Sunday, December 19, 2004

a home universal library

In today's NYTimes' Week in Review, Alberto Manguel places new efforts of Google in the context of the quest for 'universal knowledge'. People who know me through my bookselling, think of the avant-gardes as the core of my collecting (or selling) interests, but a few friends know my own library, which lives in an apartment carved out of an old post-and-beam barn in Maine, is really my humble attempt to establish a Library of Alexandria for myself. It's the antithesis of my avant-garde inventory; scholarly editions of the works of thinkers from cave painting to modern Portuguese poetry, with major sections of classical philosophy, medieval history, early technology and odd books on small facets of human activity like bee keeping, automatons, or monks and viniculture. For years this library has grown in fits and starts, usually dependent upon my proximity to a great general shop. Powell's in Chicago (Hyde Park), The Brattle in Boston and the Strand have contributed to it greatly at various times. I have yet to assemble the whole library in one location, and look forward to doing so one day, perhaps after we move to the Hudson Valley this coming year. The library remains beyond my ability to read in the time remaining on my life clock, and there are numerous books in languages I have no plan to learn, so why have it at all?

There's been an awful lot of handwringing going on at the booksellers' newsgroups lately about Google's plans to place online books from the collections of major research libraries. Some think this is the last straw for reading culture as we know it, and expect their trade to dry up as well, which is ridiculous. Art is not what it used to be, and yet the trade in art from previous centuries is more brisk than ever. And as we saw the daily use of low-brow booze and tobacco products wane in the last two decades, the demand for quality wine, liquor and cigars has grown exponentially.

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