My sister gave me a tee-shirt. Advertising the Northshire Bookstore of Manchester Center, Vermont, where I have never been, its back shows the silhouetted figure, white on black, of a little boy. Wearing a straw hat, he strides vigorously towards the viewer's left, stepping over the vaguely-suggested backdrop of a rural field. He holds a shut book, thrust forward towards the left, in his right hand. The design, enclosed within a circle surrounded by words identifying the bookstore, stands out sharply against the black cloth of the tee-shirt. The silhouetted figure of the boy wants detail, which tells us that we are looking at "modern" design. Had the figure not been abstracted in this way, we might have thought we were looking at a magazine advertisement from, say, about 1913, the little boy not a reader but a Boy Scout or Little Lord Fauntleroy, the object in his outthrust right hand not a book but baking soda, cocoa, soap -- or whatever: the advertiser's comestible du jour. It is a handsome tee-shirt. I was glad to get it.

Its front is also nice. Fittingly, for a tee-shirt advertising a book store, it contains words, also white on black. Set flush left and ragged right, they are printed in a 29 millimeter-high caps, no-name display font lacking distinction or character but nonetheless readable. Put on the tee-shirt. The person you are facing can read:

My sister -- as, after all these years, she should -- knows her brother well. I love this tee-shirt. It even fits!

And she doesn't have to clean around the piles of books or dust the many shelves that litter the walls and floors of my house but are far less prevalent in hers. She's got lots of books on lots of shelves -- but no piles. For her, this shirt is both apt and funny. And it comments on the foibles of someone else.

"'A room without books is like a body without soul' -- Cicero."

Golly. For those of us who live our lives with books, uplifting little tag lines such as this one are part of the stuff of our daily reality. As Tom Lehrer once said, if in a slightly different connection (and about other little tag lines), "It makes a fellow proud to be a soldier."

Some of the tags are not unequivocally positive, of course. "Of making many books there is no end": thus saith the Preacher (adding, as is less frequently recalled, "and much study is a weariness of flesh" [Ecclesiastes 12:12]). A dry irony survives even translation into English. You can see why the Northshire Bookstore of Manchester, Vermont, chose not to quote Scripture -- at least, not this Scripture -- on its tee-shirt.

How, living as he did not only before print but also before the codex, could the Preacher ever have seen enough books to think any such thought? But he was right: "Of making many books there is no end." And thus saith I, too, especially after days when, sitting at a computer, using the telephone, or annotating hundreds of tiny pieces of paper, I spend yet more thousands of institutional dollars, or some tens (or hundreds) of my personal ones, to add books to the shelves of the large institutional library that employs me, or to . . . well, nowadays, to add to the floors of my house.

You don't need to go to Bartlett's or to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations for such tag lines (although I've found some tag lines in these sources, too). You happen, let us say, to be reading -- something that people who live with books do from time to time -- and are toddling through one of your average twelve-volume twentieth-century English novels, this one Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. The title of one of its twelve parts sticks movingly in your mind: Books Do Furnish a Room.

Right. Tell me about it.

The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, by the way, will tell you about it, citing Powell's title as its source for this phrase, and offering up as well a comparative reference to a pithy little mot-lette from the 1855 Memoirs of Lady Holland: "No furniture so charming as books" (vol. I, chap. 9). Inexplicably, the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations does not quote Flann O'Brien on this point. Writing about someone whom he identifies only as "a newly-married friend," O'Brien remarks, "Whether he can read or not, I do not know, but some savage faculty for observation told him that the most respectable and estimable people usually had a lot of books in their houses" (my emphasis -- DT). The friend has a middleman buy loads of books for his shelves. Their subject happens to be French landscape painting, "not one . . . ever . . . opened or touched" (The Best of Myles: A Selection from 'Cruiskeen Lawn,' ed. Kevin O Nolan [New York: Walker, 1968], pp. 17-18). Books as furniture, books as personal landscape -- what's the difference?

