Tuesday, August 25, 2009

“the height of the shelves”

Alberto Manguel remembers his “father’s largely unused library in Buenos Aires.” The boy Alberto was “always alone in the library, since [his] father used it only on the rare occasions when he had to meet someone at home rather than at his office.” The father “had instructed his secretary to furnish the library, and she had bought books by the yard and sent them to be bound to the height of the shelves, so that the titles at the page-tops were in many cases trimmed, and sometimes even the first lines were missing.”

In his History of Reading Manguel later quotes Seneca on this sort of thing. Seneca scorned the man “’who gets his pleasure from the bindings and labels’ and in whose illiterate household ‘you can see the complete works of orators and historians on shelves up to the ceiling, because, like bathrooms, a library has become an essential ornament of a rich house.’”

I confess I try to read the titles of the books on the shelves in a stage play. I look over the books propped in bookcases in uninhabited houses (the house being up for sale, handsome furnishing having briefly been imported to suggest a lifestyle).

source: A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel

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