On Having a Good Library
It was once remarked that a good benchmark of success for an undergraduate student, at the end of his four years, is to look at his library and to see how it has grown: not merely in size, but in quality. Part of what the ardent student will find, looking through his library, is a large number of authors of whom he did not know before going to college, but now finds as familiar as old friends. His shelves should not be laden with popular fiction and Lost and Philosophy (which might be a good title if not for the television show), but with good books and better books: classics like The Republic, Plutarch’s Lives, The Divine Comedy, The City of God, The Nicomachean Ethics, The Annals of Tacitus, Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, Eliot’s The Waste Land, and so many, many more. It is also important, and fruitful, to amass a collection of the obscure books – not for the sake of obscurity, but for the sake of fullness. St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae is a masterpiece amongst masterpieces; but one’s collection of his oeuvre, and thus his sapient contribution to the human conversation, is incomplete without his lesser known works, such as On the Unity of the Intellect Against the Averroists or The Division and Method of the Sciences. Nor is the reader given so full an appreciation of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Criseyde without having also experienced Chaucer’s.
Of course, it is one thing to have a cornucopia of good books, and quite another to have read them all. There is perhaps no greater affront to books than to use them as mere decorations; even burning them gives more credence, for a burned book is one of two things: one, read and held in either great contempt or great fear, so much so that someone (mistakenly) thinks the only way to deal with it is fire, or two, not read and prejudicially subjected to the same treatment. Regardless, there is more respect paid to the book by its immolation, in recognizing it as something that inherently attempts entrance into the intersubjective realm of thought and discourse, than by it being turned into an idle and vain piece of decoration. Nevertheless there is nothing inherently wrong with an outwardly attractive book (so long as the content is equally meritorious to the covering). On the contrary, Catholic Treasures’ Douay-Rheims translation of the Holy Bible, complete with the Reverend Haydock’s notes, is a most fittingly beautiful volume; the Harvard Classics series of books, though often of inferior translation, are eye-catching and largely worth reading. Even the cloth-bound Loeb Library, which has the original Latin or Greek of great works on one side and a passable English translation on the other, is a pleasant site for the eyes, and a magnificent tool for those aspiring to the classical languages. There is nothing wrong at all with deriving pleasure from both the inside and the outside of your books; but be wary of confusing the primacy of merit!
Thus, one’s library should never grow too quickly. It is terribly hard to read a good book in a short span of time; at least, to read it as it ought to be read, with care and diligence. Mortimer J. Adler, a 20th century man of genius, editor-in-chief of The Great Books of the Western World a publication of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and co-author with Charles Van Doren of How to Read a Book (among many others), once said that he never reads a great book faster than 20 pages an hour, and never without paper and pencil to hand. It is a difficult thing in theory and in mental preparation, to restrict oneself to reading so slowly, for there are so many great, important works that an intellectually alacritous mind desires to read. Yet once having discerned the fruits to such a slow and careful endeavor, once the distinction is drawn between reading a book casually and reading a book intelligently, critically, one can only feel somewhat sickly if he tries to read a great book without due diligence.
To summarize, one’s library should grow much at the same pace as one’s body; and as the latter slows down its growth, so should the former begin to increase as the mind – which, unlike the body, knows no limits – becomes ready for the knowledge that a good library may impart. Read good books, and read them slowly; and while you will inevitably, from time to time, read books that are not so good, with which there is nothing wrong so long as it is a diversion to allow the mind to rest, be sure to reflect on whatever you read, to weigh it against all the works of the Western tradition, and to put it in its proper place. In other words, Stephen King is poor company for Dante Alighieri on your shelf.