The picture above was taken today of the home office I’ve set up in the basement of my house since retiring. The picture shows fewer than half of the books in that room. There are also sizable numbers of books in the living room, bedrooms, basement hallway, and the room we refer to as “the book room.” I got the idea of calling it that from T.E. Lawrence, whose home “Clouds Hill” had a book room, a bunk room, a music room, and a bathroom. I did a rough count of the books in my house recently. By counting the books on a couple of shelves I worked out that one of my books on average occupied 1 inch of shelf space. I then took a tape measure around the house and measured the bookshelves. I came up with an estimate of 3600 books. This was a little disappointing, because I had come up with a similar estimate a few years ago! I have been buying books since then, disposing of only a few, and when I retired I took an estimated 500 books home from my office and a common room across the hall. Well, they were rough estimates. My books are organized by genre. I enjoy locating a book in my collection, or just browsing through them as a break from writing.
I agree with what Susan Sontag said of her book collection, which is that it is both personal history and also a reflection of social and intellectual history of ones times. I have a few books that were in my house when I was a kid. A couple were passed down from grandparents and my parents’ siblings. I have a copy of Rupert Brooke’s poems given to my grandmother. On the inside cover is written,”From Mother and Papa/To Fleeta Dec 25-1916.” We have a copy of Mary Poppins stories published in the 20’s that belonged to my mother’s brother. I have some of the first books I bought on my own as an adolescent. I bought the first volume of Bertrand Russell’s autobiography at Brentano’s in Greenwich Village on a trip to the city when I was about 15. Others are from my active duty days and grad school, my Joseph Conrad and E.M. Forster phases (never quite ended), Wittgenstein and postmodernism, and my growing professional library, maybe starting with The Washing of the Spears on the Zulu Wars by Donald Morris.
I think my favorite part of my book collection is the subset that made it into my sons’ rooms, chosen and appropriated by them. I had always hoped that my books might form a kind of family legacy. Not so much the books themselves, but the memory of them and of growing up in a house with books. The kindle and other electronic books have undeniable advantages, but I can’t imagine them lending themselves to a family home the way the old books do.
My work on Soldiers and Civilization involved a lot of books, some of which have made it into the “permanent collection.” In writing my next book, “How to Think Like an Officer,” I’ve been reading some new books, but also combing my collection for some of the books I first read years ago, since I am interested in how reading, maybe early reading in particular, forms the way we think, often in ways that are hidden from us. A book that fed my youthful interest in the military was Ernest Tucker’s The Story of Knights and Armor, a collection of illustrated historical vignettes from Roman through medieval times. The stories were simple but feeling, almost always with a young soldier who makes a rocky start but does well in the end through pluck and brains. (I knew that would be me!) Later reading and experience would give me a more complex picture of soldiers and armies (and of myself!) but the underlying idealism of those early stories I suspect never quite left me, sometimes for ill but mostly in a way for which I continue to be grateful.