Or you are looking at the wall in your office, where you have put up, after having had it framed, a cute little Sandy Boynton poster. Sandy Boynton's cute little Muppet-like creature has climbed to the top of a cute little bookcase and is eating cute little books. You can read shelf in her poster (that is, you can look at the titles of the books on her little shelves). Here is Moby Dick: it is, in fact, the book that the Muppet-like creature is eating. Its outstretched left leg lies atop War and Peace (under its left calf); its left heel rests on Middlemarch, itself on top of Aristotle's Poetics. The lower shelves contain works by Chaucer and Shakespeare, Dante, Ibsen, Shaw, The Golden Bough, Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism [sic!] and A. C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy [double sic!!], Walter Jackson Bate's John Keats, and Daniel Boorstin's The Americans. Rabbit, Run and V sit on these shelves, along with many other cute books.

Some have the words "Boynton and Mack" on their spines: Images of Man, for instance, or Introduction to the Poem. In order to understand the presence on Boynton's shelves of these books, you need to know that the Boynton their spines name represents her act of hommage not to herself but to her father. A man who taught English literature at a Philadelphia preparatory school for many years, he wrote, together with the then-Sterling Professor of English at Yale University, Maynard Mack, textbooks for secondary-school students of English.

Most people who look at the poster don't need to understand that allusion. They get the poster's bibliophilic point from the many other far more obvious books displayed on Boynton's shelves and from the words -- Sir Francis Bacon's, as it happens -- displayed at the poster's top, above the cute little Muppet-like creature eating cutely away at the books:

All Boynton has done is to literalize Bacon's metaphor.

Many tags about books tug fitfully at our memories. Some we absorbed before we thought much about them at all, and their dimly-recalled residue colors our thinking about books to this day. If we happen to have been raised within the context of a Christian household, perhaps we automatically associate books, inaccurately but nonetheless memorably, with worthiness:

More generally, if we were raised within the warming contexts of Protestantism's originary myths, we learned early on that reading, books, the Book, are our heritage. If we have grown up to become bad Protestants, we may undervalue the Book yet value other books anyway:

If, not Protestants but Jews, "the People of the Book," we are our own tag, sort of self-literalizing metaphors.

An altogether different upbringing -- one could call it "Roman Catholic" -- might have exposed us to Hilaire Belloc's A Bad Child's Book of Beasts. Its "Dedication" -- with an irony that, surely, some children miss? -- also associates books with holiness and treasure:

As students in college and university, we all once upon a time read -- and, dutifully and of course, thrilled to -- Areopagitica:

And, better still:

"Not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them . . . " How wonderfully apt! how moving! No wonder The British Library once published a volume about the history of books, their production and reception, entitled A Potencie of Life. The very words remind us of the cosmic significance of the subject.

How many of his dutifully enthusiastic fans ever notice Milton's qualifier ("a good book")? The Anglo-American Champion of Press Freedom was not, one may vaguely recall, entirely convinced that, for example, Roman Catholic books qualify as "good." A surprising number of bibliophilically heart-warming tags echo influential Milton's limiting concept of the good book. Milton himself, again in Areopagitica, writes of "a good book" as "the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life." Martin Tupper's Proverbial Philosophy (Series I, 1838), although less well-known than Areopagitica, makes just as good grist for the mill of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. There we find Tupper calling "a good book . . . the best of friends, the same to-day and for ever" ("Of Reading"). (Personally, I wonder about Tupper's criterion: does unchangeability really make for a quality we value in our friends?) Two years later, speaking in support of the London Library on 24 June 1840, Thomas Carlyle remarked that "a good book is the purest essence of a human soul."

Well, really, why quarrel with the qualifier? Who would write in praise of bad books? "Books are a load of crap," writes Philip Larkin in his "Study of Reading Habits" -- but I don't think he is praising them for this attribute; and, anyway, surely that is just Larkin, seen here in one of his more dyspeptic moods, sweeping all away without distinction or discrimination. And who remembers that line anyway? (It is worth remembering, however, that Larkin, although one of the century's finest English poets, earned his living not from poetry but as a university librarian.) More sensibly, more judiciously, Ruskin separates "books of the hour" from "books of all time" ("Of Kings' Treasures," Sesame and Lilies, 1865, p. 16). F. M. Cornford singles out a specific kind of publication only for censure:

Umberto Eco broadens Cornford's narrow brush, even as he loads it with tar, and writes:

To be fair, Eco also writes, in The Name of the Rose:

True, a reiterated theme of many writers is the danger of too much exposure to books -- all books. "Much study is a weariness of flesh." All we get from reading, Berowne informs us in Love's Labour's Lost, is "base authority from others' books" (LLL, I.1.87). The man who reads without "superior" "spirit and judgement," Milton reminds us, is in danger of becoming "Deep-versed in books and shallow in himself" (PR, 4:322). "A mere scholar," Daniel Defoe carps (in The Compleat English Gentleman, chap. 5), "is a mere book-case, a bundle of letters, a head stuffed with the jargon of languages, a man that understands every body but is understood by no body." He resembles Pope's contemporary "bookful blockhead, ignorantly read, / With loads of learned lumber in his head" (Essay on Criticism, ll. 612-613).

