Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The working library

with one comment

Umberto Eco in his library

A…shock of banality occurs to many people in my condition—that is, people who possess a fairly sizable library (large enough in my case that someone entering our house can’t help but notice it; actually, it takes up the whole place). The visitor enters and says, “What a lot of books! Have you read them all?” At first I thought that the question characterized only people who had scant familiarity with books, people accustomed to seeing a couple of shelves with five paperback mysteries and a children’s encyclopedia, bought in installments. But experience has taught me that the same words can be uttered also by people above suspicion. It could be said that they are still people who consider a bookshelf as a mere storage place for already-read books and do not think of the library as a working tool. But there is more to it than that. I believe that, confronted by a vast array of books, anyone will be seized by the anguish of learning and will inevitably lapse into asking the question that expresses his torment and his remorse…

But the question about your books has to be answered, while your jaw stiffens and rivulets of cold sweat trickle down your spine. In the past I adopted a tone of contemptuous sarcasm. “I haven’t read any of them; otherwise, why would I keep them here?” But this is a dangerous answer because it invites the obvious follow-up: “And where do you put them after you’ve read them?” The best answer is the one always used by Roberto Leydi: “And more, dear sir, many more,” which freezes the adversary and plunges him into a state of awed admiration. But I find it merciless and angst-generating. Now I have fallen back on the riposte: “No, these are the ones I have to read by the end of the month. I keep the others in my office,” a reply that on the one hand suggests a sublime ergonomic strategy, and on the other leads the visitor to hasten the moment of his departure.

Umberto Eco, How to Travel with a Salmon

Written by nevalalee

February 20, 2016 at 7:00 am

One Response

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  1. Or surely burst out laughing!

    nmykel

    February 21, 2016 at 10:32 pm


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