On one of my bookshelves at home sits a copy of Paul Cartledge’s “Thermopylae,” an account of the 480 B.C. “battle that changed the world,” where a small band of Greeks faced a much larger Persian force and claimed by their heroics and self-sacrifice a place in history.
On another shelf (which I notice needs a good dusting), stands an imposing row of biographies: Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, England’s Rudyard Kipling, physicist and “father” of the atomic bomb J. Robert Oppenheimer, French writer Andre Malraux, and U.S. presidents Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan. Not far away, on another shelf wanting dusting, sit Alex Haley’s “Roots,” Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” and Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel.”
I’ve read none of them.
They sit there, shelved among the fiction and nonfiction I have read, alternately beckoning and taunting me, reminding me of gaping holes in my education. The chemistry and algebra textbooks I picked up years ago at yard sales can be especially humiliating that way.
“Have you read all these books?” people might ask if they came into my … well, I won’t call it my library. It is a modest and haphazard collection, which over the past 30 years replaced a much larger collection, sold and given away back then in a dark time and a fit of property-shedding.
“No,” I would say, “but I intend to read them all, and I’ve read a good many books that aren’t here.”
I used to be quite sure of myself.
But, happy day, I have found a much better way of responding to that skeptical challenge, in an article by another compulsive book collector, Kevin Dickinson. His piece, “The value of owning more books than you can read,” was published in bigthink.com.
“I love books,” he wrote. “If I go to the bookstore to check a price, I walk out with three books I probably didn’t know existed beforehand. I buy second-hand books by the bagful at the Friends of the Library sale, while explaining to my wife that it’s for a good cause. Even the smell of books grips me, that faint aroma of earthy vanilla that wafts up at you when you flip a page.”
We are on the same page, Mr. Dickinson and I. No detached, eerily lit eBooks for us. Nothing like the heft and scent of a real book, the art and history and personality of a well-packaged tome.
But back to our immediate point: Shelves riddled with books we haven’t gotten around to read, maybe in many years (Pushkin), should not be seen as failure, but as inspiration, invitation – not to be overly dramatic about it, but as reasons to press on. “I will get to you, Oppenheimer, ‘destroyer of worlds,’ and before that becomes your true epitaph.”
Such a collection of books does challenge us, reminding us of how little we know, but that doesn’t have to be a negative thing. Unless you assemble rows and rows of books simply as ornaments, as mounted trophies or as arrogant boast, they declare proudly and optimistically: We are still learning. We will “continue reading, continue learning, and never be comfortable that we know enough,” Dickinson wrote. Quoting another book lover, he names this “intellectual humility,” a quality we could use in many quarters these days.
Every semester at UND, where I teach news writing, several students emerge quickly as talented, thoughtful writers, adept at producing sentences with clarity, depth and style. I ask them if they grew up in homes where books were present and frequently opened. Yes, they say. I ask them if they had good English teachers in grade school, junior high and high school. “Yes!” they say, and sometimes they name them.
I hope they and all students read the rest of their lives, and not just texts from friends or lifeless, abridged “items” on their digital news feeds. Use a Kindle if that works for you, but I will stick with bound printed pages with spines, the titles calling to me from those dusty shelves.
I’m working my way now through Elizabeth Fenn’s remarkable “Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People.” It was for a class I’m sitting in on, and while it is very good I have had to set it aside a few times to attend to life.
And as I read about the Knife River villages, the people who welcomed and sheltered Lewis and Clark, and the smallpox epidemic that decimated the tribe, I glance over at a shelf and see that for some reason I have two copies of Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights.” I have watched the 1939 film with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon probably 10 times, but I still haven’t cracked the book. Either copy. Maybe I can trade the extra for a paperback “Jane Eyre,” by sister Charlotte Bronte.
I have two copies, too, of German historian Fritz Fischer’s “Germany’s Aims in the First World War,” but I read and analyzed that volume as a history graduate student more than 40 years ago, and those books bear the signatures of my advisors, Dr. Gordon Iseminger in one, the late Dr. P.V. Thorson in the other. It’s another reason to keep books close at hand, reliable and readily available, like old friends and valued mentors.
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at email@example.com.