Ode to the Personal Library

“The room was full of bookshelves, from front to back, from wall to wall.”

I haven’t seen a room like that outside the confines of a library in about a month of Sundays, maybe even longer. It seemed like in another era it was common to have rooms such as the one described by a colleague of mine yesterday. And the house that contained such a room didn’t even have to be a mansion, even though those bastions of civility also had large insular libraries. A regular, standard house in the olden days would have perhaps a converted closet as a book repository, but it was still there. What happened?

This is one thing we cannot blame on technology, or at least not entirely. The personal library began its demise a while before the rise of the internet, or even computers for that matter. During Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s and 1940s, coming out of the Great Depression and leading into the second great war, the United States began to wholly embrace more and more the idea of the public library. It was no secret why, either. Books were expensive to own, and even the rich realized their own monetary vulnerability after the stock market crash.

“It’s that smell of opening up a new book, and cradling its spine carefully, that sparks that fire.”

Federal and state funds began to be pumped into maintaining, increasing, and creating public libraries throughout the country. For the first time, the popular novels of the time were being purchased and advertised by the library system, and people were going in droves to get those books without paying their hard earned money for the privilege. It was the golden age of the public library, a time that many older people look back on wistfully. That flourishing time started to fade by the 1970s with the increasing popularity of the mass-market paperback that was finally cheap enough for the average American to own, and it continued to decline with the rise of the personal computer in the 1980s.

But then came the audiobook, digital reading devices, iPads and other digital tablets, as well as other forms of home entertainment, such as DVDs and surround sound, and the personal library received a further hit. Now, of course, we are in an age where more often than not the personal library is not a room, but is a folder or “bookshelf” on those digital reading devices. Many people who own them brag about being able to fit hundreds of books on one device, those same hundreds of books that would have been physically on those bookshelves in that library that used to be a major bragging right among homeowners.

“To maintain a personal library in the current architecture of the country is to be avant garde.”

So, you can see why this personal library my colleague spoke of arrested my interest so completely. My own personal library has taken a hit just as so many others have as well during this past twenty years. Don’t get me wrong — we have bookshelves — but the books we own are more likely to be in boxes or they’re children’s books now, sitting sweetly in a small corner of those shelves. The rest of the shelving space has been commandeered by DVDs, CDs, and board games. But I haven’t given up.

Books can be found relatively on the cheap these days, by visiting library book sales that hand out books for 10 cents or a quarter. And they’re not horrible books either, but books that were popular a mere year or six months ago. I could outfit my future personal home library with the entire Twilight series for less than a dollar, in hardcover. That’s one way to renew my faith in mankind, or it’s just another nail in the coffin of the personal library as the books I’m getting for fumes have been donated in droves by people who were dismantling theirs.

Soon, we’re going to build a new place, in five or seven years. In that new home I will have a private study, the walls of which will be lined with bookshelves filled with books. Books old and new, books large and small. Lots and lots of books will finally commingle with each other in the spirit of brotherhood, and none will be left out in the cold. Maybe it will be one pebble tossed into the pond of disinterest that can spark the interest of others. Then I will be the one talking about my room “full of bookshelves, from front to back, from wall to wall.

And I just might invite you, if you’re lucky.

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