Dean Andrew Scrimgeour
Dean Andrew Scrimgeour

Books have long evoked deep emotion from their readers and owners. Libraries have, too. Especially the public library of one’s youth. Even the library where one studied during college days often enjoys similar sentimental status. These bonds of affection also extend to the smaller collections accumulated book by book by scholars over the course of their careers—attachments that abound among their students, colleagues, and families.

I know this to be true, because of the mail that I have received in response to my recent essay in The New York Times Book Review—a piece that explored my thoughts and feelings when I dismantle the library of a scholar upon her or his death and prepare it for transport to the Drew University Library.(1) These letters carried such pathos and craft of language that I wanted a larger audience to enjoy a sampling.

The son of the theologian Robert McAfee Brown wrote:
My dad died in 2001. Almost 10 years later, a librarian at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California dealt with us as though these books were living reflections of him. The process extended our time and enabled us to say goodbye in even deeper and more resonant ways.
It’s a sad business — the wrapping up and the transposing of something that mirrors the heart of someone you love — but [he] made us feel as though the books, and the thought they represented, were still intricately connected to the mind and soul of our Papa.

Several writers sent me copies of books and articles they had published. Among them was Christopher De Vinck. He sensed what had prompted my written meditation:

To know that we are living a unique experience not to be lived again gives us a sense of immediate contemplation.

The daughter of a rabbi wrote:
The house of my parents had an entire floor designated as ”Abba’s Library”. . . . It was there that so many of the mysteries of the world were resolved with books, and questions that my schoolteachers did not answer to my satisfaction were clarified with the guidance of my father and his library…. When I randomly take one of his books in my hands and begin to read, I am reconnected with [him]….

The former provost of Lafayette College, June Schleuter, wrote:
When I peruse my 12-foot wall of Shakespeare books or feel the warmth of my “scriptorium” envelop me as I struggle with the next academic essay or book, I look with affection at the spines of my indispensable library—perhaps the best of its kind—and wonder how, when beyond the grave, I could possibly not care about it anymore.

Michael Lydon paid tribute to the library of an historian that filled an old white house in the New Hampshire countryside and mused:
“What is a book? Why is a book? How do books survive the long years when no one opens their pages? How from this sleep can they spring to life the moment our eyes take in their opening words?”

A professor in Michigan wrote about a faculty colleague who had extreme eclectic tastes: “The experience of  [seeing] a book by Lenny Bruce right next to a Greek lexicon was startling and jarring, but also made me sense something new about my colleague and his pattern of thought.”

And the mail was not without humor. A professor wrote that his wife said that he had enjoyed my essay because he wanted to be a scholar whose personal library would be sought out by others.
Want to be?” he retorted. “I thought I already was!”

I chuckled when I read the perspective of a used bookstore owner:
At parties, or when visiting a new friend’s apartment, I forgo the awkward introductions and small talk and beeline for the bookshelf. Not only is it a good place for a socially awkward person to hide while appearing engaged and intelligent, it’s also—as any good sleuth knows—the best place in a person’s apartment to suss her out as a potential friend, lover, stalker, or bore. A cursory glance suggests her interests and tastes, but an informed investigation of a bookshelf is often more revealing than talking.

One scholar chided me for ruining an otherwise fine essay by mentioning the growing popularity of e-books. Interestingly, no one wrote about the delights of reading on a Kindle or iPad. Can there be abiding affection for things that are not meant to last but a few years, even if they reside in designer cases? I wonder.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Visions, the Library newsletter.

(1) December 30, 2012.