How positively healthy, from this point of view, the attitude of (depending on which attribution you prefer) King George III, or the Duke of Cumberland, or William Henry, Duke of Gloucester:

No danger of lumber in that head (or those heads). Books are a load of crap.

But when we recall tags such as these, it is to lay no palm of praise at the presumably gouty feet of, say, King George III, or the Duke of Cumberland, or William Henry, Duke of Gloucester. In our recall, it is their shortsightedness and stupidity, contrasted against Gibbon's ongoing greatness, that gives the tag its special piquancy. And rightly. Gibbon, after all, is among the authors immortalized by Boynton's poster. (Yet one will annoyingly wonder: how many of us have ever sat down and read Gibbon?)

Can there really be any choice between our response to the heartfelt sentiment of W. H. Auden

and the galling cynicism of Gustave Flaubert:

Even if we find ourselves uneasily desirous of checking Fowler to see whether Auden's "none are" are or are not a grammatical solecism, in our hearts we know his sentiments right, whatever might be said of his grammar. "Books make sense of life": sic Julian Barnes, in Flaubert's Parrot (chap. 13). Yes. They do. Good books, anyway.

We all know why Chaucer's Clerk would rather have had twenty books of Aristotle's philosophy than "rich robes, a fithele, or a gay sautrie" ("General Prologue," ll. 294-296). We feel the same way, don't we? -- even if we aren't quite clear on the "fithele" and "gay sautrie." We know why Fitzgerald's Omar found a loaf of bread, a flask of wine, thou beside me singing in the wilderness, and a book of verse "paradise enow" (Rubaiyat, 1859, st. 11). We'd find it paradise, too. Our hearts uplift when we find an American President -- gad! an American President! who even knew they could read? -- writing, à la mode de Franklin Delano Roosevelt,


Maybe if I did for a living what Franklin Roosevelt used to do, I would believe him. And maybe if he had done for a living what I do for a living, he'd never have said anything quite so stupid. It's unlikely. Never entirely impractical or blindly idealistic, wily Mr. Roosevelt was speaking not truth but propaganda when he delivered these sentiments in a "Message to the Booksellers of America" on May 6, 1942 (PW [May 9, 1942]), a bare five months after America's entry into World War II. He went on, quite practically, to add:

This is not the voice of some skygazing liberal intellectual, some . . . reader. It is the voice of the person who appointed Archibald MacLeish as the government's propaganda czar, the voice of the head of a government that saw to the production of tens of millions of copies of Armed Services Editions for the sake of "morale," and to the establishment of the Office of War Information. Still and all, personally, I put my money on Swift:

"Books never die"? Really, Franklin.

I don't imagine that, despite his close friendship with sometime Librarian of Congress and lawyer, poet, and propagandist Archie MacLeish, Roosevelt ever had himself wheeled through the stacks of Congress's Library. I might be wrong about this point; it hardly seems worth checking. But had he bothered, surely no sentiment quite so stupid could ever have passed his pen, however practical his justifications for saying it might have been. Large libraries -- even small- to medium-sized libraries, such as the five-or-so-million-volume one in which I work -- are full of dead books. Crap. (Thank you, Mr. Larkin.)

It's not that the majority of their books rarely circulate. It's that they never circulate. One's mind boggles at the prospect that, even if they ever used to circulate, they ever will do so again. Like lifting one's own body into the air by vigorous up-and-down movements of one's outstretched elbows, this is a possibility that lies well below imagination's deepest trough. And it is far less pleasant.

