Ex Libris

Opinions - August 7th, 2009

by Ian de Stains OBE

I think it was Groucho Marx who said that outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend; inside of a dog, he cautioned, it’s too dark to read. I think I know what he means.

Books have always been an important part of my life. When I was a child, money was sparse, but there were always books. From as far back as I can remember, they were a tremendous influence on me. My parents had to hide from me a certain Rupert the Bear Annual because it contained an illustration of an abused donkey that rendered me distraught every time I turned the page. And I can think of countless occasions when the influence was infinitely more positive.

Books were what took up most of the space when I moved from place to place throughout my peripatetic student years and the early days of my career, and now—when I suppose I’m finally settled—they line the walls of all the rooms in the house (the smallest room included). They are not particularly well-ordered—though the section on theater and that on political autobiography are fairly self-contained—but I can usually put my hand on a given title without too much difficulty. Books do—or in any event—can make a room. The sitting room is home to shelves of books as diverse as can be, but all are beautifully bound in the Folio tradition and add color and warmth, not to say interest. A favorite is a beautifully bound facsimile edition of Shakespeare’s first folio of complete works.

When I visit other people’s homes where books are displayed, I delight in checking out the titles and genres on the shelves, sure that I’ll get a handle on the occupant’s interests and personality. But what, I wonder, does the visitor to our home make of the mish-mash of philosophy and economics, Buddhism and marketing, cuisine and theater, history and New Age thought? Do they take me to be ‘widely read’ or as a mere dilettante? No matter: I have read—and often re-read—all of the books in my library and I know it will continue to grow even as I understand there is precious little room for it to do so. But with the exception of paperbacks, I find it impossible to throw books away (and even then I tend to pass them on to others rather than trash them).

The younger members of my family tell me that the time has come for me to go digital. But I do not think it is a purely generational thing that makes me balk at giving up my beloved volumes in favor of a Kindle or Sony Reader, neither of which could possibly enhance a room. The thought occurs that with their back-lighting, they might address Mr. Marx’s caution. On the whole, though, I’d prefer to stick with my best friend.