One of the first things people often say when they visit my office is that I have a lot of books. True, there are bookcases on all the available wall space and they are pretty much full. My most precious and valuable books are at home where the shelves are full too. I soon will have no choice but to adopt a one-in one-out policy. When all the space is used, you have to think very carefully about any new acquisitions.
I grew up in a house without books but when I was an undergraduate, I shared with a mature student who was a real bibliophile. He introduced me to the joy of bookshops, both new and second hand, and that is where my personal library began. There are certain books that I have come to love both as physical objects and as intellectual treasures. I have a beautiful old copy of Hume’s Treatise, for instance, which I’ve read cover to cover, and the pleasure and stimulation it gave me outweighs the price I paid to an incalculable extent. I feel very lucky and, indeed, privileged to own the sort of personal library of which I once dreamed.
If only I could now sit back and enjoy my collection, carefully accumulated and curated, proudly display my Bertrand Russell first editions and complete works of Aristotle, and then recline in my armchair with a favourite volume. But things are never so simple in my mind. Recently, I saw a wonderful blog in praise of public libraries. I’m a big supporter of public libraries too and every word of that blog was correct. It puts me in a difficult position, though. Here I am, self-satisfied with my books, which I know function as signifiers of wealth, status and intellectual credentials. Public libraries are collectivist. Personal libraries are individualist. What on earth am I doing?
In theory, I would love to have no need of personal possessions. How can we not be inspired by the stories of Diogenes of Sinope, a true philosopher who lived for thinking alone and who owned virtually nothing? (OK, he owned a pouch, a stick and a cup, but upon seeing someone drink water from cupped hands, he threw away the cup since it was unnecessary.) As ever, I am torn. I want to enjoy my books but am not pleased or proud with my acquisitiveness. If only I could live on the public library alone. Then again, I wouldn’t then be able to lay my hands instantly on Russell’s Towards World Government or to smell a nice first edition of David Copperfield.
Whether it is the lot of a philosopher or simply a fact of my personal psychology to be permanently conflicted, I might never know. I fear I will never be able to experience carefree enjoyment of my own privilege: for that’s what it is. Living in a relatively wealthy situation while poverty and starvation are still a reality in many parts of the world, and now many parts of my own country, I think it’s quite right to have misgivings about possessions, of which my personal library is a conspicuous symbol. How much better I could enjoy my nice things if I knew that everyone else was enjoying theirs too. I don’t think I could ever be a Diogenes and nor do I think anyone else should have to be one. Collective rather than personal emancipation should always be the goal.