A Reflection on Selecting Books
I have written previously (Acquisitions) that as a proprietary operation, the CeptsForm Library builds its collection through intellectual interests constrained by opportunity. All libraries reflect the public (or publics) they serve. The major types of libraries are those that have larger publics – school, public, academic, and specialized – each situated under some parent body to which they are responsible. Private libraries are the outsiders that typically serve distinct persons with less formality than those libraries with wider publics.
CeptsForm Library is personal since it focuses on me in particular and is formalized to some extent because I am a librarian by profession and practice and because I favor learning by reading. Having a working library and being deliberate about it suits my personality and supports my major interests. These interests emanate from learning, thinking, and writing in ways that fixate on what I want to know since my questions are a vacuum that my nature abhors. Finally, I want to utilize what I know.
On Saturday, 29 March 2014, I went to the book sale held by the Friends of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries as I had in the September before and a year before that. Saturday sales are a madhouse because of their clearance nature and rock-bottom prices at $4.00 per bag. I brought two box-bottom cloth bags so that I could fill one and then divide the load after purchase and distribute the weight between two hands. As it turned out, our grandson – a UW senior in English and History – came along and I gave him one bag for his purchases.
Benjamin headed for literature while I honed in on philosophy and religion. Afterwards I pawed through the social sciences table. Relatively few books remained after sales since the middle of the week, about 90-100 titles on each table. Though I am very fussy about what I buy, I still walked away with 16 books for the $4.00 – 25 cents apiece. When I got home and could check what I had bought against my collection, I found that I had picked 4 titles (25% of my selections) that I already owned. The whole experience led me to think again about the motivations and constraints that drive book buying in the face of the rewards and failures that result from book selection.
Formally organized libraries have selection policies intended to guide their purchases in anticipation of meeting user interests and needs. Typically they are on the alert for new resources that are most likely to be of immediate use. (Atypical are the largest libraries – the Library of Congress, Harvard, the University of Illinois, etcetera – that collect for future possible or likely use.) My interests are also immediate, given my lifespan, and I do care about what is new where newness is appropriate, but most of my interests are reflective of long-term cultural, intellectual and artistic pursuits. I join C.S. Lewis in appreciation of old books because their perspectives are often illuminating when pursuing the human story.
Therefore, when consciously formal about my own library selection practice, I consider the following aims and conditions.
1. The size of our house limits the maximum size of the collection. I estimate having approximately 6,000 titles. Whatever the number, additions necessarily require as many volumes withdrawn.
2. Though my interests are wide, I have learned that you can buy the “best books in the world” for very little money as long as you are happy with classics and other older and immediately less popular titles. All selection takes is patience and willingness to frequent those discount places that deliver on the tedium of examining their offerings. Some thrifts are in such disarray, I want to organize their shelves. Instead I speed along or go someplace more orderly.
3. My intentions are to learn as broadly and deeply as my life allows. I want to achieve a self-correcting perspective, discover our past, understand issues, work for equality, think more deeply and write more effectively.
4. Not all books acquired can be read entire during a lifetime, but they can be useful for reference. Usefulness enhances when books are specific, especially if they have indexes or at least revealing tables of contents. Alas, many books are poorly indexed or not at all.
5. Books fulfill the reference function best when easily located in an established classified system that one can comprehend in enough depth to facilitate retrieval. I have used the Library of Congress classification for my books since I was a college student, even before I became a librarian.
In my latest selection experience, I acquired the 16 books in a little over half an hour. I expedited my selections by quicker decisions than in the previous year. Two factors changed me: recognition of the competitive atmosphere for the low price books and appreciation of the opportunity to trade duplicated books at used book stores for credit.
Here are the happy results, briefly described in their call number order.
B755.H8: Isaac Husik, A history of mediaeval Jewish philosophy (1958; 1st published 1916). Philosophy is one of my major interests. Except for a few individuals, most histories do not cover Jewish and other non-Western philosophers at all well. Husik, a pioneer in this field, makes up for the lack.
BD221.H37: James F. Harris, Against relativism: a philosophical defense of method (1992). How we know what we know and with what level of certainty remain constant, central questions in philosophy. I tend towards informed certainty in my desire to lead a rational life.
BJ1025.D53: John Dewey, Theory of the moral life (1960; redacted from Ethics, rev. ed. Part II (1932). I have yet to understand Dewey’s influence in American philosophy, education, culture, and government. He seems controversial: I have too few of his books to learn why.
BL50.T69: Arnold Toynbee, An historian’s approach to religion (1956; from the Gifford Lectures in 1952 & 1953). Toybee, facing off Spengler, were all the rage when I was young and moving towards becoming a historian. I have some of his other books of historiography. Besides, though I am a rationalist, religion is the largest growing category in my library.