No one who has ever wandered through a large-ish library can be unaware of this truth. In one aisle, the meanderer encounters mountains of mute inglorious Miltons who, once upon a time, unhappily not mute, not only wrote but also actually published: e.g., Richard Glover, author of Leonidas (1737), "the world's dullest epic" (sic Boynton pére's co-editor, Maynard Mack), whom no one has read for over a century (sic Leslie Stephen, writing nearly a century before Mack, over a century before me -- and, by the way, he's right: I tried). In another, you confront rows of novelists whose names mean nothing, whose titles promise less, volumes that seem (on available evidence) last to have circulated sometime during the spring semester of 1937, if ever. I write not of books originally written, or still available only, in the forbidding recesses of A Foreign Tongue (or, much worse, a Learned one). Glover, after all, almost wrote English; and English was the language of, let us say, the American novelist and poet Meredith Nicholson, whose very name was unknown to me until I reached my mid-fifties. I was five when he died in 1947, full of years and, believe it or not, literary honors.

"No place," Johnson remarks in The Rambler 106 (23 March 1751), "affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes, than a public library." But maybe you need to work in one to realize the extent to which Johnson -- here as on other occasions, too -- got it dead right.

In one sense, the point is so obvious that one wonders why anyone should care. It occurs to me, however, that the point is not obvious any more. Individual books are so quickly lost to sight in the general ocean of books that we can retain our state of virginal innocence about their mortality with almost as much ease as, in a medically sophisticated modern hospital environment, we can retain a state of virginal innocence about our own mortality. Swift, not at all innocent in any of the ways we are innocent, unsurprisingly connects both mortalities; we tend to recall neither of them.

What our innocence means, at a time when issues of canonicity have become politically and culturally troublesome, is that we speak, frequently and noisily, about how some books move in -- and, despicably, out of -- The Canon, the obviously permanent structure that organizes the hierarchies within which we read whatever The Ages have deemed worthy of our attention. (Canonical Gibbon, for instance, with whose Decline and Fall we who possess degrees attesting to our learning are all intimate.) Such talk is far from fruitless. The ways in which works move into and out of canonicity are intrinsically fascinating, even if the stories we tell about those ways tend to be rather social than literary tales (if that distinction is one that can be defended long enough, nowadays, for a reader to make it through the thicket of this sentence).

While scholars, their political friends and enemies, and the odd and occasional General Reader, talk such talk, university and independent research libraries, colleges, public libraries, and archives, obligingly build new buildings to house, and acquire ever more complex systems to enable readers to locate, the ever increasing amounts of materials they are required to house; or they buy, or contract with, offsite storage facilities to warehouse materials that -- not "dead"! -- are in "low demand." If twentieth-century physicians and their eager publics seem unable to come to grips with the notion that people die, twentieth-century librarians and their fans seem equally unable to come to grips with the possibility that books die, too. Quoting a tag line -- "People die, but books never die" -- is all very well as an expression of noble sentiment; and it is inexpensive, too. Buildings, on the other hand, actually cost money to build and to staff.

If we are interested in what makes books live, or merely and ignobly in containing the costs associated with their immortal accretion, it might be worth paying at least a little attention to the question of what allows (or causes?) books to die. As it happens, more die than live -- as anyone who thought about the matter for a fraction of a second might have supposed.

Some books die for obvious reasons. Like people, they grow old and eventually they die. No one needs a guide to seventeenth-century memory exercises any longer. Those with a need for the service manual for a 1924 Pierce-Arrow are also likely to be few. An instructional booklet for a 128KB personal computer is not useful nowadays for even the least computer-literate of your friends and acquaintances. Reports on prison conditions in eighteenth-century Philadelphia, or canal and railroad construction in nineteenth-century middle Atlantic states, or on prostitution in pre-World War I Storyville, may all provide important data for scholars whose retellings of such topics may get read; but, aside from the scholars who use them for their own work, they sit on shelves untouched and unregarded. Nineteenth-century anthologies of sentimental poetry or morally uplifting publications by various religious tract societies, eighteenth-century guides to conduct for young men and women, seventeenth-century sermons on the Eucharist or the seductions of Presbyterianism: who, willingly and without duress (faced by, say, the, nowadays increasingly exorable, need to write a doctoral dissertation), would ever pick up such books?

