Thomas Jefferson famously stated, “I cannot live without books”. In fact, this quote is so well-known that you can find it on tote bags and coffee mugs, and it is the motto of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association.
Unfortunately other lifestyle choices, including a proclivity for fine French wine and cuisine – combined with participation in an unsustainable plantation economy – forced him to reluctantly sell his entire library later in life. The single bidder was the United States government, and the precious volumes became the genesis of the Library of Congress. But Jefferson just couldn’t help himself, and immediately resumed his lifelong book-buying habit.
I can relate to that. It seems to me that there are worse ways to run yourself into debt.
But I suspect his heirs probably would have disagreed. After his death, his only surviving white child, his daughter Martha, was forced to liquidate all of his “property” (in the code of the times: slaves), plus his beloved Monticello home and its valuable contents to pay those debts.
It is no secret that writers tend to also be voracious readers. Here’s another trait that Tom and I share – though our subject matter decidedly differs (I can’t exactly claim anything like the Declaration of Independence or Notes on the State of Virginia). But I do come by it naturally. I grew up in a family that was so addicted to reading that we even had magazine racks in the bathroom (yes, even in the outhouse at my grandparents’ ranch). I can’t think of anyone in my immediate or extended family who didn’t read.
In fact, all my life I have pretty much taken it for granted that reading is as crucial for sustaining life as water and air. At one point when I was growing up I was the proud owner of library cards from two different libraries. Actually, it never occurred to me until just recently that one of those libraries was located directly across the street from my house! Coincidence?
As I have mentioned before in this space, I spent summers with my grandparents on their isolated ranch in the Black Hills of South Dakota. In the early years there was no electricity, and they never did get running water, so in addition to tons of chores, we had to make our own entertainment. During the winter my grandparents hoarded all the magazines and books that came their way and brought them to the ranch for the reading pleasure of our many visitors. Grandma always used to say, “When you have a summer place in the Black Hills, you can expect a lot of company.”
Now that I myself live in the Black Hills I’ve managed to successfully avoid excessive visitors with the simple expediency of a home that has more offices than beds. The book problem however, is another matter.
I have books stashed in drawers, under furniture, in closets, and in every room in the house – with the overflow in the garage. I have books in containers designed for magazines. I have stacks of books that I haven’t read.
There are stand-alone bookcases and built-in bookcases – some of them seven feet tall. The books stacked on my bedside table sometimes reach eye level. I have three or four coffee table books under every lamp in the living room, and even as a pedestal for my buffalo sculpture.
I have college textbooks which I couldn’t bear to discard (but only for elective courses. I had no trouble parting with the books for required courses). I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some textbooks from high school in there somewhere.
I have a substantial collection of bookmarks and assorted book-related items.
Despite the evidence, I still do patronize the library, and regularly place requests for inter-library loans and freely suggest purchases.
So although my personal library does not approach the thousands that Jefferson owned, I have managed to drastically rein in my book-buying habits. Between the public library and Kindle it is now at least manageable.
Not surprisingly this obsession has spread to my offspring. After my most recent move, as my daughter and I were unpacking the endless boxes of books, she remarked with a sigh, “It’s not home until the books are all on the shelves.”
And it isn’t.