BR85.H574: Paul L. Holmer, The grammar of faith (1978). If “godtalk” is to be qualitative, meaningful, and pertinent – all matters dear to my heart – theology has requirements which Holmer explores.
BR127.E25: Diana L. Eck, Encountering God: a spiritual journey … (1993). Eck is a scholar in the area of the “mannyness” of God and therefore of religious pluralism, an increasing characteristic of urbanism and inclusivity within the United States.
BS1171.2S4: Morris S. Seale, The desert Bible: nomadic tribal culture and Old Testament interpretation (1974). Seale offers theologians a challenge by revealing the character of nomadic life and comparing Hebrew and Arabian parallels in literature. Ancient culture remains a long time interest and supplies my thinking for a series of imaginative novels.
BS1235.2.W453: Claus Westermann, Genesis: an introduction (Scullion, 1992). Likely the most technical of the books I bought, but a storehouse of examination on the scholarship concerning this Old Testament book. I have other titles discoursing on Genesis: none are this comprehensive, yet they all concern matters that remain under constant discussion.
BT1390.W33: Benjamin Walker, Gnosticism: its history and influences (1993). The Gnostics were philosophical and religious exponents in the early Christian period, ultimately regarded as heretical. Gnosticism has flourished again with the recovery and popular distribution of their ancient texts. I questioned whether to keep this book, doubting the standards of the publisher and credibility of the author. Amidst hundreds of books on Gnosticism, this one is on the more popular side. Yet it seems comprehensive with an extensive bibliography.
BV5080.C5: The Cloud of unknowing (Walsh, 1981). Dating from the latter 1400s in Middle English by an unknown author, this text is a major resource in Christian spirituality, particularly of a mystical nature. I remain doubtful about mysticism, yet want to know it and remain primarily interested in its medieval setting. I have another edition, The Cloud of unknowing and other works (Wolters, 1978) but decided to keep both since the source manuscripts, translations, and introductory materials vary between the two editions. Walsh has a broader introduction; Wolters includes other cognates of The Cloud, evidently by the same unknown author.
HD881.H625: Thomas Henry Hollingsworth, Historical demography (1969) in the series The Sources of History: Studies in the Uses of Historical Evidence. Though I do not have the same inquisitiveness I once did about historiography except in the philosophical and theoretical sense, I remain fascinated over the puzzles and data of past populations. Also a work of this kind may be informative to my portrayal of imagined civilizations and cultures.
JC599.U5C59: Henry Steele Commager, Freedom, loyalty, dissent (1954; incorporates essays published 1947, 1952, 1953). Until college, I found U.S. history dull in comparison to all that had gone before. Dr. Erling Jorstad changed all that and in the process, Commager became one of my heroes. Noted for his The American Mind (1950) , this later book also relates the intellectual and social life of the country with the basic issues of a democracy and the necessity of freedom and inquiry to a fruitful democratic process. I was excited to find this book, key to the ongoing civic discussion of these days or any day.
LB7.C78: Common learning: a Carnegie Colloquium on General Education (1981). Since learning as distinguished from education qua schooling is a central intellectual issue for me, this book by its very title leaped to my attention. It seemed all the more relevant since I am preparing for a discussion a week away on “Common Core” a standardizing curricular program adopted by 40 states. This book has a humanities bent except for an article on “The Natural World,” along with “The Quest for Common Learning,” “Heritage and Traditions,” “The High School-College Connection,” amid other entries. I like nothing so much as the long range view of context.
Three duplicates of editions I already hold will be traded for credit. They are The vocation of man by Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1987; 1st published 1800); Victorian England: portrait of an age by G. Malcolm Young (2nd ed, 1953); and The immortal profession: the joys of teaching and learning by Gilbert Highet (1976).
I have pondered what this book selection experience means in its peculiarities. Of course, the sales at a university library would pertain and appeal to the academic and scholarly persona I inhabit. Issues represented by the books chosen cluster around my primary or focal interests. As other past instances also show, I often select books that already won my favor, purchased, and still retain because they center on my concerns and preferences. I hope to regenerate a brief alphabetical list of all the books I currently hold so that I can check my memory when buying books in the future. It would be good to have this in an easily carried digital device.
Coincidentally, the room in which this sale took place is part of space the UW-Madison reference collection and undergraduate library occupied when I was in graduate Library School. Not only did I do most of my studying at those tables, I examined every book on the shelves as I went through the entire undergraduate library collection. I noted the ones that I thought would be worthwhile for me to read or add to a school library where I was working. In comparison, the place looks squalid and trashy now, except for the days that it is overrun with readers and book dealers as hungry for books as I am.
Copyright © 2014 by Roger Sween.
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