Jethro Lieberman '64 on "The Thing About Books"
The Thing About Books
Why downsizing to a mere 650 boxes of them makes good sense
The American Scholar
September 6, 2016
When I told friends that I was retiring after 15 years in law and journalism, followed by 33 years of teaching, I got one consistent piece of advice: “Get rid of the books.” I laughed at first and then grew annoyed as my friends harped. I imagined a stern Ronald Reagan pointing his finger at me, demanding: “Mr. Lieberman, tear down those bookshelves.”
I’ve been accumulating books since I was nine or ten, some for sentimental reasons, like Walter R. Brooks’s Freddy series (also good for the grandchildren), some because I really do mean to read them, like Stephen Jay Gould’s Full House and all his natural history essays, and the handsome Modern Library edition of The Pickwick Papers with watercolor illustrations, published in 1943, the year I was born. Now that I finally have time to appreciate these volumes, my friends were insisting that it was time to let them go.
“You’re downsizing,” they pressed. “Your books take up a lot of space.” That they did, and do. I was staring at 82 bookcases. It’s the reason, I think, that I tolerated the commute and lived in the suburbs, where you can usually find another wall for the carpenter to cover when the last open bookshelf overflows. Downsizing, sure — everything but the books.
“You can’t read them all.” Of course not. At one book a day, someone pointed out, I’d need to live to 116 just to get through the whole library. That’s considerably less than not likely. But I could consult (much less read) even fewer of them when I had a job. I’ve always thought that if you’ve read all your books, your library is too small.
“You could pick out at least some to get rid of,” a few well-wishers persisted. But which? Pedro Carolino’s English as She Is Spoke? Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation? Middlemarch, just when I can finally sit down to read it? The Library of America? Certainly not Ross Thomas or my complete collections of the incomparable James Branch Cabell and Aubrey Menen, or those other great works I haven’t yet read: War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov, or, for that matter, Infinite Jest. Martin Gardner stays. Also Lewis Mumford, Charles E. Lindblom, John Updike’s Bech books, Robert Darnton, Zadie Smith, Alexander McCall Smith, Thorne Smith, and Muriel Spark, Elizabeth Strout, and Carolyn See. Plus Banesh Hoffmann’s The Strange Story of the Quantum and all those later works on physics by other writers as the story got ever more complicated. Nor can I toss books only partly read: with apologies to Thomas Powers, I haven’t yet finished The Killing of Crazy Horse; to Robert Kaiser, whose Act of Congress is still marked at page 107; to Edward A. Purcell Jr., whose Brandeis and the Progressive Constitution I’m only halfway through; to Stephen Greenblatt, whose The Swerve I swerved from somewhere near the photographs; and to Annette Gordon-Reed: I’ll catch up with The Hemingses of Monticello in their later years if the book remains with me. I doubt I’ll ever open Heidegger, Hegel, or Husserl, but they can’t just be pitched. Who knows what strange itch their pages might scratch? And the autographed books. (Where do you autograph an e-book?)
Maybe I’m being a bit exuberant (read: misleading). I did cull. Among a set of inherited books I found a few dated 1945 with titles like Atomic Energy and You; also, critiques of 19th-century Hungarian literature and four (short) shelves of other oddments. Out they went. And my nearly pristine “collection” of hundreds of old computer manuals. I assumed that computer museums would come clamoring, but like most self-evident assumptions, it was wrong. The many museums I queried lusted only for hardware. Local libraries were equally dismissive. All to recycling, alas.
When I pointed to these divestitures, my friends persisted. Having my best interests at heart, they were confident the rest could as easily be scrapped. “What do you need them for?” Partly for comfort, I suppose. I have been around books nearly three-quarters of a century, as reader, student, teacher, owner, author, and even, occasionally, editor and publisher. They have defined much of my life. What would I put in their place? What would I do all day? Some of my pals said I could teach a course. If I wanted to teach a course, I wouldn’t have stopped teaching. I’d still be drawing a salary.
Urging me to keep doing what I had been doing seemed to contradict their insistent advice to toss all the books: if you’re retiring, my friends were arguing, then you won’t have to take on any more of the writing that kept you in on Saturday nights. Writing is work, isn’t it? If you’re retired, you won’t need to, will you? Cool it, they were saying: now at last you’ll have time for real life. Which is what? When relief from daily tasks is now at hand, I should surrender the opportunity? I’m not sure why life’s major preoccupations should wither when the mortgage has finally been satisfied and a pension pays for meals.
A writer reads and writes. And, hoping hugely here, does so even into serious old age. I suppose if I had continued to be a department-store stock boy, as I once was, and hated every minute of it but plugged on until, if lucky, an annuity arrived, then I could just stop. But until Philip Roth announced it, I’d never supposed that a writer could retire. Roth of course earned the right (though I’m willing to place a small bet that he’s not done).
We’ve moved and downsized now, all but the books. My elbow has recovered from shelving the contents of the 650 cartons the movers brought, enough to take me at one book a day to my 117th birthday. (More have come in.) They’re there to support my writing projects, some conceived long ago, some recently, all still gestating. Golfers golf. Travelers travel. Writers keep reading and writing, don’t they? Surrounded by their books.
Jethro K. Lieberman is Martin Professor of Law Emeritus at New York Law School and the author of The Litigious Society, Liberalism Undressed, and many other books.