I suppose that, in an age of candor, this is indeed news fit to give the young. In my day -- O tempora! o mores! -- our instructors never told us any such thing. And, I am sure, we were better scholars for their white lie. (Briggs's white lie is in excepting the Bible, which, at least in my experience, is a large and formidably foreign text to the majority of my students and colleagues.)

Other books die after having been mugged. We like to recall the critics's failures with, say, Byron and Keats. But their successes are noteworthy, as well. In the late 1950s, for example, Dwight Macdonald did such a good and famous job on James Gould Cozzens's By Love Possessed that, despite the efforts of a few enthusiasts such as Matthew Bruccoli, the novel and the novelist seem both to have passed on, at least for a while, to A Better Place. Or, at least, to one that is not ours.

Some books physically disintegrate, or people discard them -- before their time? after their time? Who knows? Who cares? Writing in The New Yorker, Mark Singer, describing what is called a "preservation microfilming project" at America's greatest research library, simultaneously describes one of the ways in which a bureaucracy that normally might have seemed designed to save books can nonetheless, and as a matter of sheer bureaucratic well-intentioned inertia, destroy them instead. The protestor about whom Singer also writes, a dealer in earthmoving equipment named Michael Zinman, looks mildly eccentric for being worried about such matters. Is there an issue here? "Had anything been wrong, we certainly should have heard" (Auden again; Singer; "Missed Opportunities Dept.," The New Yorker, 73:42 [January 12, 1998], 29-30).

Other books simply stop speaking to anyone at all. Once popular, they cease to have any attractions to readers whose requirements for novelty supersede their requirements for familiarity. Lacking other distinguishing characteristics that tend to keep books afloat -- a wonderful writing style and ability with the language; a topic of burning urgency brilliantly treated; great illustrations; a preface by a writer who has retained currency; a hell of a yarn -- they sit on library shelves for years, the acids in their papers slowly bringing their physical existence to a state equivalent to their spiritual existence.

Some books speak to no one even on their appearance. Everyone knows of such books. My own favorite examples in this kind are the books published regularly by university presses, "vanity presses," as Eco calls them, whose "high calling" it is, as Cornford said, to produce unreadable books. A vast system of tenure and promotion gluts libraries with stuff that almost literally no one wants, including their own authors: books and periodicals that elicit reader statistics in the single digits. Forests die for the sake of the t-and-p committees at hundreds of institutions of higher education throughout North America; but even on t-and-p committees none but the most dedicated, or crazy, read the mountains of stuff they are handed by each prospective candidate for tenure.

And even the few genuine geniuses of academic prose find time's wingèd chariot hurrying near, just behind the printed offspring of their intelligent brows. When, a graduate student specializing in Renaissance literature in the 1960s and 1970s, I came upon a book that considered A. C. Bradley's 1904 study of Shakespearian tragic character -- a book celebrated in Boynton's poster of the book-eating monster -- I wondered why anyone would waste time reading Bradley, let alone about Bradley. A few years ago, I came upon a collection of the essays about Shakespeare written by Boynton père's co-editor, Maynard Mack, the great Shakespeare critic of my generation. A learned colleague looked at the book and groaned. You're reading that? she asked. Dead dead dead. (I did not bother to remark that Mr. Mack had, after all, directed her own dissertation; that is stuff for a different story than this one.)

There are even books that we -- well, some of "us" -- would like to kill. To kill outright, that is, not simply to wound, in the way that Dwight Macdonald, although he wounded By Love Possessed, left copies of it floating around, however grievously maimed, for such benighted folk as Matthew Bruccoli to find and try to restore to canonical health. Mein Kampf, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion -- books, need I say, much worse (in every sense that matters) than the sort of book represented by Cozzens's novel -- would surely fall into such a category.

For the nonce, enthusiasm for such once-popular works as these seems to be confined to fringe elements of society. These books and their ilk may not be precisely "dead" but they live on, to the extent that they do, in a sort of vampirical hibernation, or like smallpox germs in a test tube (except that vaccines for their toxins do not exist). Less virulently disgusting books, such as Little Black Sambo and Dr. Doolittle, have also been shot to death for their racism. Who could imagine a 1998 movie version of Dr. Doolittle that did not inoculate itself against the racism of its source by giving us a black, not a white, version of the title character? Booth Tarkington's once-famous Penrod -- sublimely unconscious of its own anti-Semitism and racism -- is another book that seems unlikely to make a comeback anytime soon as an American children's classic. Yet one must be careful with such judgments: thirty years ago, who ever would have dreamed -- aside from the conservative author of Books Do Furnish a Room -- that la retour de Kim was in the wings?

