Sunday, September 23, 2007

For the love of books

In the first year of my married life, I visited with my wife, a teacher, the home of one of her students in Los Angeles, California. The youngster had distinguished himself as the most active learner in her fourth grade class. I can't remember what brought us to his home -- an invitation from the parents, I assume -- but there we were, in the neat bungalow of a family of Cuban refugees, the father a professional man, a physician as I recall. The largest room of the house had been fitted out as a library, with shelves on four walls, floor to ceiling. Every shelf was filled with books; I had never seen such an extensive private library. And -- to my astonishment -- every book was covered in brown butcher paper, without a mark of identification. "How do you find anything," I asked. The father grinned. "I know every book," he said. And, as I discovered by pulling a few from the shelves, they were indeed carefully arranged according to the father's idiosyncratic classification scheme.

Today, half-a-century later, my own library equals in size that of the Cuban doctor. I own thousands of books, but they are scattered across three different geographcal locations and more than a dozen rooms. They tumble from jam-packed shelves. They are piled helter-skelter on the floor. They are stuffed into every available nook without rhyme or reason. Ovid cohabits with Einstein; a field guide to the birds puts its cheek against the plays of Ibsen. I can seldom find what I am looking for without searching high and low.

Francis Bacon offered a classification scheme for human knowledge which others subsequently adapted for books. Bacon's major division was twofold: Human Knowledge, derived from the senses, and Theology, derived from revelation. Human Knowledge was further sub-divided into History, Philosophy, and Poesy, corresponding to their sources; History from memory, Philosophy from reason, and Poesy from imagination, . It was a neat little scheme that all by itself might have imposed some order upon my collection of books, had I the discipline to apply it. The shelf for revelation would be empty.

On April 24, 1800, President John Adams signed a bill providing $5000 towards the purchase of books for a congressional library in the nation's new capital of Washington. Seven-hundred-and-forty books were ordered from a London bookseller and these became -- temporarily -- the basis for what is today the largest library in the world, the Library of Congress, with tens of millions of books. In 1814, the British burned the library, along with the fledgling nation's Capitol building. Thomas Jefferson offered the government his own fine collection of 6,487 books -- for the price of $23, 950. With the books, Congress inherited Jefferson's classification scheme, which was based on that of Bacon, as modified by the French encylopedist Jean d'Alembert. By now, however, the tidy trifurcation of Human Knowledge had become 44 "chapters," with a slew of subdivisions. Revelation no longer had a category to itself; Jefferson squeezed (Religion, Chapter 17) between Philosophy (16) and Jurisprudence (18). But Bacon's triad was still at the heart of the system; Jefferson gave fifteen chapters to History, fourteen to Philosophy (including Religion and the Sciences), and fourteen to Poesy (the Fine Arts).

In the 1890s, the Library of Congress was ready to move to a splendid new building, the first of the three main buildings that house the collections today, and it was clear that Jefferson's classification had become sorely inadequate. After lots of fiddling and fussing, the keepers of the collection came up with the present Library of Congress Classification, thumbing their noses at the decimal scheme of Melvil Dewey which had already been adopted by many of the nation's libraries. The LC Classification is used by my college library, as by the majority of university libraries in the United States and Canada.

And so it is that I leave at home the chaos of my own books and haunt instead the stacks of the college library with its staff of professionals to keep things where I can find them. The librarians won't let me out the door without recording my selections, and they remind me at the end of each academic year what books I have failed to return. Not many volumes fall into the latter category, but those that do always require a long search to discover where they have gone, usually to take up illicit housekeeping with books of my own collection.

In my early days at the college we checked out books by signing the card that resided in the pocket at the back of the book. This had the advantage that one could see who else had borrowed a book. Many of those cards from the pre-computer days are still in the pockets, so I am sometimes reminded what books I have previously read and when, and who read them after me. Of course, this means others can know what I have read; lots of highbrow stuff, to be sure, but also such racy additions to the store of human knowledge as the erotica of Anais Nin.

There are several hundred thousand volumes in the college library. In the course of 43 years I have read a goodly number, and glanced at many more. Some books -- such as Proust's Remembrance of Things Past -- I have checked out a dozen times and never read past Swann's Way. Other books I've consulted a hundred times without ever checking out -- Thoreau's journals, for example. Three floors of books, organized by such illustrious connoisseurs of knowledge as Bacon, d'Alembert and Jefferson, all bar-coded now, but still lined up A to Z by an army of nameless classifiers in Washington who somehow manage to decide exactly where among history, philosophy, and poesy each book goes. Search engines are making classification schemes redundant. Mine may be the last generation that defines itself by books, rather than digital data.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.