A Wall of Windows
In an essay in The New Republic, “Voluminous” (February 2012), Leon Wieseltier reflects on the meaning of books and a personal library. He writes, “A wall of books is a wall of windows … a library has a personality, a temperament… Many books are read but some books are lived, so that words and ideas lose their ethereality and become experiences, turning points in an insufficiently clarified existence, and thereby acquire the almost mystical (but also fallible) intimacy of memory. In this sense one’s books are one’s biography.”
When my daughter Lili turned five, her well-intentioned godmother, Penelope, began the tradition of sending her books from the Folio Society for birthdays and Christmas. Lili has just begun her freshman year at the Park School of Communications at Ithaca College, and the beautiful (and expensive, as Lili’s godmother often points out) books remain at home. There are over fifty, with fiction ranging from Jane Austen to Ernest Hemingway to T.H. White and Tom Wolfe. W. H. Auden, my favorite poet, is there. Penelope got it right in her selections, the best of the best.
My daughter has not read a single one of the gorgeously bound books and has probably never opened most of them. Penelope knows this.
“Elizabeth, just tell me the truth,” Penelope told me recently. “I will stop sending the books if Lili isn’t reading them. They’re expensive, you know.”
“Penelope, Lili will have the books in her home one day and she’ll read them, and her children will read them,” I offer as a somewhat lame explanation.
I have come to understand that a love of books cannot be mandated by others; it comes from within. Lili has not taken ownership of the Folio Society books because they are not truly hers. She and the books have no shared history, the way my books and I have.
Take Joan Didion. I discovered her in the late 1970s when I was a high-school English teacher and taught Slouching Toward Bethlehem. I have the hardcover first-edition book in my library and remember buying it at a bookstore on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. There are notes in the margin – mine — from thirty years ago. I sometimes look at my notes and wonder who I was back then, barely older than my students. The cover is missing, but not lost; it is framed on a wall in my study along with other covers of my first edition books – Saul Bellow, Ian McEwen, Graham Greene, Doris Lessing, Grace Paley, Philip Roth.
"Liz,” friends ask, “aren’t you destroying the value of these books by taking the covers off?”
“I don’t plan to sell them,” I respond. “They’re mine, forever and ever.”
Leon Wieseltier explains this sentiment beautifully: “But the copy of a book that is on my shelf is my copy. It is unlike any other copy, it has been individuated; and even those books that I have not yet opened—unread books are an essential element of a library—were acquired for the further cultivation of a particular admixture of interests and beliefs, and every one of them will have its hour.”
Most of the books in my library are so old that they are from bookstores, mostly in Philadelphia and in New York City, where I’ve lived for thirty years. I bought many from a street bookseller on the Upper West Side, blessedly still there. Over the past decade, though, I have turned to Amazon and Powells and other online sellers. It’s amazing how easy it is to acquire the exact book you are seeking. Yet I look at my first edition of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair and recall the second-hand bookstore on Broadway with ladders you could climb to get the book you longed for, a dangerous undertaking but worth the risk.
That bookstore is long gone. So is the huge Barnes and Noble across from Lincoln Center, replaced by a Century 21 discount clothing store. Lili is distraught over this change, having spent many hours at Barnes and Noble with her late father and me.
“Mom,” she said, “how can they do this? They’ve taken away part of my childhood!”
“I know how you feel,” I told her. “But you’ve still got all the books you and your dad bought there. Open up one of the Max the Dog books and you’ll see the pages with ice cream on them. You and he would read together in bed.”
Perhaps my daughter will read the Folio Society books one day, as I told Penelope she surely would. Or maybe she won’t. To me the books are beautiful to look at but meaningless, slightly unreal. They are hardly a wall of windows into Lili’s very being.
“The knowledge that qualifies one to be one’s own librarian is partly self-knowledge. The richness, or the incoherence, of a library is the richness, or the incoherence, of the self,” is the way Leon Wieseltier describes the process of building a library of one’s own.
As she learns more about herself at Ithaca College and beyond, I am certain that my only child, my beautiful Lili, will become her “own librarian” with her own wall of windows.
Elizabeth Titus is a writer who has recently returned to the Upper West Side of Manhattan after a decade of exile in Connecticut. She is studying at the Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute and has published in Weston Magazine Group, Msmagazine.com, MORE.com, Mr. Beller's Neighborhood, and Skidmore Scope. She will soon appear in Narrative Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Feathered Flounder.