What do your books say about you?
The critic John Sutherland once observed that private book collections can become for their assemblers “intimate parts of themselves.” As an example, he cited John Keats’s arrangements for the posthumous distribution of his books as he prepared for his ill-fated voyage to Italy. Sutherland characterized the plan as a “quasi-sacramental bequest”: The poet wished to issue parts of himself with the volumes of his beloved little library. Sutherland’s insight helps to explain how books become a mode of transaction, signifiers on which layers of interpersonal meaning are piled. This quality is usually overlooked by prophets of the codex’s imminent demise, and even by most ardent defenders of the physical book.
The book’s ability to acquire relational meanings was brought home to me late last year with the death of a friend, the poet and Renaissance scholar Brett Foster. Brett suffered, quite happily, from what Nicholas Basbanes has taught us to call “a gentle madness”: bibliomania. In his bibliophilic memoir Phantoms on the Bookshelves, Jacques Bonnet helpfully differentiates between two “principle categories” of bibliomaniac: the collector and the manic reader. The former collects for collecting’s sake, usually according to some category or field, such as incunabula, illustrated editions of Pilgrim’s Progress, or, to cite a more eccentric example offered by Bonnet, books by writers whose surnames begin with B.
For the latter sort, accumulation is never an aim in itself; it is incidental, arising from “the itch to read and a wide-ranging curiosity.” So they acquire. Manic readers, Bonnet argues, suffer acutely from a malady of memory in which books soak up “past emotions,” as well as its forward-looking counterpart, the expectation that new emotions and insights await in books unread.
As the novelist William Giraldi, an exemplary manic reader, writes, “Your personal library…is the promise of betterment and pleasure to come, a giddy anticipation, a reminder of the joyous work left to do, a prompt for those places to which your intellect and imagination want to roam.” So manic readers cannot bear to release what they’ve caught. While the collector, Bonnet observes, “frets obsessively about the books he does not yet possess, the fanatical reader worries about no longer owning those books” in which are lodged “traces of his past or hopes for the future.”
Which type was Brett? His bookshelves were a dead giveaway: yellowing paperback classics (often in clumps of the same title), ex-library hardcovers, and the forgotten issue of university presses congregated according to impossible geometries of vertical, horizontal, and diagonal heaps. In his office at work, despite shelving on all surfaces save the window and door, books were stacked two, sometimes three, deep. On the floor, serpentine piles of books propped against the bookcases had the appearance of stacks of dominoes arrested mid-tumble. Books took up residence atop of his desk, made do with drawers, and slumbered underneath. There was little in this multitude to tempt the collector, unless one happened to be obsessed with softcover copies of The Faerie Queene.
His dual professions of Renaissance scholar and poet sent Brett reading—and authorized his spending—in countless directions simultaneously. To read the humanists well, he made, and kept making, a thorough review of their classical forebears. To read contemporary poetry well, he gathered up, and kept gathering, midcentury and Modernist influences. But then the Modernists were tussling with Victorian poetics, and the Victorians working out the fate of Romanticism, and the Romantics critiquing Augustan standards, and so on.
Brett mined his reading for insights and bons mots, recording his discoveries according to a bespoke system of underlining, circlets (often in clusters), dashes, checkmarks (up to three, depending on his excitement at what he’d found), exclamation and question marks (sometimes circled for further emphasis), and ejaculations like “YEAH!” and “or not!?” He pored over—and, in the process, poured himself into—his books. One can see in his annotations not only the reader’s search for wisdom and delight, but also the writer’s probe for openings and opportunities. His reading inspired new poems, new essays, new critical pieces, and these initiatives necessitated new acquisitions. A feedback loop arose: New books unleashed new projects, and new projects demanded new books, on and on, as if there were shelving without end.
