What Our Libraries Reveal about Us


Today, had he lived, my father would be 95. (He died five years ago.) I’ve been thinking a lot about him over the past week as I have been merging my library with his and my mother’s 30,000 books and have seen his life laid before me in all the books he owned. Today I write about what they tell us about him.

As you can see from the picture, my parents have bookcases that rise from waist-level cabinets to the 14-foot ceiling of their large family room. To access the uppermost books, they have three library ladders. All of the shelves are full, which means that merging the two collections required a fair amount of culling. While Julia, my mother and I didn’t pass judgment on every book in the collection, we judged enough to fill over 25 boxes to donate to local libraries. This in turn opened up enough space for the roughly 25 boxes of books that I brought with me and that represented about a third of my own original collection.

In assessing my father from his books, I think about Dr. Watson trying to figure out what his new roommate does for a living:

I was on the point of asking him what [his] work might be, but something in his manner showed me that the question would be an unwelcome one. I pondered over our short conversation, however, and endeavoured to draw my deductions from it. He said that he would acquire no knowledge which did not bear upon his object. Therefore all the knowledge which he possessed was such as would be useful to him. I enumerated in my own mind all the various points upon which he had shown me that he was exceptionally well-informed. I even took a pencil and jotted them down. I could not help smiling at the document when I had completed it. It ran in this way—


–Knowledge of Literature.—Nil.
–Botany.—Variable.  Well up in belladonna,
                    opium, and poisons generally.
                   Knows nothing of practical gardening.
–Geology.—Practical, but limited.
                               Tells at a glance different soils
                               from each other.  After walks has
                               shown me splashes upon his trousers,
                               and told me by their colour and
                               consistence in what part of London
                               he had received them.
–Anatomy.—Accurate, but unsystematic.
–Sensational Literature.—Immense.  He appears
                           to know every detail of every horror
                              perpetrated in the century.
–Plays the violin well.
–Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.
–Has a good practical knowledge of British law.

When I had got so far in my list I threw it into the fire in despair. “If I can only find what the fellow is driving at by reconciling all these accomplishments, and discovering a calling which needs them all,” I said to myself, “I may as well give up the attempt at once.”

Here’s the information provided an outsider from my parents’ collection:

Above all, there’s a lot of literature.  Before the merger, there were 35 shelves filled with French literature and literary criticism, 16 with children’s literature, 20 with classic fiction, 12 with poetry (many of the books inscribed), 10 with drama, two with creative non-fiction, five with genre fiction, six with art books and cartoons, seven with nature and bird books, and multiple shelves with books about Word War II, Paris, colleges, religion, myth, science, political protest, feminism, LBGTQ rights, and travel. There were also shelves and shelves of literary magazines and scholarly publications. In addition, many of the books were filled with decades-old letters, reviews, articles, and notes.

Making the sorting process difficult was the way that books often overflowed boundaries. My mother’s collection of fiction had been invaded by a number of my father’s science books. The poetry was so prolific that it pushed into corners one could barely reach even from a ladder. (Applegate and Auden were barely reachable.) I found myself wondering whether my father ever threw a book away, especially when I encountered old political pamphlets and atlases that only had 48 states.

Watson never figures out that Homes is a detective. My father, I can report, was

–a French professor, dedicated teacher, and world-class scholar;
–a prolific poet specializing in light verse;
–an enthusiastic painter (his paintings involved plywood and lots of nails although he also incorporated marbles, bolts, hinges, and other hardware into his work);
–an ardent birdwatcher;
–a World War II veteran;
–a passionate advocate for social justice;
–an atheist who loved arguing with religious people.

And what about all the children’s books? My father held on to a child’s sense of play to the very end. Given that he had witnessed horrors in World War II, including Dachau, I think he used these books to hold onto a child’s sense of innocence. His four sons were important to him in that project.

In short, my father was a Renaissance man who threw himself into intellectual and artistic pursuits while finding nourishment from nature. No wonder, then, that I spent so much of my life frustrated that I couldn’t step into his shoes. Not until I reached my thirties did I learn that my own shoes were perfectly fine.

Our challenge has been to turn the collection into a working library rather than maintaining it as a museum. We’ve made strides in that direction but, not wanting to erase my father altogether, have also set aside shelves to hold all of his publications. This has meant salvaging the journals and anthologies that hold his poetry (including an old tattered New Yorker) but throwing all the other journals away.

The culling hasn’t been as traumatic as purging my father’s research notes, which I did last December and which I’ve compared to act of parricide. Nevertheless, it has worn me out.

In addition to the books on the shelves, there are boxes and boxes of my father’s own poetry books, which I will be advertising here in the upcoming weeks. For the price of postage, you will be able to get Lupo’s Fables, Merry Green Peace, The ABC of Radical Ecology, Songs for the Queen of the Animals, ZYX of Political Sex, and other works. Stay tuned for details.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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