Monday, March 31, 2008


Mortimer Adler once observed that authentic readers have no regard for the physical condition of their books. They will be found, he wrote, "dogeared and dilapidated, shaken and loosened by continual use, marked and scribbled from front to back." By contrast, the books of the intellectually pretentious are pristine, an oversized and overpriced collection of pulp and ink.

It is not quite correct or fair. I have an exceedingly well-read friend who likes to display pristine books; she even will go to the extent of buying two copies - one to read and one to display. Still, I confess that I try to inspect a book or two at every house I'm a guest in. Under normal circumstances, you can learn a lot about your hosts thereby. I know a woman who positively claws her way through books – she writes the definitions of unfamiliar words in the margins, underlines passages she likes, curses those that she does not, and leaves scraps of note cards and Post-Its jammed between the pages. You get the sense of a reader making a serious effort to really get at what the book is about and even — this is unfashionable — know the mind of its author. An invitation to her home brings with it the promise of good conversation.

I'm professionally obligated to read, and my profession is very obliging about paying me to do so. Much of what I read, however, is work, and in every sense of the word, for a great deal of academic writing is not just drearily but shabbily written. Most of it is of little interest to anyone other than specialists, which is to say that it is of interest to a minority of a minority. Consider the Canadian Historical Review, widely regarded as the gold standard in Canadian historical writing. Picking an issue at random from my shelf, I find an article about centralizing entomological research in Canada prior to the First World War, and another about litigation that stemmed from Hydro Quebec's activities around James Bay. Readers still awake at this point will see the problem straight away. Jane Austen wrote six novels. I have read five, and it's this sort of thing that's keeping me from Northanger Abbey.

Last year I read or took a good swing at about fifty books (some of them are piled on my bedside table, above.) In a very good year I might get through sixty or seventy. Given — let's be optimistic, here — another fifty-five years of reading, I could put paid to perhaps 4,000 more. According to R.R. Bowker, compilers of Books In Print, last year in the United States alone 291,920 new titles were published. I read perhaps twenty and – this is even more depressing – wrote none of these.

My wife, who is a far more careful and perceptive reader than I am, tends toward classics, interspersed with good-quality mysteries. She is very particular about what she reads and I have given up buying her books. But her reading only compounds the problem: she is herself a fount of continual book recommendations. And so my problem is twofold: the more I work, and the more my wife reads, the further I fall behind in my reading.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


I began my doctoral work the same year that several senior members of the history faculty retired. Archetypes of the graceful exit, they spared us the misery of the retirement "party" with its mawkish and mediocre speeches and, what's more, they put the majority of their book collections at the disposal of the graduate students.

We snatched up armfuls. Looking back, it must have seemed rather undignified (picture ravenous hordes of bargain hunters on Boxing Day), especially the way we kept returning for days to pick over the remainder. They were mostly old books, of course, and dust patterns testified to the fact that some of them had not moved so much as an inch since Richard Nixon occupied the White House, but gratefully and greedily we took them all the same.

Make no mistake, however: this apparent act of magnanimity involved considerable self-interest on the part of the retirees. A mid-sized office with floor-to-ceiling shelves can easily house over a thousand books, and in most cases there is room for more on the windowsill, on top of the filing cabinet, on the desk, and under the desk. I even knew one professor who employed two decade's worth of the American Historical Review as an end table. Such a collection, accumulated over the course of a career, poses two serious logistical problems at the end of it: how to move it and, more critically, where to store it, when, in all probability, there are already books jammed into every nook and cranny of one's home. One solution is to let somebody else deal with it. Passing the book, you might call it.

Academics display their books as a mark of distinction – notches on the intellectual bedpost, a vast accumulation of intellectual capital for vastly acquisitive intellectual capitalists. Vain? Of course, but everyone keeps something — trophies earned long ago, photographs of adventurous vacations, garden gnomes with curious stories — and books are as good to keep as anything and better than most.

Or are they? I admit that I've always felt a slight condescension about people who collect DVDs, on the grounds that very few movies and even fewer television shows are worth watching more than once, and certainly not more than once in a year. So it's quite beyond me why anyone would want to own, say, every season of Friends, let alone Three's Company, except for the sake of completeness. But, then, I keep and prominently display books that I am very unlikely to re-read, and not a few that I haven't read at all. (There isn't the slightest chance that I will ever make my way through Das Kapital, but some acquisitive urge compelled me to buy all three volumes when I found them on a sale table.) Sometimes I convince myself that I need them for my research, but that's only true of a tiny fragment of the collection.

I confess to deriving a real pleasure on those occasions when some student breathlessly asks, "Have you really read all those books?" (For all professors, the correct, but seldom expressed answer, must almost invariably be "no.") But this happens with a depressing infrequency. Instead, most visitors glance over the books without comment, the way I used to glance over my uncle's vast collection of rare beer cans and, realizing that saying anything at all would commit me to a conversation I did not want to have, chose silence as the safest option.

My monthly troll of new books is in some cases greater than my years' consumption, and yet I still find myself fretting over missed opportunities to acquire more – the very definition of an addiction, I suppose. But I agree with Mark Twain that the person who doesn't read has no advantage over the person who can't.