Recently, I was talking with a friend about books. She knows that I own hundreds of books and that I am reluctant to part with even one. In contrast, she has a relative who does not keep a personal library; she prefers to read a book and then give it away.
“Why do you keep books?” my friend asked.
For a moment I was stunned. The question seemed to me only slightly less crazy than if she had asked, “Why do you keep breathing?” I didn’t know what to say. Then I blurted out, “I love books!” Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Beauty is its own excuse for being.” For me, books are their own excuse for keeping. I treasure them, I use them all the time, I need them. That’s why I keep them. They are part of who I am.
I went on to explain that my books are my friends. They have played an enormous role in my life, and they always will. They have instructed me, entertained me, comforted me and made me laugh. They have delighted me. I can’t count the number of times I have pulled a beloved book off the shelf to reread a favorite passage—sometimes for the pure pleasure of it, other times because I needed to return to that book and to its wisdom and encouragement at a difficult moment.
Books don’t fail at times like that. I don’t say they are a substitute for talking with someone and experiencing the presence and compassion of a wise and understanding person. Yet in a way, that’s what I find in books: the presence of another human being—the author—who can connect with me even over time and distance. Whether the author is a philosopher from the fifth century or an essayist from the 21st century, he or she can be present to me, almost as truly as though we were talking across a table. I love the idea that wise people from the past can still speak to me, and that their wisdom can fill my mind and heart.
I would rather receive that wisdom and knowledge from a book I am holding in my hands than from an electronic device. Not that I disdain technology; I welcome it and I depend on it. I was thinking recently about how easy it is to obtain information from the internet. Like almost all of us, I use my computer or smartphone daily to answer questions on numerous subjects. When I was young, answering those kinds of questions required a trip to the library and time spent poring over reference books. I’m grateful for the ease with which I can do research now, from wherever I happen to be.
But printed books, too, when they first were made, represented a long step forward in technology, from the laborious work of copying texts by hand to the process of printing them by machine. Johannes Gutenberg, who invented the movable-type printing press, is as much a pioneer in information technology as any contemporary inventor of digital devices and programs.
Moreover, new technologies don’t always make old technologies obsolete. Television didn’t kill radio, and I don’t think computers will kill books. I write with a computer, but beside me is the bookcase that holds my dictionary and other reference books. I use those books often. I love their heft, actual and intellectual. They are like companions.
Thomas Jefferson kept a large library at his home in Monticello. It comprised 6,500 books when he sold it to Congress to replace the books that were destroyed when the British burned Washington and the Library of Congress during the War of 1812. At that time, it was the largest private collection of books in the United States.
Jefferson told John Adams, “I cannot live without books.”
Neither can I. That’s why I keep them.
If you’re not in the middle of reading a book, pick one up. See what it has to say to you. You might find a friend, one that you’ll want to keep, too.