I’m a book person; I spend much more time with books than I do watching TV or going to movies.
Most of the time, I like books. I’ve spent some of my happiest hours reading and over a lifetime of learning books have opened new worlds of ideas and experience to me.
I like the way books look and I like the way they feel.
But sometimes they get in the way.
Traveling is one issue. While it is great to have a good book on a long plane ride, and it is vital to have an alternative to cable news during your downtime in foreign hotels, carrying what amounts to a bag of bricks in your luggage is an experience I could do without. That is the main reason I bought a Kindle, and being able to stuff a whole library into my carry on is a vast improvement over the old system.
Also, they pile up. There is a lot of shelf space at the stately Mead manor in glamorous Queens, to say nothing of the sprawling acreage at Mead GHQ, but books follow Parkinson’s Law: they expand to fill the available space. No matter how many bookshelves you have, it isn’t enough. Very soon you will have piles of books on tables, in corners, and stacked in odd places around the house.
Lately, the books have been getting out of hand at both the manor and GHQ and I’ve been going through the process that museums delicately call ‘deaccessioning’. To put it more bluntly, I’m dumping the books I don’t want or need.
The home cull is an ongoing process, but it’s been about 12 years since the office library had a serious pruning, and as I work through the shelves I’m astonished at what has piled up there. I write an unconscionable number of book reviews every year and have been on the Gelber book jury for the last couple of years; these activities bring literally hundreds of books to my office every year. On top of that are the bound galleys I get from authors and editors (some friends, many more people I don’t know) asking for blurbs and the books I buy for my own research or education and, occasionally, just for fun.
Culling a book collection is a sobering experience, especially for a writer. As the King James Bible puts it, “And further, by these, my son, be admonished; of making many books there is no end, and much studying is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecclesiastes 2:12). Those words were written about 2000 years before Gutenberg came along to make things much worse; in the 18th century Samuel Johnson could say that anybody who wanted to understand the vanity of human hopes should go look at a library where vast stretches of dusty unread books, each produced by a hopeful author with infinite care and pains, testified to the pointlessness of almost all learned labor.
And as I dump dozens of books from my shelves into the ‘don’t want’ boxes, I’m struck by the sheer uselessness of the overwhelming majority of them. Volumes of political science essays written at a point in the debate that is already forgotten; grave studies of the state of the world economy in 1993 or 1997; labored studies of the policy-making process (mostly) by people who have never seen policy made and think that collated memos tell the real story of American foreign policy; ambitious attempts to catch the spirit of a moment in international affairs: all worse than useless now, most not even having second-hand sale value.
As I survey the growing discard piles, I see that while many of these volumes never lived — fell stillborn from the press and were, deservedly, ignored from day one — quite a few of them once had a brief moment in the sun and were, briefly, chattered about and sometimes even read before they sank into oblivion. Perhaps the most useless of all category of books were the institutional reports and collections of essays. Think tanks both in the US and increasingly abroad pump out absolutely amazing quantities of useless swill every year. Fortunately almost nobody every pays any attention whatever to any of it, but the lack of demand has no effect on supply. I blame four factors for this murderous, tree-killing glut: foundations want some tangible evidence, however self-evidently useless and vain, for the money they spend; a culture borrowed from academia which places a great deal of value on the quantity of ‘serious’ publications and much less weight on their quality and influence; the delusional reasoning that since some documents in the form of task force reports and group studies have had a significant impact, mediocre and pedestrian thought expressed in the same format may also get some attention; and the people who run these institutions want some kind of evidence that their people are working. None of this demand is reader-driven; those hopeful reports and earnest recommendations will, let us hope, be decently pulped and recycled into something useful, like paper towels.
The books that I end up keeping seem to fall mostly into three categories. First and foremost, at least for me, are the good history books. I’ve been reading two great ones in the last couple of weeks: one new and one old. The latter, which I got, literally, for nothing on my Kindle, is James Anthony Froude’s Reign of Mary Tudor. Froude was not the greatest or the most profound of the Victorian historians, but he is almost as good a writer as Macaulay and his histories of the Tudor period are well worth reading for their style, for their information, and as period documents illustrating the way that Victorian Britain understood its own history. Froude often lets his characters speak for themselves; Cranmer’s final speeches as he went to the stake, snide letters from ambassadors at Mary’s unhappy court, unintentionally revealing letters by men like Cardinal Pole add up to a vivid account of one of the great turning points in British and therefore American history. A smart teenager can read this book for an accessible first introduction to the period; for someone with more background in either Victorian or Tudor history it’s a fascinating window into two places and times. Amazon has a lot of free Froude at the Kindle store; I am going to Oxford next week for a conference and not only will Froude’s account of the deaths of Cranmer, Lattimore and Ridley be echoing in my mind as I revisit the spot where they were burned at the stake; I’ll be reading another of his histories on my Kindle on the plane.
