A Temple of Texts
April 8, 2009 10:27 AM   Subscribe

William Gass's personal library. The photos accompany this article by Gass about his love of books -- specifically about collecting them over his life and "living in a library."

Now in my own home I am surrounded by nearly 20,000 books, few of them rare, many unread, none of them neglected. They are there, as libraries always are, to help when needed, and who knows what writer I shall have to write on next, what subject will become suddenly essential, or what request will arrive that requires the immediate assistance of books on—well—libraries, or the language of animals or the pronunciation of Melanesian pidgin, since my essays tend to be assigned, not simply solicited, and because I am easily seduced by new themes. I can actually say a few things in Melanesian pidgin, none of them polite.
posted by mattbucher (21 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Wow. One of my life's goals is to have a huge library like this. I do have a shitload of books, but it's been a while since I lived in a place big enough to store them all. Maybe someday I'll post a gallery of my own collection. It'll be great for people who like pictures of cardboard boxes in my mom's garage.

Great post. Gives me the biggest biblioboner I've had all week.
posted by hifiparasol at 10:37 AM on April 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

pronunciation of Melanesian pidgin

Ha! I have this book (or one like it). My favorite is how you say that you have a sunburn: "Mi gat cookum skin."

One of my life's goals is to have a huge library like this.

You may enjoy the story of Rudy Eiler, of Monowi, Nebraska.
posted by dersins at 11:02 AM on April 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


I take it you prefer hardcovers to soft.
posted by ornate insect at 11:17 AM on April 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

20,000 books is too many for a normal house. Books can become oppressive, paralyzing even, when a room has too many. At some point library stacks and open spaces are needed in balance.
posted by stbalbach at 11:38 AM on April 8, 2009

I love that the first picture of just his books is of his Jane Austen. There's something endearing about the fact that it's such a generic set.
posted by OmieWise at 11:43 AM on April 8, 2009

As someone who owns a large number of books, and who may be found haunting libraries of various sorts, I really enjoyed this post. Great resonance in much of the article. Thank you.
posted by sciencegeek at 11:55 AM on April 8, 2009

I'd like to have a sort of live-in library at some point, but it really must be quite an anchor. I'm currently in the process of selling off about 6500 comics in advance of a summer move and it is a gigantic pain in the ass. Dealing with 20,000 books I think would just be unimaginable. This makes me even more thankful that my impractical and unwieldy music library is almost all stored on CD-Rs.
posted by aaronetc at 11:55 AM on April 8, 2009

the author reflects on the 20,000-volume library in the home he shares with his wife

I'd be interested in hearing his wife's perspective on it;-)

I know quite a lot of couples who may both love to read but who have one partner who has a book buying addiction and refuses to weed out. It's the cause of some strife.

Not that I don't sympathize. I have five bookcases in my home and intend to add another three. What I'll do when I fill all those I don't know. Recently I tried to weed out my books, and I only managed to cull 15 volumes. Even that hurt.
posted by orange swan at 11:55 AM on April 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

His wife is an architect and a huge amount of those oversized books you see here are her architecture books. I can't imagine William Gass could marry someone who was not also a bibliophile. Almost like Robert Parker marrying a teetotaler.
posted by mattbucher at 11:59 AM on April 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

I grew up in a home that had close to 20,000 books within. I must say that they took up a heck of a lot more space than what the accompanying photos portray. In our house the books were everywhere. Even the hallways between bedrooms were lined with bookcases and that is in addition to the dedicated library room and the many bookcases, most built in, in every other room except the laundry, kitchen and bathrooms. All five bedrooms each had a substantial collection as well and were usually floor to ceiling bookcases.

My point is that it's too bad that there isn't any shot, or even a diagram, included in the article that gives the viewer a real sense of the daunting size of such a collection.

My other point is that I certainly never found all the books to be oppressive in any way. I'm fairly sure that they very positively affected my life and my level of education.
posted by bz at 12:12 PM on April 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

That is so cool. In times when my life was full of depression and fear, libraries have always been a wonderful retreat. There's something so calming about all that collected wisdom just sitting there on the shelves, patiently waiting to be read. It provides a sense of order without obligation, along with endless distraction and delight. Mr. Gass's library looks like the sort of place a person could get wonderfully lost in.
posted by Kevin Street at 12:27 PM on April 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

My point is that it's too bad that there isn't any shot, or even a diagram, included in the article that gives the viewer a real sense of the daunting size of such a collection.