Exemplary of the book that deserves shooting in our own time is The Turner Diaries. Written by someone calling himself "Andrew Macdonald," the novel's opening pages read:

Racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and paranoid on the subject of the ways in which "big government" intrudes itself into the lives of ordinary, decent, white, and Christian Americans, this book seems to have found its ideal audience in Timothy McVeigh, whose life would be ended abruptly as the result of a judicially-imposed sentence of death for his role in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City. The Turner Diaries is said to have inspired him to action. Who would, if opportunity offered, keep such a book from dying?

Its publisher, it so happens, in an "Introduction" to the edition from which I quote Macdonald's prose, offers a ringing defense of the ideals espoused by Milton in Areopagitica and subsequently enshrined, not to say "embalmed," in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution (Lyle Stuart, "Introduction by the Publisher," pp. [v-ix]). "We live in a nation where we have the right to know," Lyle Stuart states (p. [vii]), going on to quote Oren J. Teicher, President of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression. The gist of Teicher's argument is that "even offensive and objectionable material is protected by the First Amendment" (p. [ix]).

Only Words is a book that, when it appeared, was widely disparaged (see, e.g., Jonathan Yardley, "Sticks and Stones," The Washington Post Book World, 23:38 [September 19, 1993], p. 3: "a dangerous, paranoid book[,] . . . its prose muddy and humorless, . . . its . . . [thought] fuzzy"), if not simply ignored (by, e.g., The New York Times, which simply didn't review it), despite its appearance over the imprint of a fly-by-night university press claiming some unspecified form of association with Harvard. Here law professor Catherine MacKinnon suggests that the First Amendment might not be the blanket excuse for keeping all books alive that Stuart, Teicher, and First Amendment absolutists believe. MacKinnon is less concerned with printed forms of political speech, however much such forms might assault the primary values of a liberal civility, than she is with pornography and its assault upon the personhood of women. Pornography reduces women, she argues, to sexual objects. It produces in its readers a loss of sense of women's essential humanity and selfhood. Not simply "speech" -- and, under the terms of the First Amendment, "protected" -- pornography crosses the line into "action." It can therefore be controlled by laws, in just the same way and for just the same reasons as laws control my not unnatural impulses to travel at 85 miles per hour on a clear sunny day northbound on Madison Avenue.

If, without shedding a tear, I would -- and, by the way, let me perhaps surprise you by noting that if I could I genuinely would -- remove from the face of the earth all copies of Mein Kampf and the Protocols and Gobineau on the inequality of the races and other books of this ilk, so MacKinnon would treat, I presume, Aretino's I Modi, Butler's Dildoides, the anonymous Victorian "classic," The Pearl, and other books of this ilk (to say nothing of such cinematic glorifications of the human spirit as Deep Throat and Debbie Does Dallas).

Perhaps we all have the odd book, or kind of book, that we think so irremediably awful that, given a realistic shot at doing so, we would deep-six it in a minute. And perhaps we are right to have such desires. It is, at the very least, conceivable that the world, which, after all, is a pretty bad place, would be a better place without these sorts of books giving legitimacy and permanence to ideas and attitudes that we would all be better off without.

On the other hand, we would, I fear, lose a lot of books in the process of such intellectual cleansing.


"Books, like men their authors," Swift said, "have no more than one way of coming into the world, but there are ten thousand to go out of it, and return no more." It seems to me that it is time to think about the ten thousand ways books die. Neither our societal nor our professional rhetorics leave us very much room to do so.

Whether President Roosevelt really believed that "books never die" I do not know. He said it; perhaps he really believed it. We do know of some occasions when presidents have spoken words they meant. What troubles me is not that Roosevelt believed it; it is that we believe it -- even though it is, in the first place, demonstrably not true; and, in the second place, it is really not something we want to be true, even though the truth of our desires in this respect is not one we easily admit even to ourselves.

We face real problems, however, and they are going to result in the deaths of many books. Most obviously, our libraries simply cannot continue to grow indefinitely. No one can look at all the stuff -- "crap," if I may quote Larkin once again -- that comes into them, year after year, and really suppose that the growth processes to which we have become accustomed even in austere economic conditions can continue much longer.