By delicately coaxing a book from its nest or mound, visitors gave Brett a chance to share its history, which was, of course, another way of sharing his. Readers of Walter Benjamin’s famous essay on book collecting, “Unpacking My Library” (1931), will recall the author’s description of the memories of old haunts and book-hunting grounds (such as “Süssengut’s musty cellar”) that “crowd in upon you” when one renews a book’s acquaintance. So it was for Brett: He relished the remembrance of the used-book stores and library sales where he made his great “finds” (always a deal)—whether in his native Missouri or one of the cities of his twenties, Boston, Palo Alto, New Haven, or one of countless Half-Price Books franchises nationwide. If the source didn’t instantly come to mind, one needed only to give the book a gentle shake, and out fell some memento—a faded receipt, a bookmark bearing the store’s name, or some scribbling on stray paper or a napkin—that would jog his memory.
Unlike Benjamin’s largely solitary account, though, Brett’s stories always featured multiple characters. He preferred hunting parties to solo shopping (though, if forced by cruel circumstance, he would go it alone rather than be denied his prey). “Oh!” he would cry with childlike delight, “I got that one the time my friend [insert one of perhaps a hundred different names] from [insert one of a hundred of locations across North America and Europe] and I went to the Book Barn [or some other dilapidated-sounding shop] in [insert locale somewhere in the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Italy—you get my point].” His books registered all of his adult life’s adventures, foreign and domestic, and he gloated over them like a globetrotter over the stamps in her passport. Still more importantly, they recorded the history of his closest connections at home and on the road. He had done love and friendship by the book. To the untrained eye, his library may have seemed a pedant’s lair. But that anarchic architecture was for Brett, and for those whom he taught how to read it, a memory palace.
On the question of what’s to become of a library after its owner’s demise, perhaps we can say that English literary history is of two wills. The first is exemplified by the seventeenth-century diarist and bibliophile Samuel Pepys. In its day, Pepys’s three-thousand-volume library was remarkable for not only its scale but its catholicity, comprising medieval manuscripts, English incunabula, naval records, ballads, maps, and calligraphy. Pepys had amassed quite a few of his “curiosities”—as his collector-friend John Evelyn called them—at the auctions of other great libraries of the age, and was keen, in turn, to spare his own such an end. A few months before his death in 1703, he added a codicil to his will stating his wish that, after the death of his nephew John Jackson “all possible provision should be made for [the library’s] unalterable preservation and perpetual security against the ordinary fate of such collections falling into the hands of an incompetent heir; and thereby being sold, dissipated, or imbezzled [sic].” In keeping with its assembler’s hopes, the “Bibliotheca Pepysiana” (Pepys’s phrase) came to rest at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where it remains today.
For an alternative, we turn again to Keats. About a month before his departure for Italy, Keats wrote a few instructions for the disposal of his property to his friend Charles Brown on a mere “scrap of Paper.” This humble last will and testament was crowned by this single pentameter line (possibly the last verse Keats penned): “My Chest of Books divide among my friends.” It was a fitting last rite for a member of a little society of letters in which friendship and the book were thoroughly entangled.
In the last weeks of Brett’s cancer-shortened life, no codicils or pentameter lines on the library were appended to his will. When the question of its future was gently raised, he was unresponsive. Those closest to him sensed that his very self had become so bound up with his books that it was simply too painful to imagine them without him. The ruling on the library’s doom fell to its inheritor, Brett’s wife, Anise. Preserve its integrity or commission its dispersal? The way of Pepys or of Keats? Her virtue, coupled with her decades-long study of his character, made the books’ purpose now plain: They were to be invested in the gift economy of his wide circle of friends. The books he stashed at home would keep their stations, but the office door would be opened. First, to his colleagues in the English Department. Then, to faculty throughout the college. Next, to students, however recent or ancient. The cavalcade soon included neighbors, co-parishioners, local writers, baristas. All accessories to that magnificent reading life were offered the chance to become material shareholders.
“Now,” Auden wrote in his elegy for Yeats, “he is scattered among a hundred cities / And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections.” Brett loved this poem (as poets generally do), and he appreciated any opportunity to rattle off those lines (if not the whole stanza they inaugurate). With slight revision, they provide us with language to read Brett’s books’ fortunes. For how better to explain what has happened than to say that now Brett is scattered among a hundred libraries? That his affections linger among his familiars in a thousand gifted vessels?