Unread Books

IMG_3608“The copy of a book that is on my shelf is my copy. It is unlike any other copy, it has been individuated; and even those books that I have not yet opened—unread books are an essential element of a library—were acquired for the further cultivation of a particular admixture of interests and beliefs, and every one of them will have its hour.”

Leon Wieseltier, “Voluminous,” The New Republic (February 2012)

When my daughter Lili turned five, her well-intentioned godmother, Penelope, began the tradition of sending her Folio Society books for birthdays and Christmas. Lili is in her freshman year of college, and the beautiful (and expensive) library remains at home. There are over fifty books, with fiction that includes such classics as Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.

My daughter has not read a single one of the gorgeously bound books.  Penelope knows this.

“Elizabeth, just tell me the truth,” Penelope said to me recently. “I will stop sending the books if Lili isn’t reading them.”

“Penelope, Lili will have the books in her home and she’ll read them, and her children will read them,” I offer.

A love of books cannot be mandated by others. Lili has not taken ownership of the books because they are not hers. She and the books have no shared history, the way my books and I have.

Take Joan Didion. I discovered Slouching Toward Bethlehem in 1976 when I was a high-school English teacher. I have the first-edition book purchased at a bookstore in Philadelphia and sometimes look at the notes in the margins and wonder who I was back then, barely older than my students. The cover is missing, but not lost; it is framed on a wall in my study along with other covers of books by Saul Bellow, Ian McEwen, Graham Greene, Doris Lessing, Grace Paley, Philip Roth.

“Elizabeth,” friends ask, “aren’t you destroying the value of the books?”

“I don’t plan to sell them,” I respond. “They’re mine.”

Perhaps my daughter will read the Folio Society books one day, as I told Penelope she would. Or maybe she won’t.

“The knowledge that qualifies one to be one’s own librarian is partly self-knowledge. The richness, or the incoherence, of a library is the richness, or the incoherence, of the self,” is the way Leon Wieseltier describes the process of building a library of one’s own.

As she learns more about herself, I am certain that Lili will become her “own librarian” with her own wall of books.


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