By Greg Hill
At the Library
“He that revels in a well-chosen library has innumerable dishes, all of admirable flavor,” according to the Victorian writer William Godwin.
He could have been writing about Umberto Eco, the modern Italian author who before dying in 2017 “wrote such hefty and much-read novels as ‘The Name of the Rose’ and ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’ as well as stories for children, pieces of literary criticism, academic texts on semiotics, studies of everything from medieval aesthetics to modern media, and much else besides,” according to an OpenCulture.com article, “Watch Umberto Eco Walk Through His Immense Private Library: It Goes On, and On, and On!”
Eco, who once said, “I love the smell of book ink in the morning,” also loved libraries, especially his own. The included video lasts about a minute, and if you and I think you own “a lot of books,” watching Eco stroll through his 30,000-volume collection will put our puny collections to shame.
This is bolstered by “The Value of Owning More Books Than You Can read,” an online article by Kevin Dickinson, who wrote, “Eco’s library wasn’t voluminous because he had read so much; it was voluminous because he had so much more he desired to read.” Dickinson wrote that the Japanese term for this is “tsundoku,” and he extolled the “antilibrary,” a term coined by Nassim Taleb, a Lebanese American statistician and essayist interested in randomness and uncertainty. In 2007 Taleb wrote, “[A] private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.”
My house is as filled with books as financial means, real estate limitations, and my roommate of 47 years will permit, and it’s an antilibrary, heavily sprinkled with books I might want or need to read or re-read, and so packed that new books coming in require old ones going out. To underscore our kindly family dynamics, consider when a few years ago I added the 200-plus volume Dictionary of Literary Biography (known in library circles as the DLB) to the collection. Our public library regularly discards books that are dated, worn, or not useful. Since the library had recently subscribed to an online database from Gale Publishing that included the DLB, it was decided to make much-needed room by “de-accessioning” (more librarian lingo) the print copy and sell it.
Used and donated books sold by the library produce revenue that must, by Borough ordinance, only go towards purchasing new library materials. The sale books are usually cheap - $1 for hardbacks, 50 cents for paper, and $5 for sets. Local bookhounds - with whom I identify - regularly frequent the booksale, especially when the special half-price sales happen. Shortly after my retirement from the library, I saw the DLB, among my all-time favorite reference sources, was being sold. Since it’s a set and the special sale was on, it was going for $2.50. Resistance was futile; I got the whole shebang for about a dime a book. Shelves were covertly added to our garage wall to house them, and only then I unveiled them (as R-factor) to my incredibly patient wife; eyes rolled but no harsh words were utteredå.
The DLB’s mission is “to make literature and its creators better understood and more accessible to students and the reading public, while satisfying the standards of teachers and scholars … The most important thing about a writer is his writing. Accordingly, the entries in DLB are career biographies … it was decided to organize volumes by topic, period, or genre. Each of these freestanding volumes provides a biographical-bibliographical guide and overview for a particular area of literature.” For example, typical DLB volumes include “American Writers in Paris, 1920-1939,” and “American Humorists, 1800-1950” which includes Samuel Clemons (AKA Mark Twain), who’s also covered in “American Realists and Naturalists, ‘ “American Newspaper Journalists, 1973-1900,” and others relevant volumes.
DLBs meet my gaze every time I get in the car, and I regularly pull a volume at random to peruse. Most recent is Volume 73: American Magazine Journalists, 1741-1850. You’re probably thinking, “dry stuff,” but every volume is packed with essays – sometimes a couple of pages long, other times many – that will amuse and amaze me. Right off the bat, the first entry was on Park Benjamin, known in his time (1809-1864) as “the father of cheap literature in the U.S.” (his “periodicals were mass-produced inexpensively, and authors, even such popular ones as John Greenleaf Whittier and Walt Whitman, received little payment”) and as “the Black Dwarf” (due to being both “characteristically caustic” and crippled from childhood by a ‘tropical disease’ contracted from his sea captain father).
Next came the New York printer/publisher Andrew Bradford, who in 1719 founded the “American Weekly Mercury,” the first newspaper in the middle colonies which ran for twenty-six years and stood out for its willingness to criticize governing officials. Bradford’s “Busy-Body” essays in the Mercury upset local officials when it “urged people to take an active role in the election in order to ensure capable leaders were chosen,” a concept that certainly resounds today.
Andrew was uncle to William Bradford III, the next DLB entry, who’s known as “the patriot printer.” William learned the printing trade from his uncle who adopted him and made him his partner. When Andrew remarried late in life, his new wife wanted the reluctant William to marry her niece, and, upon his refusal, he convinced Andrew to dissolve the partnership.
During the French and Indian War, William founded the pro-British “American Magazine, or Monthly Chronicle for the British Colonies.” This was “designed as flag bearer for the colonies, emphasizing their unified rather than disparate histories.”
When the editor left, a year later, it folded despite a solid circulation, so he started a second, anti-British “American Magazine” in 1769, the same year he helped form the American Philosophical Society. William was an active Sons of Liberty member, published Thomas Paine’s essays, and no “sunshine patriot,” he joined the Revolutionary Army in 1775 at age 56, fought at Trenton and Princeton and rose to become a colonel, thereby becoming the “patriot printer.”
Ah yes, a universe of unexplored learning’s been assembled in my library over half a century, like Eco wrote, “a sweet mission in this world dominated by disorder and decay.”
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.