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Thoughts on Your Personal Library

Sometime in the distant past, my collection of books became a library. The question, “Have you read all of them?” was asked of me so often that I began to say, “No. But this is my library.” Since no one has read every book in any public library, I was thus excused. The venerable Vernon Grounds had a library of many thousands, which is now incorporated into the Denver Seminary library. He was gifted with a photographic memory. When asked if he had read all this books, he replied, “No. But I want people to think that I have.” I have stolen his line often.

A prospective new student was lost in wonder when she entered my office several years ago. She moved her head floor to ceiling and back again gazing enraptured at my office library. Her reaction would have been the same for most all the professor’s offices at Denver Seminary. We have libraries, as well as using the seminary’s library. What, then, are some principles for building and curating a personal library? Maybe a book addict should not be giving advice on library building and maintenance. But pushing that legitimate concern aside, I proceed.

Book libraries embed history in the artefacts called books. One may speak of a library of videos, vinyl records, or compact discs (now going out of style) or other media; but these differ from the printed and bound page in that they need an interface to be experienced. DVDs without a DVD player cannot be used. Books, on the contrary, require only literate eyes, hands, and time. They are not accessed (that ugly and overused word) though a computer; nor do they require a screen. In fact, one does not access a book. One finds it and reads it and puts it back in its place (or loses it, as I often do). Each page is its own screen and cannot be clicked away. One must touch a book to read a book.

Books have unique charms that cannot be replaced by digitized information. I took this up in my prehistoric book, The Soul in Cyberspace (Baker, 1997), in a chapter called, “The Book, The Screen, and The Soul.” For now, it is enough to fathom that books bear meaning graciously. As such, they should be treated thoughtfully—that is, placed in a library.

Books can be placed on bricks and boards (most of mine are) or displayed in aesethically pleasing ways, such as on polished oak shelves (my dream). Durability, visibility, and order are the three cardinal principles of organization for any library.

You do not want a bookshelf to come crashing down on you. Nor do you want the books themselves to be crushed and creased in such avalanches. The skeleton for your library should be durable. Beware of sagging boards and high stacks of tottering books.

One book may rudely obscure another book in an unruly library. I call this double parking and deserve citations for this infraction. Unless one has a digital record of one’s books, double parking takes books out of view and likely out of mind. Since the point of a library is to put your hands and eyes on books, this should be avoided. Your books should be visible.

While visibility is a necessary condition for a friendly library, it is not a sufficient condition. Most all my books are visible, but I still search in vain for many books that I know I own. (Someone should invent a chip that could be put in books that could give off signals received by monitoring device that could locate them.) When I was younger with a smaller library, I could simply remember where my books were, no matter how disordered my library might be. Goodbye to most of that. My library transcended my memory long ago.

I defer to those with the gift of administration to explain the organization of a library in details. Of course, there are apps for this. Fundamentally, books should be ordered in some pattern of logical association. I now have all my Francis Schaeffer books in one bookshelf. However, I could have divided them up into subject matter—art, apologetics, culture, spirituality—and grouped them with other books on the same subjects. Those with sprawling or out of control libraries should humble themselves and seek help from those with organizational gifts (and perhaps from counselors who specialize in treating book addictions.) Briefly, libraries without organization are muted and hamstrung thereby. I know. I have purchased books on Amazon that I knew I owned, because had little hope of finding them in time for what I needed them for.

But we have not spoken of which books to buy, where to buy them, when to purge them, and whether or not to lend them. What books should populate your library?

Books given as gifts might not be worthy of enshrining in your library, since it is difficult to discern another’s taste in books and to know what books he or she owns. Duplicates and duds can be given away (to a second-hand store, perhaps) or re-gifted. You may want to keep some for sentimental reasons. My mother was a generous gift giver and tried for about thirty-five years to give me books that I would like. Her batting average was low, but her heart was good. I have kept most of her books and have savored a few of them.

What books should you acquire? There is an art to buying the right book.

First, it should be a book you are likely to read or use as a reference. Books were not made to be decorations or to be financial investments (unless you collect rare books). But what kind of book should you read?

Consider, secondly, the qualifications of the author relative to the subject matter. As economist Thomas Sowell says, “Expertise is not transferrable.” An expert is discipline A is not likely to be worth reading in discipline B, although there are exceptions. Raymond Tallis (who has a regular column in The Philosopher’s Magazine) is a medical doctor who has not been an academic philosopher. Nevertheless, he is an outstanding philosopher, however much you disagree with his atheism. Atheist Richard Dawkins, on the other hand, is a biologist who is (to put it kindly) unmusical about philosophy and religion. He can neither find nor carry the tune in these areas, despite his overconfident rhetorical rousting.

