Tag Archives: best quotes about libraries

Confessions of a Bibliophile: Michael Dirda

alex atkins bookshelf books

“I’ve never counted how many books I own, but my attic is stuffed with genre fiction from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century–needed for a big project–and the basement is solidly packed with recent novels and non-fiction, some of it on industrial shelving but the bulk in boxes piled higgledy-piggledy. It’s really quite apalling. There’s also a rented storage unit, which has sucked a fortune out of me, probably more than its contents are worth. I’d estimate that I own between 15,000 and 20,000 books, conceivably more. From many quite reasonable points of view I have ‘too many books’, but to my mind I just need more bookshelves. Or a bigger house.

‘Yet am I, in fact, a collector?’ Somewhere I read that if you couldn’t lay your hands on any book you owned in five minutes, you were just an accumulator, a hoarder. I couldn’t lay my hands on some of my books if I had five days to search for me. The great bibliographical scholar G. Thomas Tanselle contends that any true collection requires an overarching theme, a plan, defined limits. My only plan is to keep books I might need in my work or that I hope to read some day for my own sweet pleasure. That means Tarzan and the insidious Fu Manchu as well as Dickens and Proust. The novelist and bookseller Larry McMurtry once observed that only those with basements or storage units like mine can enjoy the highly rarefied delight of scouting their own books: you never know what might be waiting at the bottom of the next box. Of course, McMurtry used to buy entire bookshops to stock the used and rare shelves of Archer City, Texas, his American version of Hay-on-Wye.”

From the essay “Snow Day” by Michael Dirda included in Browse: The World in Bookshops edited by Henry Hitchings. Michael Dirda is an American columnist for The Washington Post. In 1993, Dirda won a Pulitzer Prize for his insightful book reviews. He has written several books, including An Open Book, a memoir, and of four collections of essays: Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments; Bound to Please; Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life; Classics for Pleasure; and Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books.

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Stories in Books Matter Because They Connect Us to One Another

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen. It was that affirmation that always amazed me. Even the oddest, most peculiar book was written with that kind of courage — the writer’s belief that someone would find his or her book important to read. I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary, and how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them. It declares that stories matter, and so does every effort to create something that connects us to one another, and to our past, and to what is still to come.”

From The Library Book by Susan Orlean. Orlean spent six years researching and writing her eighth book. One of the most fascinating stories she investigated was the Los Angeles library fire of 1986 (April 29,1986). It took more than 350 firefighters 7.5 hours to extinguish the fire that reached up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The fire was devastating — it destroyed more than 400,000 books and damaged another 350,000 volumes. At the time, the library collection included 1.2 million books. The fire was started on the fifth floor by an arsonist.

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What is an Antilibrary?

alex atkins bookshelf booksIn an interview many years ago, the erudite Argentinian writer and literary critic Jorge Luis Borges once remarked that individuals should own two libraries — one containing the books that they have read, the other containing the books that they plan to read. It is that second type of library that interests essayist Nassim Taleb; in fact, he even gave it a name: the antilibrary: the books you plan to read. In his discussion of knowledge in his book, The Black Swan, Taleb cites another great writer and scholar, Umberto Eco, who very much like Borges, was passionate about books and learning:

“The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing more than 30,000 books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have. How many of these books have you read?” and the others—a very small minority—who get the point is that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendages but a research tool. 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 alow 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.

We tend to treat our knowledge as personal property to be protected and defended. It is an ornament that allows us to rise in the pecking order. So this tendency to offend Eco’s library sensibility by focusing on the known is a human bias that extends to our mental operations. People don’t walk around with anti-résumés telling you what they have not studied or experienced (it’s the job of their competitors to do that), but it would be nice if they did. Just as we need to stand library logic on its head, we will work on standing knowledge itself on its head.”

Naturally, the antilibrary gives rise to its dutiful steward, the antischolar. According to Taleb, the antischolar is “someone who focuses on the unread books, and makes an attempt not to treat his knowledge as a treasure, or even a possession, or even a self-esteem enhancement device — a skeptical empiricist.” Perhaps the greatest antischolar was Socrates who said, “”The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” This sentiment of intellectual humility is also expressed by a famous quote often attributed to Albert Einstein: “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” 

With all due respect to Taleb, the term “antilibrary” is terrible. Surely an individual with his level of erudition knows that anti- is the Greek prefix meaning “against.” Think of all these words: antihero, antigravity, anticlimax, antimatter, antiaircraft — all of which mean the opposite of something. So the anti-library is the opposite of a library (no books) or opposition to or suppression of a library (think censorship or book burning). There has to be a better term — and I believe there is. I submit for your consideration the term the “desired library” or the “aspirational library” — filled with the books that you desire or that you aspire to read one day. Sounds much more hopeful, doesn’t it?

