I am on the road in Germany and, as is my habit, I have a pile of unread magazines and papers in my suitcase for consumption on trains, planes, and hotel rooms. Picking up last November 7th’s New Yorker, I happened upon a haunting reflection by James Wood (a Harvard English professor, I gather) on a recently deceased father-in-law he (mostly) resented and on the private library of the said gentleman. Woods is sceptical of private libraries, and seemed to voice my own increasing dislike of books as personal possessions. Up until now, I have written this off as indicating merely an encroachment of philistinism, but Woods made me think again:
Theodor Adorno, in his essay “On Popular Music,” pours disdain on the way in which, when we hear a popular hit, we think we are making a personal possession of it (“That’s my song, the song that was playing when I first kissed X”), while in fact this “apparently isolated, individual experience of a particular song” is being shared with millions of other people . . . [H]ow is a library . . . anything but the same kind of self-deception? Isn’t a private library simply a universal legacy pretending to be an individual one?
Adorno hated the way that capitalism, and the brand of it he called the Culture Industry, turned impalpabilities like art works into things. But there is no escaping that books are most definitely things, and I was struck, as I worked through my father-in-law’s books, how quickly I became alienated by their rather stupid materiality. I began to resent his avariciousness, which resembled, in death, any other kind of avariciousness for objects. . . .
The books somehow made him smaller, not larger, as if they were whispering “What a little thing a single human life is . . . “ All ruins say this, yet we strangely persist in pretending that books are not ruins, not broken columns.