Third, the publisher of a book may be as important as the qualifications of the author. Self-published books are a wild card for quality.[1] This is because the author does not submit to the discipline of an established publisher, which has a history of critically evaluating authors and manuscripts. Some commendable books have been self-published[2], but the odds are against them. Contrariwise, if one finds that a book is published by InterVarsity Press, odds are that it is worthwhile. (Yes, I have published seven books and three booklets with InterVarsity, but please believe me anyway.)

Besides speaking to the general quality of a book, knowing something about the publisher may tell you the perspective of the book. For example, Prometheus Books (not surprisingly) publishes only books critical of religion or which do not address religion. Ignatius Press only publishes books on or friendly to Roman Catholicism. University Presses tend to publish intellectually engaging books, however wrong they may be. Harvest House, a Christian publisher, specializes in Christian fiction and devotional books. They are not known for academic works. However, I published two such books with them, Deceived by the Light (1995) and Jesus in an Age of Controversy (1998).

I cannot dilate on what particular books to buy here, but I urge you to buy and read classic works rather than imbibing on recent popular fair. The Holy Bible is the ultimate classic and books of books. Thus, should be read and studied for a life time. One should also acquire books to help understand the Bible, such as commentaries, study Bibles, Bible dictionaries, and so on.

Besides the Bible, a rich library will be well stocked in the classics of literature and philosophy—the sort of books that made up The Great Books series from decades ago. Some modern writers, such as C.S. Lewis, penned classics that will outlast most of the books published in the last fifty years.

Having discussed what books to buy, where should one buy them? I look everywhere. I discover books through browsing libraries (including my own), bookstores (new and used), looking at catalogues, and consulting Amazon, where I buy most of my books at good discounts. But books may be anywhere. One can find gems for little cost at library book sales, second-hand stores, estate sales and yard sales. Occasionally, people place books or magazines out as garbage. If you have the nerves, the book can be yours.

But what if your library seems to grow to fat? What if your shelves are sagging and your books are bulging out everywhere? It may be time—to use the dreaded word—to prune your library. A serious reader will never eliminate books from her library for cosmetic purposes. I was horrified when I read in The Magic of Cleaning up that decluttering may mean throwing out books! I almost never crash a book. They should be kept or given away. Some books, however, deserve to die, because no one should them. One such book is Barack Obama is Satan. I was given this book at a conference, accepted it, and later tore it up before putting it in my room’s garbage. I did not want the help to take out this trash while putting out the rest of the trash.

If you do prune, what gets pruned? Having reduced my library a few times, I recommend not pruning at all, since I have repurchased several books and lamented the loss of others. I make it a policy now to never eliminate a book I have read because it is part of my intellectual history which I want to conserve. Some books do go out of date, such as those warning of the Y2K disaster. I recently gave one to Goodwill. Perhaps a historian of technology would keep it, but not me. But what of the books you think you will never read? I have books purchased over thirty years ago that I still want to read, such as Saving the Appearances by one of C.S. Lewis’s best friends, Owen Barfield. If you are a teacher or a writer, it is difficult to tell which books remain useful to you. Thus, err on the side of being conservative. Better to keep the unneeded that to need the unavailable.

If your collection of books crosses the mystical threshold and becomes a library, then you should curate it well. It is both a reflection of you and you are reflection of it. In it, you may find the sustained delights of book knowledge, one of God’s good gifts to his creatures.


[1] Literary sleuths can sniff out one of these critters by noting one or more of the following blemishes. 1. It uses unconventional graphics, such as italics and bold for the same word or using all capital letters for emphasis. 2. Sources are quoted without references given. 3. The front and back covers look amateurish in art and inscription. 4. Paragraphs are not indented. While a likely sign of self-publishing, such paragraphing may appear in legitimate books, such as the Very Brief Guide series published by Oxford University Press. 5. It lacks and ISBN number. However, some self-published books secure ISBN numbers. Every established publisher assigns an ISBN number to its books. 6. In some cases, a table of contents is left out. 7. In general, there is a lack of proper form and convention found in regularly published books. 8. Odd or inept titles may give away a self-published book, such as a book given to me recently called, Barack Obama is Satan.

[2] For example, the series of theological books on Reformed Baptist theology by Douglas Van Dorn and a soon to be published work of fiction by Jean Hoefling.

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