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: Exploring Carl Sandburg’s Library of 11,000 Books
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For further reading: The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb
https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Talk:Albert_Einstein#The_more_I_learn,_the_more_I_realize_I_don’t_know
https://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/why-you-should-stop-feeling-bad-about-all-those-books-you-buy-dont-read.html
https://bigthink.com/personal-growth/do-i-own-too-many-books?rebelltitem=2#rebelltitem2


The Library Card is a Passport to Wonders

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“The library card is a passport to wonders and miracles, glimpses into other lives, religions, experiences, the hopes and dreams and strivings of ALL human beings, and it is this passport that opens our eyes and hearts to the world beyond our front doors, that is one of our best hopes against tyranny, xenophobia, hopelessness, despair, anarchy, and ignorance.”

Libya Bray, author of two best-selling young adults trilogies, Gemma Doyle trilogy (2003-2007) and the Diviners trilogy (2012-2017). Bray studied theatre at the University of Texas, and moved to New York to began her career as a playwright before she switched to writing young adult fiction.

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Confessions of a Bibliophile: J. Kevin Graffagnino

alex atkins bookshelf booksAs with most human passions, there is disagreement over whether booklovers are born or made. For my part, I can only say that I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a biblio­phile. I grew up surrounded by books. When I was a boy in Montpelier, Vermont, in the 1960s, our house contained somewhere around 1,000 books — then (and now, I suppose) considerably more than the average for an American home. My family’s “library” was an eclectic, unplanned mix of subjects and titles. Thirty years later, I can remember concentrations in European and American history, dozens of beautifully printed Limited Editions Club volumes from the 1930s to the 1950s, various impressive but impenetrable classics from the Everyman Library series, and an assortment of mod­ern literature, economics, biography, and philosophy. Even though there was almost nothing specifically aimed at chil­dren, beginning at about the age of nine or ten I still managed to fill many happy hours at home reading books I was too young to understand, plowing cover-to-cover through a near-complete run of American Heritage, and mining the tissue-thin pages of the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica for arcane, out-of-date information to include in school papers and assignments. The absence of television — we were the only family I knew in Montpelier that didn’t own a TV — may well have steered me toward books for entertainment, but I don’t recall any particular sense of deprivation over having to substitute books for the delights of My Three Sons, Bonanza and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

From Only in Books: Writers, Readers, and Bibliophiles on Their Passion by J. Kevin Graffagnino. Graffagnino is director of the library at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.


The Library as Open Door to Wonder and Achievement

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsI received the fundamentals of my education in school, but that was not enough. My real education, the superstructure, the details, the true architecture, I got out of the public library. For an impoverished child whose family could not afford to buy books, the library was the open door to wonder and achievement, and I can never be sufficiently grateful that I had the wit to charge through that door and make the most of it. Now, when I read constantly about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that the door is closing and that American society has found one more way to destroy itself.

From I. Asimov: A Memoir by Isaac Asimov (1920-1992), prolific science fiction writer (he wrote more than 506 books and more than 90,000 letters during his lifetime), best known for his Foundation, Galactic Empire, and Robot series of novels.


Books Are the Windows Through Which the Soul Looks Out

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“Books are not made for furniture, but there is nothing else that so beautifully furnishes a house. The plainest row of books that cloth or paper ever covered is more significant of refinement than the most elaborately carved étagére or sideboard.

Books are the windows through which the soul looks out. A home without books is like a room without windows.

No man has a right to bring up his children without surrounding them with books, if he has the means to buy them. It is a wrong to his family. He cheats them! Children learn to read by being in the presence of books. The love of knowledge comes with reading and grows upon it. And the love of knowledge, in a young mind, is almost a warrant against the inferior excitement of passions and vices.

