The Books: Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, ‘The P.M.’s Empire of Books’, by Anne Fadiman

On the essays shelf:

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, by Anne Fadiman

What a strangely moving and illuminating essay. It’s really about how to organize your book collection, in a way that does not overwhelm your environs – this is naturally a topic I have a lot of interest in, since I generally live in small apartments and have (I have not counted) about 3,000 books. What to do, what to do. I am not a hoarder by nature. I like organization. I need my ducks in a row. I am not the neatest person on the planet, I can deal with a fair amount of clutter – but my books are always organized. I can, just like my father did, reach up onto any given shelf and pull down exactly the book I was looking for, for a quote, a reference, an idea, and it takes me no time at all to find said book. This is the whole POINT of having a proper library. The other day, right before I went to see Lincoln, I thought, “Lemme just read The Gettysburg Address again, to prepare.” Of course I could just look it up online, but that is no fun at all, and not at all the person I am. So I went to the top shelf of my barrister bookcase (one of the only pieces of furniture, besides my bed, that I treasure), where I have all of my Library of America volumes. My father used to give all of us an LOA volume for Christmas. I have Eudora Welty, Willa Cather, Eugene O’Neill. Then, on my own, I went and bought all the Founding Fathers volumes I need. Not want. Need. (You can see the LOA shelf here in this post.) I need to be able to look up a certain letter of George Washington’s at a moment’s notice. Not even an option to not have that stuff at my fingertips. So I pulled out my Lincoln LOA, found the Gettysburg Address, and read it. Filled with pleasure – not just at his words (and there are so few of them, it always surprises me how short the Gettysburg Address is), but at my own awesomeness at having it available when I want it. This is why I have a library, not just a bunch of books, and this is why I devote a good amount of time to organization. This is an ongoing process, by the way. Recently, I went through the biggest purge I’ve been through in years. This was in August/September. I donated four bags of clothing/shoes to a local Goodwill. I donated seven boxes of books to a local second-hand shop. (It’s a hippie-dippie place that hosts drum circles, and I like them very much, but it does amuse me to drop off all of my right-wing-ish war books there.) Seven boxes donated! I guess I suddenly felt like there was a lot of dead weight in my library, books I will never read again, books I didn’t even really care for, but they had traveled with me from apartment to apartment through the years, and I didn’t question the book’s presence on my shelves. Once the purge began, it was hard to stop. I already regret one thing. I have no idea why I donated Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, a book I have been dying to read, and actually got the hankering to start it a couple weeks ago. I have owned it ever since it came out, and I guess it was a casualty of my ruthless mindset during the purge: “Haven’t read it yet? THROW IT OUT.” But for the most part, I am very happy with how much I donated, mainly because it created so much space that I can fill up again. With books.

If you’re like me, then you understand. If books don’t mean to you what they clearly mean to me, all of this will sound a bit nuts. I’m okay with that. I grew up in a house filled with books. Books were everywhere, nicely organized and displayed, but everywhere. All of my siblings are the same way. Tooooo many books.

Fadiman’s essay opens with a description of a slim 29-page book called On Books and the Housing of Them. She found it in a secondhand bookstore, and has always been drawn to books about books. Because it is only 29 pages long, it keeps getting lost on her shelves. She never gave it much thought. It was by a gentleman named “Gladstone”. Fadiman thought to herself, “Surely it couldn’t be THAT Gladstone …” But it was. William Gladstone, four times Prime Minister of England, was not just a book collector. He was an obsessive, he had rooms and rooms of books, and spent much time thinking about how to organize them, how to display them – how to optimize your space in order to fill it with the highest number possible of books. Fadiman writes that she believes that this ongoing passion of Gladstone’s (compulsive organizing, compulsive measuring and calculating) saved him from “paralyzing stress”. Perhaps only an obsessive would understand that. It sounds so high maintenance: measuring a room and experimenting with different ways to organize books. But to an obsessive-compulsive, this is a deeply relaxing and necessary activity.

The essay is a humorous review of Gladstone’s 29-page book (a pamphlet, really), and a contemplation on the need us book collectors have to stay on top of things otherwise we will be OVERRUN by books.

