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The Private Library: What Books Reveal About Their Readers

22 February 2016

From The Millions:

Michel De Montaigne owned 900 books, which he kept on shelves arranged in a semi-circle.Immanuel Kant owned about 400 books. Virginia Woolf: 4,000.

Qin Shi Huang, the Chinese emperor who built the Great Wall, ordered the destruction of all books written before his reign. According to the Han-era historian Sima Qian, the Qin burned only those works held in private libraries, while the court erudites and government archives were permitted to retain and expand their collections. During the Qin era, anyone caught discussing The Classic of Poetry in public would be executed. Under Qin Shi Huang it was a capital offence to discuss the past as being preferable to the present.

Many of those books spared by the emperor were destroyed when the warlord Xiang Yu entered the city of Xiangyang, four years after Qin Shi Huang’s death, and razed the Qin palace and its library to the ground.

John Dee, mathematician, astrologer, and adviser to Elizabeth I, kept a collection of 2,337 books and 378 manuscripts in his house on Mortlake-on-Thames. When he died, in 1608, the land around his home was bought by the antiquarian Robert Cotton, who suspected — correctly — that Dee had buried a cache of valuable manuscripts in a nearby field.

. . . .

Every few years, Willa Cather re-read her favourite novels. By 1945 she had read Huckleberry Finn 20 times, and Flaubert’s Salammbo 13 times.

Socrates said the written word represented “no true wisdom.” He preferred a dialogue. He claimed written words “seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you the same thing for ever.”

In her copy of Emmanuel Mounier’s The Character of Man, Flannery O’Connor underlined the following sentences: “When we say that thought is dialogue, we mean this quite strictly. We never think alone. The unspoken thought is a dialogue with someone who questions, contradicts, or spurs one on.”

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Katherine Anne Porter’s library comprised 4,000 books — rounded up by librarians — now preserved at the University of Maryland. Doris Lessing donated her collection of 3,000 titles to Harare City Library, Zimbabwe.

Five years after her death, Iris Murdoch’s books were sold to the Kingston University Library, London, for the sum of £120,000. Her husband John Bayley said: “Her mind seemed to work independently of her precious library, but at the same time she depended for inspiration on the presence of her books, a silent living presence whose company sustained and reassured her.”

Link to the rest at The Millions

Books in General

6 Comments to “The Private Library: What Books Reveal About Their Readers”

  1. I was attracted to this as a guilty pleasure. It’s like being a Peeping Tom at a house party for books.

  2. So libraries, yeah. We just finished cataloging our fiction (book collector for the win) and we have 2313 books, and we haven’t started our RPG or non-fiction stuff. ~snickers~ or my to be read book case.

    No, I’m not addicted or anything. ~shoves the kindle with over 400 hundred behind her ~

    Our last vacation, our costs were Hotel (1200) ~ it was a week okay? ~, Food 700 ~in New york~, books 680.

    I figure by the time the RPG collection is done, it will be well over 3k.

  3. One of the (minor) tragedies of my life was when IKEA discontinued doing Billy bookcases in my chosen color (pine). Strangely, Borders had bookcases in my color, so I bought 100 yards of shelving from them when they went under (5 big cases and 10 5-foot ones suitable to fill the center of my library room).

  4. I’m designing a house to build and the library includes ~3000 ft of paperback sized shelving.

    never mind the ~1000 titles I have on my kindle (although to be fair, there is overlap between them)

    I do look forward to having the space to get all my books out and figure out what duplicates I have 🙂

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