My Books and Me

The Bookworm, by Carl Spitzweg, a copy of which sits behind my desk.

A pile of them appeared on the countertop the other day. Ten, maybe twelve, the result of two trips to Vibes and Scribes in Cork who had just had a Theology PhD student’s entire library turned over for cash. Some were former library books, themselves acquired no doubt second-hand, still with their tags in place. Some older editions; a few primary texts; some contemporary commentaries. I note my name, the month and year, ‘Vibes and Scribes’ as the source, and log them on LibraryThing. This bunch of books was not acquired as part of a deliberate course of study or investigation – just generally interesting and opportunistically (and cheaply) sourced, so they don’t get much else in the way of notes – at least not immediately. If there was a particular thought or connection that caused me to select a particular book, I’ll note it. A book riffing on themes from the movie The Matrix – ‘ref Baudrillard; simulacra’; a book on angelic spirituality – ‘angelology; ref Agamben; Economic Theology; hierarchy, Pseudo-Dionysus.’ I don’t care much for the intrinsic value of the things; so writing on them is part of how they are consumed. The second hand books are so much more valuable when they have legible clear notes, or emphasis added from former readers.

Through the lockdown, they’ve arrived regularly, mostly by post, maybe two or three a week. An online course, an article or a tweet triggers a thought, a line of investigation, landing on an author, an academic, a novel. Each line of thought may thread with another – there are usually some common themes; these days Christian theology, political theology and certain aspects of economics seem to dominate. New technology books – on ethics and law – intermittently pop up too. Occasionally books turn up that I need for the work I’m actually paid for, which appear almost as pollutants. Most of the books arriving from various online sources are part of a reasonably coherent course of study that will add to it. Sometimes it can take three or four weeks, especially when coming from second hand bookstores in America. When they arrive, I sometimes have to dive back into notes, writing, emails, to remember the context that triggered it. Why was this important? What thread did it support?

The books take time to settle once they’ve arrived. Their importance is current with my interests and other reading, and so they remain on the countertop, or on the ad-hoc shelf closest to my desk, for a few weeks. During that time, they are occasionally picked up, thumbed; some notes are added. Sometimes I’ll note a genealogy of books, their connections and dependencies and references. Some I’ll dive into, sitting somewhere quiet, without the screens, and just bring a notebook and a pen. There’s a thrill that is entirely intoxicating as one strand of thought intersects with another, especially those most unusual occurrences that cross disciplines. A scientist – Einstein, Copernicus, Darwin – or an economist – Keynes, Hayek, Friedman – and a theologian – Aquinas, Barth or Schmitt – butted up against one another as two misfit partners in a formulaic cop show. What can they possibly have to say about one another? The juxtaposition uncovers something fundamental about each of them. It’s a discovery, a revealing. Maybe it’s a blog post.

Through those weeks that the newly acquired books sit on the counter, or the ad hoc shelf, more books arrive. Every month or six weeks, they need to be organized. Those books that still need attention, they’re retained. Others are sent to their shelf, their section. They are ordered. Mine is no large library, but there is some order; there is a philosophy section of three or four shelves including general introductions, anthologies primary sources and commentaries; a critical theory section including random Weimar texts; sociology (with lots of Zizek), economics (with some politics), politics (with some history and some economics), history (including Thucydides), classics (including Plato and Hesiod). Technology has three shelves. There is a section – five shelves – on fiction; one on poetry. One shelf on theology (including Voegelin), one on ecology-slash-feminism. One on art, one with journals. One shelf is given to Habermas, accelerationists, and random twentieth and twenty-first century European philosophers, who have yet to be categorized. There’s one shelf for Carl Schmitt, Heidegger, and Deleuze, with one book by Judith Butler.

‘For Umberto Eco,’ writes Alberto Manguel in The Library At Night, ‘a library should have a haphazard, flea-market quality.’ There’s a kind of order – things are on boxes, or inconsistent shelves; but there’s always a chance – quite a strong chance – that the unexpected thing might be there. There’s bound to be something that at this time, for this reader, in this place, beckons the index finger to pull on the spine.

Sun bursting through the windows on a Sunday morning, I’ll start with my notebook, and begin or take up the thread. It starts with a key thought, a key author, a key book. But what’s beside that book? What are its connected volumes? Five books come down when one was sought. The idea develops, morphs, evolves. It gets sketched, either as a blog post, or as an email to a friend, or as a word document. On the more ambitious mornings, often during holiday times when more time is likely to be available, there might be a sketch of a novel, or a straight up non-fiction book. None is finished, though dozens of frameworks sit waiting for the work to be done; I don’t know if one will ever be done. It’s the next chapter, and I guess we’ll find out!

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