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, ‘The P.M.’s Empire of Books’, by Anne Fadiman

The theme of On Books and the Housing of Them was simple: too many books, too little space. The problem, said Gladstone, could be solved by a shelving system that might “prevent the population of Great Britain from being extruded some centuries hence into the surrounding waters by the exorbitant dimensions of their own libraries”. This observation was simultaneously facetious and earnest. Gladstone had a Scotsman’s natural parsimony. His diary, which he began at fifteen and abandoned at eighty-five after he was blinded by cataracts, often detailed his days down to fifteen-minute intervals: it was, in his words, “an account-book of the all-precious gift of Time.” Just as his father, a canny businessman, never squandered a penny, so Gladstone never squandered a minute. James Graham, who served in the cabinet with Gladstone in the 1840s, marveled that he “could do in four hours what it took any other man sixteen to do and … he worked sixteen hours a day.” If he stuffed into a day what would take another man a week, it was only reasonable that he should wish to stuff into a single room enough books to fill another man’s house.

Here was the plan: “First, the shelves must, as a rule, be fixed; secondly, the cases, or a large part of them, should have their side against the wall, and thus, projecting into the room for a convenient distance, they should be of twice the depth needed for a single line of books, and should hold two lines, one facing each way.” This was just a warm-up. It took several thousand more words to fill in the details. Gladstone’s parsimony did not extend to his verbiage. As a parliamentary orator, he was, according to Disraeli, “inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity,” and as a writer, he may be the only man in history to have written a long-winded twenty-nine-page book. The bookshelves that projected at right angles into the library, he declared, “should each have attached to them what I rudely term an endpiece (for want of a better name), that is, a shallow and extremely light adhering bookcase (light by reason of the shortness of the shelves), which both increases the accommodation, and makes one short side as well as the two long ones of the parallelopiped to present simply a face of books with the lines of shelf, like threads, running between the rows.”

One can see why, during at 1884 cabinet meeting, Joseph Chamberlain, the president of the Board of Trade, composed this premature epitaph for the world’s most anal-retentive statesman and handed it across the table to another cabinet member:

Here lies Mr. G., who has left us repining,
While he is, no doubt, still engaged in refining;
And explaining distinctions to Peter and Paul,
Who faintly protest that distinctions so small
Were never submitted to saints to perplex them,
Until the Prime Minister came up to vex them.

Mr. G. calculated that a library twenty by forty feet, with projecting bookcases three feet long, twelve inches deep, and nine feet high (“so that the upper shelf can be reached by the aid of a wooden stool of two steps not more than twenty inches high”), would accommodate between eighteen thousand and twenty thousand volumes. I trust his arithmetic. He had, after all, been Chancellor of the Exchequer. This shelving plan would suffice for the home of an ordinary gentleman, but for cases of extreme book-crowding, he proposed a more radical scheme in which “nearly two-thirds, or say three-fifths, of the whole cubic contents of a properly constructed apartment may be made a nearly solid mass of books.” It was detailed in a footnote so extraordinary it bears quoting nearly in full:

Let us suppose a room 28 feet by 10, and a little over 9 feet high. Divide this longitudinally for a passage 4 feet wide. Let the passage project 12 to 18 inches at each end beyond the line of the wall. Let the passage ends be entirely given to either window or glass door. Twenty-four pairs of trams run across the room. On them are placed 56 bookcases, divided by the passage, reaching to the ceiling, each 3 feet broad, 12 inches deep, and separated from its neighbors by an interval of 2 inches, and set on small wheels, pulleys, or rollers, to work along the trams. Strong handles on the inner side of each bookcase to draw it out into the passage. Each of these bookcases would hold 400 octavos; and a room of 28 feet by 10 would receive 25,000 volumes. A room of 40 feet by 20 (no great size) would receive 60,000.

The system of rolling shelves that Gladstone invented here is used today in the Bodleian Library’s Radcliffe Camera and at The New York Times Book Review, among many other places. Like its author’s life, it contained not a wasted cubic inch.