Enthusiasts may see no problem. Books, after all, are good things. If two books are good things, then four are very good, and eight must be terrific. Right? But someone has to pay -- to pay cash money, as we used to call it, before it simply became credit-card money, which is a different thing -- for the space, the buildings, the light, the heat, the temperature and humidity controls, the people, the management tools, the provision of access to the books that simply keep on accumulating . . . and there seems to be a growing body of evidence that that someone has begun to tire of this situation. The Library of Congress now has about twenty to twenty-two million printed books. What is it going to look like when it is twice that size? Does anyone believe it will run better then than it runs now? In fact, does anyone believe it actually will grow to twice its current size in its holdings of printed books?

For there are other changes in addition to the costs associated with size that make for problems, too. Reformatting printed materials (whether to "preserve" them or to make them "accessible" for an electronic and digital era) has been a hot topic for about two decades. Those of us who are traditional book people don't worry seriously about this issue. We know that we will never curl up at night with a computer screen, and therefore the book, in its codex form, its utility successfully demonstrated for the past millennium, will continue to be the format of choice for readers of all sorts for the foreseeable future. (See, on this subject, the surprisingly witless essays in Nunberg's anthology, The Future of the Book, cited above.)

This is a comfortable insight into our collective futures. I happen not to believe it. I think we are on the verge of choosing to lose a lot of what the past has produced by our choice not to reformat and digitize it. We are making such choices daily -- and thoughtlessly and unsystematically, overly confident of the long-term viability of our own cultural bias toward print. Conscious people plan for change. Unconscious people drift with it.

Of course, my verb -- "to lose," as in "to lose a lot of what the past has produced" -- may seem too strong here. Not all manuscripts were "reformatted" -- printed -- when movable type began to provide multiple copies of works hitherto available only a copy at a time, yet we still have many manuscripts that predate Gutenberg. Ever-improving cataloging methods, as well as the use of the web to provide easily accessible information about manuscript holdings, will make these manuscripts even more crucial a part of the intellectual life of our time.

Does a single person take seriously that last sentence? Manuscripts that used to play some sort of vital role in the culture of their period now play the role of footballs in the athletic contests of scholars; but, with remarkably few exceptions, the bulk of what constituted "letters" before Gutenberg is as dead as Caligula, as Cassiodorus, as St. Augustine. I am, I think, not unaware of the exceptions. But however many you can throw at me, they represent but the tiniest slice through the enormous body of the beast whose death they have survived. For manuscript culture is dead. By far the vast majority of the manuscript works that once constituted it are gone, unread, unconsidered, by all but the most rarefied academic intelligences of our era.

Is it clear that I'm not saying that this is "a good thing"? But I do think it is a true thing. We are looking at an immediate prospect of repeating precisely the same process.

We ought to know better. We've got the manuscript's past as our precedent. Are "thoughtless" and "unsystematic" the only ways for us to proceed?

Some years ago, G. Thomas Tanselle (in Libraries, Museums, and Reading, the 6th Sol. M. Malkin Lecture which was published by the Book Arts Press in 1991) wrote movingly about the need libraries have to conserve and preserve the human heritage in print. No piece of ephemera was too small for Tanselle's plea; no third edition; no railroad timetable. In a review of his essay written for CAN: Conservation Administration News (no. 48 [January 1992], pp. 24-25), I suggested that the Tanselle doctrine was not a useful roadmap to our conservatorial future. In an environment glutted by print, and wanting a corresponding glut of money, staff, and time, not everything is going to be saved. Face that fact, and start deciding what we must save, what we can lose, and what, given sufficient resources, we might want to save if it survives to the time when we can get back to it. A prescription to save everything is effectively a license, I argued in my review, to save nothing. Not a single thing has changed my mind since that exchange.

In July of 1998, writing in The New York Times under the headline "We Can't Save Everything" (July 6, 1998, p. A11), Deanna B. Marcum, President of the Council of Library Resources, said much the same thing. Alas, she didn't say it very well. Moreover, her point of view is anathema to people who do what I do for a living and are dedicated to preserving our printed heritage. Unsurprisingly, therefore, she elicited a good deal of negative mumbling in the community in which I move.

