge a work by its ability to draw us back into those depths over and over again.
Students fight an uphill battle when it comes to reading well, I think. They must overcome lack of interest and various anxieties as well as resist some temptation to conflate the value of reading with the ability to regurgitate facts. It’s often a perfect storm for “I got through it” talk.
Somehow, can’t remember how, I stumbled recently upon the following lyric from The Hives, a Swedish garage-rock band of some popularity (and whose lyrics are presumably tailored to appeal to the American market):
The fact is, this is a point of view that American youth and adults have been embracing for centuries, and it links to any number of more anti-intellectual American points of view, to include the attack on teaching Latin (as a dead and church language) and implications of Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” (“A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages”). While the American drive to think for oneself is certainly impressive and can be productive, it does not help Americans learn to read and to learn to learn from others. (Or to recognize that there are others, besides them, who have ideas?) When recently I proposed that to a bright, but perhaps poorly educated American of my acquaintance that he might advance his own understanding of a given subject by doing more reading, he answered: “Once I’ve figured out what I want to say, why should I waste time reading anyone else?”
If a person were to take Emerson for a Sage and follow his example, as they used to do with sages in olden days, he or she would end up a chronic bookworm with a classical education. This raises an impish question: did the Sage not preach what he practiced? Is Emerson’s the case of a man so well read that he could reason against reading? Emerson does have a line (quite a few, in fact) that suggests a connection between the gleam of one’s individuating inner light and the reading of books — those dusty, tedious, antique things that would so impertinently wedge themselves between us and the universe. I can’t remember how it goes exactly, but this is pretty close: “One should esteem one’s own life the text, and books the commentary.” A neat aphorism. However, reading books in order to read oneself, while better than not reading books at all, is still a pretty insular affair; and as advice to the young, it might lead to delusion and muddle. I mean, really, how much “text” is there when you’re barely twenty? For younglings to commence an original relationship to the universe when they themselves have hardly taken shape does not seem like a promising venture, more like a fluid trying to embrace a solid. We actually tried something like that in my day, or rather it was tried on us, and the result was that we attained mostly an original relationship to our genitalia. That was fairly revolutionary, I admit, but the principle thing was missed: a strong, self-disciplined, outwardly directed, standard-respecting education. On this model, self-absorption is the problem, reading is the solution. Much of the benefit of reading, especially for the young, is that it exposes the primary text, in Emerson’s sense, to influences that it could never imagine on its own; things utterly different from its still unformed, confused, mostly illegible self, and against which it might measure itself. These influences, early on, facilitate the very writing of the primary text and not so much its reading. I wonder how much Emerson would disagree with this? After all, some of the most illuminating commentary is fairly critical.