The other history I’ve been reading is a fantastic new account of the war between Russia and Napoleonic France by Dominic Lieven. Russia Against Napoleon combines diplomatic and military history and draws on Russian sources little studied in the west to offer a genuinely fresh take on Russian strategy and planning between 1810 and 1815. In part the book is a commentary and corrective to Tolstoy’s portrayal in War and Peace; Lieven constantly points to people believed to have inspired certain Tolstoy characters and puts Tolstoy’s political analysis of the period in a useful context. (Russia Against Napoleon isn’t available on Kindle, alas, but I’m reading the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace on mine, and the new translation helps me understand why so many people think this is the greatest novel ever written.) But Lieven’s work also fills in what for many people is a missing piece in their understanding of the Napoleonic Wars: in the English-speaking world we tend to know a lot about how the British saw the war, something about Napoleon and the French, less about the Austrian and Prussian perspectives — and almost nothing about how the Russians saw the war and how they managed to win it. This book is a classic of strategic studies and among other things offers some interesting observations on Clausewitz.
Good history lasts in a way that even good policy analysis doesn’t. That’s one lesson of my book cull, and it confirms my belief that young people should not waste their time trying to stay up to the minute on the latest policy or ‘state of the world’ chat. These books come and mostly go like mayflies; people in their teens and twenties should be spending their time building up their general historical knowledge rather than following the twists and turns of the contemporary debate. As they take on more senior professional responsibilities in their thirties and forties they will have plenty of time to immerse themselves in the minutiae of policy reviews and the attempts to capture the spirit of the moment in print. (And, if they’ve spent the earlier years wisely, they will be able to bring badly needed perspective to the discussion of contemporary issues as their careers hit their stride.)
The second category of books that last (and I’m excluding fiction, poetry and literature from consideration here; it’s the office, working collection that I’m culling most intensively) are the books that say something concrete and important about a subject of lasting importance. One change in this category: in the past I’ve given a lot of shelf space to dictionaries of quotations and other reference works. I’m still debating which to keep, but so much of the information in these books is now on the internet that I’m going to do some culling here as well. I no longer need etiquette books to tell me how to address a sultan or an archbishop, or to tell me what ‘lounge wear’ means on an invitation. Books like Who’s Who haven’t been needed for years, though I will never forget how proud it made my grandmother when she was listed (as a newspaper editor) in the Who’s Who of American women. So some of these will go, but the internet still can’t match the fun of flipping through the pages of a book of quotations or anecdotes. The best of those will make the cut this time, and although I rarely consult it, I’ll keep the Britannica a while longer.
The third category of ‘keepers’ are books that, whatever they are about, manage to say something real and important. Adam Smith, Max Weber, Karl Marx, Reinhold Niebuhr, Walter Bagehot, Thomas Aquinas, Ibn Khaldun: these are thinkers you want to keep with you. You may not consult them every day, but you want them at hand when you need them. Some of the books I’ll keep are books with which I mostly disagree and which nobody would consider a true classic. Josiah Strong’s Our Country is one of these. Strong was a combination Social Darwinist and Social Gospel writer who flourished as they say around the turn of the twentieth century; the mix of racial and cultural determinism (he thought the Anglo-Saxon race had it all) together with the genuine idealism is a strange brew. Strong’s strengths and weaknesses are so characteristically American that I keep coming back to him as a kind of intellectual memento mori: this is what happens to American intellectuals who don’t subject their premises to rigorous testing.
Anyway, culling books puts me in mind of Samuel Johnson’s reflections on the life of the scholar. He said it best in one of those stern poems that everybody needs today but that hardly anyone ever reads: The Vanity of Human Wishes. (Those of you in other fields should take a look at what he says about other professions; scholars are not the only people whose foolish hopes he skewers.)
When first the College Rolls receive his Name,
The young Enthusiast quits his Ease for Fame;
Resistless burns the Fever of Renown,
Caught from the strong Contagion of the Gown;
O’er Bodley‘s Dome his future Labours spread,
And Bacon‘s Mansion trembles o’er his Head;
Are these thy Views? proceed, illustrious Youth,
And Virtue guard thee to the Throne of Truth,
Yet should thy Soul indulge the gen’rous Heat,
Till captive Science yields her last Retreat;
Should Reason guide thee with her brightest Ray,
And pour on misty Doubts resistless Day;
Should no false Kindness lure to loose Delight,
Nor praise relax, nor Difficulty fright;
Should tempting Novelty thy cell refrain,
And Sloth’s bland Opiates shed their Fumes in vain;
Should Beauty blunt on Fops her fatal Dart,
Nor claim the Triumph of a letter’d Heart;
Should no Disease thy torpid Veins invade,
Nor Melancholy’s Phantoms haunt thy Shade;
Yet hope not Life from Grief or Danger free,
Nor think the Doom of Man revers’d for thee:
Deign on the passing World to turn thine Eyes,
And pause awhile from Learning to be wise;
There mark what Ills the Scholar’s Life assail,
Toil, Envy, Want, the Garret, and the Jail.
See Nations slowly wise, and meanly just,
To buried Merit raise the tardy Bust.
If Dreams yet flatter, once again attend,
Hear Lydiat‘s Life, and Galileo‘s End.