Let us pity these poor rich men who live barrenly in great bookless houses! Let us congratulate the poor that, in our day, books are so cheap that a man may every year add a hundred volumes to his library for the price of what his tobacco and beer would cost him. Among the earliest ambitions to be excited in clerks, workmen, journeymen, and, indeed, among all that are struggling up from nothing to something, is that of owning, and constantly adding to a library of good books. A little library, growing larger every year, is an honorable part of a young man’s history. It is a man’s duty to have books. A library is not a luxury, but one of the necessities of life.” [Emphasis added]

From Sermons by Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887), American clergyman, journalist, and social reformer who passionately advocated for the abolition of slavery, supported the theory of evolution, and supported Chinese immigration in the U.S. Beecher was so eloquent that President Abraham Lincoln sent him to Europe on a speaking tour to build a compelling case for the abolition of slavery. He lectured widely and was a prolific writer for several journals; his only novel was Norwood published in 1868.


Every Library is Infinite

atkins bookshelf quotations“It’s a natural consequence of the capacity of a bookstore or library to contain entire worlds, whole universes, and all contained between the covers of books. In that sense, every library or bookstore is practically infinite.”

From The Museum of Literary Souls by John Connolly (2013)

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The Library is the DNA of Our Civilization

atkins-bookshelf-booksIn 2007, Leonard Kniffel, a librarian and an executive for the American Library Association (ALA), asked renowned documentary filmmaker Ken Burns to speak at the ALA’s Annual Conference that year. Burns had already created an impressive body of work, including The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (1997), Jazz (2001); in 2007 he would be releasing The War about the impact of WWII on American families. Burns’s speech is a thoughtful and eloquent testimony to the importance of libraries and their critical role in promoting reading and lifelong learning. His serendipitous encounter with an impassioned librarian provides one of the finest and most memorable metaphors for a library. Bookshelf presents some of the most compelling excerpts from that speech:

“Today, we’re well aware of how important nutrition is. I think we know that if we eat well, if we exercise, we help stave off the inevitable decay that takes place. I think we also understand that exercising the mind, which is constantly evolving, is probably the healthiest of all of the things we can do for ourselves. The key to that is for people to understand that we’re not just coasting here. We almost have an obligation to keep learning.

Thomas Jefferson said in his famous second sentence of the Declaration of Independence that we were entitled to ‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,’ and for most people that means a pursuit of material goods. I know that Jefferson, by saying capital-H ‘Happiness,’ meant a kind of lifelong learning, an improving of oneself in the marketplace of ideas, and that any citizen first given life and liberty was then obligated to continue to improve oneself, to work on oneself, for the rest of one’s life. It was the pursuit of happiness—not something that we’d actually achieve—and so it suggests a lifelong quest for self-improvement, which, to my mind, is not just physical, but also mental and emotional.

I don’t think that there has been a film that I’ve done that hasn’t been influenced by libraries and archives, and therefore my whole life is essentially organized and categorized by what they make available. That’s what I do for a living: I’m kind of an emotional archaeologist…

We used to have a joke that there were two kinds of archivists: one who kept her collection in apple-pie order and was thrilled to share it with the rest of the world, and the other who kept his collection in apple-pie order and would prefer it never to be touched. I believe, obviously, that the risk of a slight bit of attrition—the dog-eared corners; the minor rips; the, I’m sure, unfortunate disappearances of some items—is far outweighed by the value of allowing complete and total access by the public to materials.

When I was making a film back in the early 1980s on the Statue of Liberty and its history and symbolism, I had the great good fortune to meet and interview Vartan Gregorian, who was then the president of New York Public Library in Manhattan. After this extremely fascinating interview with an immigrant—Vartan is from Tabriz, Iran—he said ‘Come on’ and took me on a long and fascinating tour of the literally miles and miles of NYPL stacks. I chased this roly-poly man down one corridor after another. “Then he stopped, suddenly, in the middle of all of it, and he looked at me with this beaming smile on his face, like a child in a candy shop, and he said ‘this’—gesturing at his library from its guts—‘this,’ he said, ‘is the DNA of our civilization.’

I have never forgotten that. The thing that I appreciate, the thing that I like to remind people of, the thing that we need to remember as a republic, is that these records are the DNA of who we are. And libraries and archives are where we stow and encode what future generations will interpret about us. I can’t imagine a better pursuit, I can’t imagine a better place to spend a day, I can’t imagine being able to thank those resources enough.”

Read related posts: I Am What Libraries Have Made Me
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For further reading: Reading with the Stars: A Celebration of Books and Libraries by Leonard Kniffel, Skyhorse Publishing (2011)

 


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