Reading: A Pandemic Silver Lining

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January 28, 2021 by libroshombre

            The last time the US Capitol was ransacked, it was by the British who also destroyed the nascent national library housed therein.  To replace the library former President Thomas Jefferson sold Congress his 6,500-volume personal library, writing to John Adams as the last wagonload of books pulled away from Monticello that “I cannot live without books.”  To Jefferson, reading was “the greatest of all amusements” and immediately began creating a new collection.  Jefferson’s library came to mind while perusing “The Jefferson Bible” which I bought last time I visited the Capitol Building.

In retirement Jefferson excised the words he believed Jesus actually spoke out of the New Testament with razor and scissors.  He omited the miracles, resurrection, and other mystical elements, focusing instead “on Jesus as a man of morals, a teacher whose truths were expressed without the help of miracles,” according to the article titled “Why Thomas Jefferson Rewrote the Bible Without Jesus’ Miracles and Resurrection” by Erin Blakemore.  He kept his new book private since he believed religion “is a matter between every man and his maker, in which no other, & far less the public, has a right to intermeddle.”

The introduction to my 1989 edition of Jefferson’s Bible was written by minister Forrest Church, the son of former Senator Frank Church, who described how Jefferson organized his library.  This was a century before Melvil Dewey’s decimal system to organize knowledge in a logical manner: relying on “The Advancement of Learning,” Francis Bacon’s 1605 essay on the organizing of knowledge, “Jefferson classified his books with reference to the processes of the mind employed upon them “Memory” (“factual data” like history), “Understanding” (philosophy and science), and “Imagination” (“innocent pleasures,” like the arts). 

Modern readers need more structure than that, especially since more than ever are reading thanks to the pandemic.  “See What the World’s Reading Habits Look Like in 2020,” a recent article, drew on Pew Research and Amazon’s Best Sellers page and reported that 35% of web users worldwide reported reading more during the pandemic, and 14% said they are reading significantly more.  When it came to most hours spent reading each week, India came in first with 10:42 hours, then came Thailand (9:42), and China (8:00) with Canada coming 20th (5:48) and Germany and the US 22nd-23rd tying at 5:42. Generationally speaking, during the pandemic Gen Z Americans are reading 34% more, Millennials 40%, Gen Xers 31%, and Boomers 28%. Fortunately, lots of books are being printed; in fact American print book sales continue to dominate publishing revenues, with nearly 74% of every publishing dollar coming from printed books, with eBooks (10.4%) and audio books (7.3%) trailing far behind.

This means Americans are thinking about how and where to house their books, what sorts of shelves to use, and things like comfy seating, adequate lighting, etc.  So, I read with interest an article: “The Libraries, Studies, and Writing Rooms of 15 Famous Men.”  Some of these, such as William Randolph Hearst’s palatial outlay, were showplaces rather than functioning libraries.  Others shared my antipathy for neatness, especially William F. Buckley’s messy library.  The library of Winston Churchill, who had secretaries to maintain some order, was much tidier than Buckley’s and mine, but it still had “books spilling out from the bookcases and piled against every wall.” 

“After Churchill’s favorite part of the day — a sumptuous 8:00 dinner, along with stimulating conversation and plenty of cigars, brandy, and port — Churchill would change out of his tuxedo and into a bathrobe and slippers before walking through the Tudor doorway of his study (which he called “the factory”) at about 10:30 or 11 pm. There he would pore over the galley proofs laid stacked on top of his upright table, sit and write on his mahogany desk, and dictate to his two secretaries who lived in residence on the property. After dictating 3-4,000 words, Churchill would dismiss his secretaries at about 2 or 3 in the morning and hit the sack.” 

The main concern in creating a useable library is proper book organization.  Molly Edmonds suggests some approaches to it in “How to Create a Home Library” from  Alphabetizing by author works for fiction but not nonfiction.  Some people arrange their books by the order in which they read them, while others sort them by “read” and “unread.”  If ambitious, utilize the elaborate Dewey and Library of Congress classification schemes, but I follow another of Edmund’s alternatives and organize my considerable collection roughly by subject: literature, history, Alaskana and Texana, kiddie lit, reference, art-music-religion, comics and sequential art, autobiographies, and “most important books.”

You can always create a pseudo-library by simply ordering one from Books by the Foot, a service offered by Wonder Books.  You specify how many feet of books and the subjects you want, even colors and sizes, and “your books will ‘be staged,’ or arranged with the same care a florist might extend to a bouquet of flowers,” on a library cart. This showy decor isn’t at all personal.  “If you cannot read all your books,” Churchill stipulated, “at any rate handle, or as it were, fondle them – peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that if you do not know what is in them, you at least know where they are.  Let them be your friends; let them at any rate be your acquaintances.  If they cannot enter the circle of your life, do not deny them at least a nod of recognition.”   

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