“A room without books is like a body without a soul.”
— Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero, (born 106 bce),
an important statesman in the late Roman Republic
Now, where the soul is stored has been, over the centuries, a theological debate of considerable weight. But if you are going to have a room with books, it rather begs the question as to how you are going to store those books. The answer is, of course, bookcases.
Consider the bookcase. Here’s a quirk of mine: when watching TV interviews with important personages there is quite often a background of bookshelves. Never mind what that eminent person is saying, I’m checking the books on those shelves. Is there the ghost-written Art of the Deal, or The Glorious American Essay, or Grapes of Wrath?
Those books tell me (I think) a lot about that person—all on view.
I remember once when I was at some conference and there was a social event hosted by a local socialite. Since I was a writer, she said, “I love books! I must show you my library room.” She led me into a chamber, which had one wall covered with shelves. Those shelves were entirely full of volumes, all of them Reader Digest Condensed books. Call me a snob but that was not a real library. Those bookcases were empty.
Is there a history of bookcases? I’m glad you asked. The term is somewhat fluid. There are bookshelves, bookstands, and bookracks. In some ancient places they were called cupboards. In the large libraries (such as the New York Public Library) where I once worked, they were called stacks. There are even revolving bookcases (a Chinese invention). The oldest bookcases in England are at Oxford University, the Bodleian library.
I can recall bookcases with doors, the doors having glass windows, if you will, so even as you protected the books from dust, you could observe the titles.
In my childhood home in Brooklyn, NY, built in 1845, there were very high ceilings. The bookcases there required a ladder (always in place) to reach the top shelves.
During the time of the Vietnam War protests, I was working in the large library of a state college. One night a band of radical students entered the library and (as an act of protest) pushed over the steel bookcases, so that they tumbled like a line of dominos. You can imagine the mess.
I was delegated to speak to these students. “You tell me you are opposed to oppression and control, but when you pushed over those bookcases you, attacked the freest, most open, least rule-burdened part of society: a library. The ideas you believe in are now impossible to reach. Liberty requires upright bookcases.”
Sheepish, they offered to help in restoring order.
Go online and look up “bookcases,” and you’ll find a huge array of companies who sell bookcases of all kinds.
Being a bibliophile (and a poor one) over the years I have built many a bookcase for myself. At one point they were no more than boards set on concrete blocks. I advanced to building all wood bookcases. That said over time the shelving inevitably bowed, so that my rooms looked a vista of mountains and valleys. Plus, there were the boulders of books piled on the floor.
In my maturity I had carpenters build my bookcases. They are lovely to look at and have no middle-aged sag.
Not too long ago a millennial told me he didn’t believe in keeping real books. “My e‑book has a thousand books.”
I refrained from telling him his e‑book has no soul.