Our author is absolutely not prepared to admit that bookshelves are a dying bree.
Last of all, I led my friend into the “shared room.” After many years, I had treated myself to a new television set, a cool Samsung model, the work of French designers. It stands on four spindly legs and resembles a sheep that’s been flattened by a steamroller. My friend nodded appreciatively, said, “Not bad, absolutely state of the art.” He seemed to like the TV, but then I noticed a furrow on his brow and a dark look in his eyes. “What?” I asked. “That,” he said, pointing to somewhere behind me as though he had seen a ghost there. But there was no ghost. I said, “It’s a bookshelf.” “Exactly,” was the reply – “What’s wrong with it?” I asked, “Is it tipping over?” – “No,” he said, “but … who in Heaven’s name still has a bookshelf these days? I mean… what for? It’s so – so yesterday.” He made a dismissive gesture. “Well,” I countered, “it is very practical, as shelves often are.” He smiled. Was that pity in his eyes? “There’s nothing wrong with shelves as such, but why keep books you’ve already read? A bookshelf is nothing but the educated person’s three-dimensional wallpaper, a massive boast: Look here! See how smart I am!” Perplexed, I fell silent, as he plowed on undeterred. “You’ll never use any of them again, all the tomes and novels; and a book is there to be consumed – or do you really intend to read them all again?”
My friend stepped up to the bookshelf, picked out a volume at random and read the title in an undertone. Harte Männer tanzen nicht (the original English title sounds better: Tough Guys Don’t Dance). He shook his head and said, with a firmer voice: Tough guys don’t have bookshelves, either. What a man needs is a few great coffee-table books, some of those big things Taschen publishes, a hefty one by someone like Helmut Newton. Now that’s got style.”
The “shared room” is called that because it’s the television room but also the library. Well, library sounds a bit much; there’s just one bookshelf in there, one crafted my father-in-law. My father-in-law was a surgeon. On retiring, he found himself a congenial occupation that allowed him to work with similar tools to the ones he used in the operating room and similarly to serve humanity: carpentry. When we told him we were looking for a bookshelf for our new home, he was there straight away, measuring up – and three days later the bookcase was in place: 300 centimeters long, 245 high, 25 deep, with adjustable-height shelves. I loved it from the first, and that was 13 years ago.
There are 847 books in it right now. They are thin, thick, so so, light, heavy, illustrated, linen-bound. Some I devoured, others I only got halfway through and still others I closed after just a page. What they all have in common is that I want to have them close. Because I need them.
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I come from a home where there was no bookshelf – because there were no books. There was a bible, but no one ever really read it. It had been a give-away at my parents’ wedding and lay henceforth collecting dust on their nightstand. There was also my father’s tractor handbook, but otherwise there were no books. Books only entered my life later on (but were all the more important to me for that). Maybe that’s why I want to have them around me. Because I missed them back then, even though I wasn’t aware that I missed them? So that I can reach for them and the information they contain anytime? A good phrase or a clever thought can sometimes help you to cope with the daily round, after all – even if it’s a title like Tough Guys Don’t Dance, which actually happens to be an amazing book by Normal Mailer.
And yes, maybe I really will read them all again, one day, when I have the time to read them entirely at my leisure, one after the other. The more I think about it, the more appealing that notion becomes.