|James Norman Hall|
enjoying his library
Photo source: Sylvie-Anne Gougeon
What interested me most about this essay was the description of Mr. Hall's library. The visit took place in 1956 and Hall's wife, Sarah, still lived in the house.
Hall had been dead for five years but he was still alive in the house, his hat hanging on a peg, his typewriter and falling-apart atlas waiting on an ink-stained blotter, his thousands of books spilling into the kitchen. The library contained 27 volumes by Joseph Conrad, who was Hall's hero and for whom he named his son.
Keeping Joseph Conrad company were the complete works of Robert Lewis Stevenson, the 12-volume Works of Benjamin Franklin, the nine-volume Writings of Thomas Jefferson, and sets of Washington Irving, Thoreau, Emerson, Mark Twain, Thackeray and Sir Walter Scott. Modern American literature was also represented: Thurber, Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis, Sarah Orne Jewett, and the writer Hall most admired, Willa Cather. One entire wall was crammed with works of naval history.
Later in the essay, Mr. Zinsser's admits that now, some 60 years on, he still thinks of Hall's library. No such personal library will ever be assembled again, he feels. "The world's knowledge is being digitized, its literature is fast being Kindled. Does any architect still design a house with a 'library,'" he wonders.
Which brings me to the thought: do I have a library or do I just have some books?
I would never consider my collection to be as encompassing as Mr. Hall's. I don't believe I have 'sets' of any writer's works. Well, OK, I do have a one-volume The Complete Works of Shakespeare with type so tiny I need two magnifying glasses to read the lines. I can hardly count that.
I also have a sampling of Thoreau, Emerson, Twain, Thurber, Thackeray, Steinbeck and Lewis, but no Cather, Stevenson, Jewett, Conrad, or Scott.
Have I filled my shelves with intention or just bought books higgledy-piggledy? Does one really need to have reference books on any one subject any longer? When I die, will someone look through my books and think, "What a magnificent range of intellect and interests Belle had!" or will they wonder, "How quickly can we get rid of all this?"
How about chiming in on this subject. Do you consider your books just books or do you think of what you have as a library?