What Your Library Tells You About Yourself

My personal library extends to more than a thousand books. They are lined up two rows deep on my bookshelves, with the old potboilers — mainly science fiction and mysteries — hidden behind the more impressive volumes.

Whenever a visitor looks at my bookshelves, sooner or later they always get around to asking me the same question: “Have you really read all of these books?”

I know they are asking this question because they are no longer accustomed to finding large numbers of books on display in someone else’s home. My usual answer is that I am going to read them all…eventually.

Throughout my life, I have purchased books on the basis of what interests me at that moment in time. My library is therefore a diary of my thought process going back over the past forty years.

There are groups of books about history, philosophy, psychology, politics, poetry, religion, Sufism, Neurolinguistic programming, economics and mysticism. (I categorize economics and mysticism as one topic.) I have a complete collection of Robert Parker’s Spenser series, and a complete collection of Robert Heinlein’s works. I also have an odd assortment of how-to and self-help volumes.

Most of my books have no intrinsic value. (Most of them are paperbacks, of course.) The value of used books has fallen dramatically since the advent of Kindle. They don’t even have sentimental value, except for my first edition of the Whole Earth Catalog and a dog eared copy of Ulysses from my college days.

I keep them because they speak volumes about the shifting focus of my personal interests over the years…and because it is absolutely essential to your intellectual life that you keep EVERYTHING you read (and everything you ever intended to read) because that’s the only way you can track down the sources of your beliefs.

This is an essential problem in the information age. Where did this piece of data come from? I ask myself that question over and over again as write articles. Every time I dredge up a fact from my memory, I have to be able to document where that fact came from.

That’s not as hard as it sounds, because — when your books are categorized according to the Dewey Decimal System (or any other scheme for data organization for that matter) — you can quickly find the group of books from which the information might have come, making it easier to figure out where that fact really came from.

In my library, there are certain key books that I come back to over again over again. “American Theocracy,” by Kevin Philips, “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,” by Julian Jaynes, everything by Malcolm Gladwell (a guilty pleasure, I admit.) The list goes on and on. Have I read every one of my essential books. No, but I keep coming back to them when I need to refresh my memory about the key points in each book.

Today, with the constant saturation of data (and data are not information, nor are they facts) coming at us from the internet, it has become much harder to keep track of where your “facts” came from. It has also become much more important to keep track of where your ideas came from because so much of the data on the internet is of questionable veracity.

Alan is a poet, journalist, short story writer, editor, website developer, and political activist. He is the executive editor of BindleSnitch.com.

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