My Many Libraries

One of the best books I’ve read in the past few years is Alberto Manguel’s “The Library at Night”. Manguel writes about the idea of a library from many different angles, arcing from historical to personal and back again: the library as myth, order, space, power, shadow, shape, chance, workshop, mind, island, survival, oblivion, imagination, identity, and home.

I’d like to explore my personal conceptions of a library, starting with the many branches of my own fragmented shelves, digital collections, antilibrary, and beyond.

For me, a library is not a single, central repository, but an array of resources, like overlapping mathematical sets.

I have many libraries:

My personal collection of books, that I keep on several shelves in my apartment. A modest collection, though one I’m proud of, and continually growing as space and budget affords — a few hundred books at present.

The satellite extension of this library, in books left behind at my parents’ homes in Seattle, thousands of miles away. These are largely books of childhood, ones I’ve read already, ones that contain memories. Now that my mom is moving, these include boxes of books in transit, to be forgotten for months until they arrive on this side of the country for unboxing.

Closely related: my parents’ own libraries, which feel partly mine by proxy. Particularly my dad’s books, which has always felt an interminable collection, now intermingled with my stepmom Ana’s books as well. These exist in a space in my awareness somewhere between my own collection, close at hand, and the further-abstracted shelves of public libraries.

On recent visits home, I’ve started to take out long term loans, borrowing a few books for an indeterminate period, making a ritual of selecting a couple dozen from dad’s shelves and looking up reviews and choosing a handful to sneak into my own shelves. Sometimes I’ll make a pile of books to fit a small flat-rate box — ones found in the basement, or bought at used bookstores in Seattle — and leave it for my mom to send me at some point in the indeterminate future. My library parceled out, in waiting.

Beyond this personal bibliosphere — which is now slowly becoming entangled with that of my girlfriend, as I buy her books I also wish to read, borrow ones from her shelves, or thrust must-reads at her, abandoning my favorites to her care — there are other ways I find books. And beyond books, too, there are other resources I treat as treasured stock of my personal library.

There are branches of the Brooklyn Public Library within walking distance of my apartment, but I don’t go there often. I think it’s partly that I prefer ownership and constant access, and partly that I prefer the atmosphere of bookstores (or the ease and infinitude of online browsing) to the utilitarian local library layout.

I much prefer exploring local bookstores in great cities (New York, Seattle — I’ve long been fortunate to live in meccas of literacy), where I can browse recommended titles, nicely curated displays, and serendipitous shelves. A great used bookstore is the best place to explore and to get lost, at once cabinet of curiosities and time machine; if I’m lucky I’ll hold myself to just a few purchases but exit with dozens of titles jotted down on my phone, to look up later.

Then, of course, there’s the Internet. Why stop at physical books when it comes to material for reading and learning? For finding, buying, sourcing, reading — in the digital world I favor no one particular approach.

I’m an Amazon adept; I much enjoy curating lists of the books I most covet, and occasionally, maybe once a month, buying a few to add to my collection. Besides the ease of actual purchase, the great thing about Amazon is that its breadth ensures I’ll be able to find almost anything there — if I come across a book that sounds interesting, I can look it up and add it to my wish list; likewise I’ve found many an interesting book simply through recommendations and links from other sites.

The Amazon wishlist is a key part of how I maintain my antilibrary — adding the books I most want to read, learning about them from afar, digital dog-ears for someday. Did you know Amazon limits any individual wish list to 2,500 items? Don’t ask me how I discovered this…but perhaps I should move my lists over to Goodreads. Speaking of: Goodreads has become very useful for tracking the books I do get around to reading each year, indispensable for maintaining a broad overview of my reading history.

I count, too, among the expanses of my library the many digital books I’ve downloaded and organized on my computer (crudely folderized; largely PDFs) and the ones I’ve bought for Kindle (mainly those I don’t envision rereading, or that are available more cheaply in digital form).

Also: books I’ve added via iOS apps, like the defunct but beautiful Readmill — free classics, independent digital books, short stories. And the best of the longform articles I read, queued up for future reading using Pocket, or saved as “favorites” to my Pinboard collection.

The items I really relish, and intend to absorb and remember, I’ll save somewhere in a sea of notes and bookmarks, tagged as best I can in hopes this will aid in future recall — breadcrumbs for future me.

It’s somehow source of both ineffable excitement and vague melancholy to consider the weight of all these libraries, bits and pages heavy with information, no more than abstractions without the renewing life force of our collective sustained attention. This, perhaps, is why my antilibrary is the branch I treasure most of all — my collections of unread books and other information serve as constant reminder of all I’ve yet to read and learn, of just how much I’ll never possibly be able to, and of all the paths I might explore next.