Agreed! I wanted a photo that gave one an idea of the size of the library room, and how many rooms are like that in his house.

Massive amounts of books always put me in mind of the urban legends about the W.E.B. DuBois Library at UMass.
posted by ocherdraco at 12:39 PM on April 8, 2009

Wouldn't it be easier to just get a Kindle?

I kid. One of the best wedding toasts I've ever heard was at the marriage of two bookish friends, and the toastmaster talked about the greatest challenge the couple faced: "the commingling of the libraries."
posted by stargell at 1:43 PM on April 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Excellent post. The next time my mother teases me about my library, I can say "but Mom, at least I don't have 20,000 books yet..."

One of the gentleman on my father's dissertation committee had a separate penthouse apartment for his books, and famously stowed some of his collection in the oven. Until, one day, a graduate student turned the oven on.
posted by thomas j wise at 2:02 PM on April 8, 2009

stbalbach: 20,000 books is too many for a normal house. Books can become oppressive, paralyzing even, when a room has too many.

There's the Bohumil Hrabal novel about a man whose job is to destroy condemned books but secrets away as many as he can until the interior of his house is a teetering mass of wastepaper. But I suppose that novel isn't entirely about books.

I'm a something of a book addict myself and am comforted by their presence. I bring duplicate copies to my office, where I never have time or the occasion to read them. When I visit people's houses, I need to see their books, and I'm privately horrified when I don't find any. I used to pay visits to my professors during their office hours just to see what was on their shelves. Moving house is difficult.
posted by cobra libre at 2:24 PM on April 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

You may enjoy the story of Rudy Eiler, of Monowi, Nebraska.
excellent referral, dersins.

i can only hope that gass follows in eiler's footsteps and makes his collection into a public library. in gass's case it would probably make more sense to donate his collection to an academic library. i seriously doubt that he will though, considering sentences like,
". . . since our teachers sometimes had the decency to die, and their heirs, in ignorance or indifference, to dump the bulky part of the inheritance in the bins of the library."
posted by the aloha at 2:25 PM on April 8, 2009

Those are just the ones he needs to get through before Easter.
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:50 PM on April 8, 2009

Itching for some more hot library action? Check out the photography of Candida Höfer. She has a book, called Libraries.

There's also a great essay by Umberto Eco on personal libraries but unfortunately I can't find it online.
posted by turgid dahlia at 4:20 PM on April 8, 2009

I read an article in a popular psychology magazine this year about the different ways people like music. I recall there were something like seven categories total. Some people like the music they "like" not even because they necessarily enjoy it, but because their friends do; some use music to put them in different moods; others, like me, find their music collection as a comforting way to reinforce our sense of identity. I kind of use books like this.

Cory Doctorow mirrored my feelings in a recent BoingBoing post--he said his book collection is a sort of palimpsest describing who he was and who he is now.

This is relieving. I don't actually need all that paper laying around! Someday, I'll make a list of everything that's in my library, and if I'm lucky, get an ebook version of each one. Because even though my collection is two orders of magnitude smaller than this guy's, it is a real bitch to move with and find space for. It's great decoration but there will come a time when it will be too much for the space I'm in.
posted by wires at 7:19 PM on April 8, 2009

I wanted to see a plan of his house with totals of books dotted around the plan.
I have about 6,000 books shelved in my garage and probably another 1000 or so around the house. There is no need to ask my wife her opinion of this excess. I too grew up with many books in the house and it affected how I developed. Just part of me now.
posted by mdoar at 8:22 PM on April 8, 2009

I wanted to see a plan of his house with totals of books dotted around the plan.

I don't have that, but there is this at the end of the essay:

Basement: Philosophy, Psychology, Linguistics, Music, Movies, Local Writers, Nazi History (central to the author’s 1995 novel, The Tunnel)
Living Room: Art and Artists
Dining Room: Photography and Bibliophilia
Sun Room: New Purchases (about 30 a month), French and Parisian History
Study: Literature in English (about 4,000)
Office: Literature in English continued, Literary Criticism, Reference
Master Bedroom: German Literature
Guest Bedroom 1: German Literature continued, the author’s books in English and in translation
Guest Bedroom 2: French Literature
Studio: Regional Matters, Crafts, Gardening, Travel and Architecture
Guest Bedroom 3: Literature From Countries Not Yet Named (China, Japan, Israel, Russia, Poland, Italy and South Africa, to name a few)
posted by mattbucher at 11:32 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

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