But I think she's right.

A moment of "I-am-not-now-nor-have-I-ever-been" may be necessary at this point. I do like books. I read them. I teach students about them, substantively in literature courses, methodologically in librarianship courses. I buy them. I keep them. I reread them. I use them. I do all of this personally -- and then I do it all over again institutionally. I live a life up to my gizzard in books, and I love nearly everything about it and about them.

But Marcum is right -- and right about broader issues than conservation alone. We cannot save it all. And -- I am also convinced -- we don't really want to save it all (at least in secret, secret, perhaps, even from ourselves). If we think we can save it, if we think we want to save it, then we are going to make tremendous errors of judgment, allowing stuff to perish that we might actually have saved and want, persuaded by our own illusion that we'll get to it in time or that we can reformat it before it becomes so old and antiquated that no one cares any longer; and we'll do these things because we've been distracted by our illusion that it all needs saving.

We must, in short, think about why some books live and why some books don't. We need to ask whether we can, in any way, shape, manner, or form, begin to delineate criteria to help us distinguish between the quick and the dead, or between candidates for ongoing vivacity and artificial life-support. Humility will be an aid here. We know that great literary minds in the last century discarded Dickens from libraries and paid remarkably little attention to Melville. In our own time, we know the literary non-existence of, say, Louis L'Amour and John Grisham ("know" it, frequently, without having bothered to do anything quite so low as to read them), and are just as confident about our judgments as our forebears were about theirs. We might just be wrong, as they were. But ultimately some effort at judgment and distinction, knowing that we will make mistakes, is required of us. Perfection is not in the cards. Effort, however, can be. Our mistakes will make for amusing (or derisory) stories in someone else's book -- or in whatever form "books" eventually take -- when their history comes to be told. If, by then, anyone still cares. But we will have escaped those stories, will, in fact, have escaped history. We'll be dead. It's the present we cannot escape.


By now, most of you will have realized that what you are reading is introductory to a much longer work, some of which has already appeared (or is about to) as articles, some of which remains written only in my head, or completely unwritten, and all of which is heading, I hope, towards reconsideration of the issue here posed. My effort is to think about a set of interrelated questions:

  1. what libraries collect;
  2. what libraries don't collect;
  3. why libraries make the decisions about what to collect they make;
  4. and why libraries are (and, obviously, whether they should be) so devoted to impossible ideals of universal preservation (the goal of universal acquisition having been effectively, although not intellectually, abandoned long ago).

Those ideals seem to me to reflect an imperialism transferred unreflectively from the political to the cultural sphere, and not really much more workable in the one than it proved in the other. They seem to me also founded on a vast array of illusions, the unperishability of books being the first (and perhaps the most determining) of them. The value "we" all place on research is itself another assumption whose untestedness makes it, I would argue, the equivalent of another illusion, and perhaps nowhere so obviously as in the humanities.

Of course, no one can look at everything, let alone master everything (an imperialistic turn of phrase, that!). But one person can at least begin the process of looking at dead and dying books -- "heroic reading," Nina Baym called it -- and trying to categorize them, as I have done, very roughly, in an earlier section of this essay, and then evaluating them. I concentrated, as you may have noticed, on those kinds of books -- literature and books about literature -- in which I have something that approximates professional training, as well as some breadth of experience. You have heard one part of this effort. Other parts, as I've mentioned, have already been published or are about to appear -- although without the benefit of my own realization that this was the central topic around which they all revolve. I think we need some realism about what our libraries do from people whose focus is not costs alone. I think we need some realism about the usefulness of books from people who do not think they are a waste of time (or money!) and that the worldwide web or film are adequate replacements for them. I think we need some realism about the lifespan of books from people who love them anyway. And I think we need, perhaps most of all, some realistic examination of a system of book culture that has overproduced many books that are going to die of age or neglect or from failure to be reformatted -- or, forgive me, from just plain badness -- and that is able and willing in the course of that examination to try to articulate means of distinguishing between books that must be saved and books we can -- because we will -- live without.

I think we need realistically to come to grips with limits. I think we need to come realistically to grips with mortality. I think we may even need to admit that, counterintuitive as it may seem to "us," there are not only some books that will die, but also some that should. And then start choosing.

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