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16 Responses to The Books: Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, ‘The P.M.’s Empire of Books’, by Anne Fadiman

  1. april says:

    Oh, I’m so happy – this book *finally* arrived, and I can savor the rest of these essays! Thanks, Sheila, for another treasured introduction…

    • sheila says:

      April!! I’m so excited for you!! Please report back. I cherish this volume!

      • april says:

        I’m loving it, Sheila! I knew I would, though… you (and she) had me at the whole concept of marrying libraries as an act of extreme intimacy, and it’s just gotten better from there. I want to meet these people and hang out with them! I can *so* relate to this stuff, having gone through more than one break-up in which the divvying up of books and movies and music was far more tortuous than trivial considerations like what to do with the house.

        One thing that was a bit of a surprise to me is that the collection is so new. I’m not sure what, but something about the passages you’ve quoted and commented on led me to expect that Fadiman was one of those Dorothy Parker types who thrived in the Thirties. What a delight to discover that the spirit of Algonquin lives on in a contemporary (of mine, anyway). Which is, of course, one of the things that keeps bringing me back to *your* writing.

        Thanks for another wonderful find! I’m sure I’ll have more to say later on, but right now I’ve got work to do on a sonnet… :)

        • sheila says:

          // in which the divvying up of books and movies and music was far more tortuous than trivial considerations like what to do with the house.//

          hahahaha I know. I mean, it’s not funny – it’s horrible – but yes, she totally nails what that feels like!

          Yes, she’s a contemporary! How interesting that you thought she was from an earlier time! She certainly is more openly erudite than a lot of writers writing now – and many of her references are really obscure (I love how she has a list of books about books at the end of the book!) She’s had a very interesting career. I hope she writes more – she has a second collection of essays called At Large and At Small, which I own but haven’t read.

          So glad you are enjoying!!

          Happy holidays!

      • april says:

        Happy holidays to you, too, Sheila… hope things are starting to brighten up for you as your trip to Memphis gets closer.

        Although I’ve tried to pace myself, this book is just too much fun! The piece tracing the provenance of familiar phrases and passages that were originally plagiarized from other sources literally had me laughing out loud, as did “True Womanhood.” And the one about “You Are There” reading… well, let’s just say you now know someone who once made a side trip to stand on a corner in Winslow, Arizona.

        I’m sure I’ll come back to this one again and again. In the meantime, I’ve already ordered the other volume.

        • april says:

          “Originally plagiarized…” So much for my feeble stab at erudition. hahaha

          • sheila says:

            hahahahaha I didn’t even notice that in your first comment.

            Isn’t she so funny?? Yes, True Womanhood is hilarious. I love the one about proofreading, too – I am like that. I cannot NOT see errors in menus, billboards, etc. I have a friend who, if he sees a spelling error in a billboard or an advertisement, sends a polite letter to the company informing them of the misplaced apostrophe or “I am so sorry to let you know that ‘holiday’ only has one ‘l’.”

            // let’s just say you now know someone who once made a side trip to stand on a corner in Winslow, Arizona. //


  2. Dan says:

    // My father used to give all of us an LOA volume for Christmas.//

    Totally stealing this idea when my kids get older.

  3. Helena says:

    I only got as far as you donating Wolf Hall to a charity shop before reading it – for goodness sake, go back to the shop and get it back!!

    • sheila says:

      Helena – haha I know! My only defense is that once I started clearing my shelves, I went into a fugue state and I really didn’t think a couple of these things through, Wolf Hall being one of them.

      I’ve already bought another copy (I’m a moron)!! I’m busy reading 11/22/63 right now – but Wolf Hall will be my first novel of 2013 and I can’t wait.

      So you’ve read it, obviously??

  4. Sarah says:

    I’ve been enjoying revisiting Ex Libris via your posts Sheila, so thank you. I can feel a re-read coming on.

    I don’t know if you’re aware you can stay at Gladstone’s Library? Someday…

  5. Dan says:

    …adding Gladstone’s to the wish list of libraries I’d love to work at some day…

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