word craft


A Room with Books

“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. 

5 thoughts on “A Room with Books”

  1. Oh, how I total­ly agree on your very last line that strong­ly res­onates with me. There is just some­thing about hold­ing the actu­al book in one’s hands that makes the read­ing expe­ri­ence mag­i­cal. And I think that goes for any age- regard­less if age 3 or 103.… Does not mat­ter if grow­ing up in this dig­i­tal age or not. While I do use e‑books and love how they have made acces­si­bil­i­ty pos­si­ble for more peo­ple, and even for myself to enlarge print when need­ed, the tried and true tra­di­tion­al book for­mat of hun­dreds of years is some­thing one can appre­ci­ate & remem­ber for years when sit­ting on the spe­cial book case in one’s home. Books help make a home be a home. They become part of the soul of the house… e‑books sim­ply can­not do that…

  2. As a bib­lio­phile, I always exam­ine the con­tents of book­shelves when I’m in peo­ple’s homes and offices. I do the same dur­ing Zoom meet­ings and watch­ing TV inter­views. I con­fess that I do judge peo­ple by the con­tents of their shelves. Sev­er­al years ago, I com­mis­sioned a tal­ent­ed friend to con­struct wall to wall, floor to ceil­ing book­cas­es in two base­ment rooms. If I had any wall space left, I would have more con­struct­ed. They are all com­plete­ly full. Aside from the bath­rooms, every room in my home has book­shelves that are com­plete­ly full. I love being able to look up at any time, any­where, and see books.


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