I assume that most of the people reading this would agree that a book is for reading. The writer of the book puts their words down on the page and the reader reads them; it is a form of interpersonal communication. However, if one stops to think about it books also fulfil many other functions and book historian Tom Mole has not only thought long and deeply about it but has put those thoughts down, as a series of essays, in the pages of a book to read, his delightful The Secret Life of Books: why they mean more than words, which has recently appeared in paperback.
I will say a bit more about Mole’s book about books not just being books to read in a bit, but first I want to sketch what books have meant in my life, thoughts provoked by his opening essay. Mole describes a university professor, he had as a student, whose office slowly disappeared under steadily increasing number of books. Ever more books meant ever more bookcases until the weight threatened the structural integrity of the building. This is a scenario that speaks volumes to me, and I suspect to many other lifelong book consumers.
I grew up in a house full of books. My father was a university teacher, and my mother was a voracious book reader. Reading books was an integral part of our family life, as long as I can remember. We, the four kids in the family, had a playroom, when we were small. In this playroom there was a book cupboard containing a collection of several hundred children’s books, a collection that grew steadily every year. I had taught myself to read by the time I was about three years old and at around the same age I acquired my first library card. Once a week the family would walk the short stretch to the village library, housed in the primary school, and each one of us would choose new reading matter for the following seven days. My mother always returned from these trips with four new novels, which would be consumed before the next outing. That library was a treasure trove; I can still remember the joy I experienced the first time I discovered Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon. Later I was always excited to take home a new volume of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers or Richmal Crompton’s William Brown series.
Moving forward in time, when my mother died I, as the only child still living at home, was pushed off to boarding school, there was an excellent school library, and my father and I left our Essex village and moved to London, where my father worked. At the beginning we didn’t have a house, so we lived in the Royal Anthropological Institute on Bedford Square, which my father ran in those days. He had a small bedsitting room with an attached kitchen, that was his office and during the school holidays or weekends home I slept, on an inflatable mattress, on the floor of the Sir Richard Burton Library, that’s the nineteenth century explorer infamous for his translation of The Perfumed Garden. I can assure you that the bookshelves only contained boring tomes on geography, anthropology etc., and no porn, I checked.
When we did finally acquire a house in Colville Place, one of the most beautiful streets in London. My father and I spent several weeks lining the walls of the house with self-constructed bookshelves to house not only his books from our family home but from his office at the RAI and his office at SOAS, where he taught. That house didn’t need any wall paper. During the time that I lived there, now a maturing teenager, I perused many of the fascinating volumes on those shelves covering a bewildering range of topics.
Over the years, books continued to play a very central role in my life and I still own quite a few of the volumes that I acquired over the next decade that very much shaped the historian I am today. For example, Hofstader’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, Lakatos’ Proofs and Refutations, Criticism and the Growthof Knowledge edited by Lakatos & Musgrave, Polya’s How to Solve It, and Boyer’s A History of Mathematics. They are old friends and have shared my living spaces for more than forty years.
As regular readers of this blog will know, I moved to Germany forty years ago and one year later I started to study at the University of Erlangen. The professor, who most influenced and shaped me, Christian Thiel, is also a serious book consumer. The walls of his university office were completely covered with books and over the years his desk, the windowsills and the floor all acquired steadily growing piles of books. Thiel is the owner of a fairly large house and he is also a serious collector of logic books, he is said to own the second largest such private collection in the world. The walls of most of the rooms in his house are lined with this collection. It reached a point where his wife dictated that he could only acquire new volumes if he sold the same width in centimetres of the old ones.
The walls of my small appartement, where I am sitting typing this, are also lined with bookshelves, except for the 2,60 metres covered by my CD shelves. Those bookshelves are filled, to overflowing and the piles of not shelved books continue to grow. I keep telling myself that I must stop acquiring books or at least dispose of some of them but the thought of parting with one of them is on a par with the thought of having teeth extracted without anaesthetic and as I write, four new books are winging there way to my humble abode from various corners of the world.
My name is Thony and I am a bookaholic.
Returning to the volume that inspired this autobiographical outburst, as already mentioned above, Tom Mole’s book is really a collection of eight essays each of which deals with a different aspect of the book as not reading matter. There are also three interludes that take a look at books depicted in paintings, surely a topic for a whole book. I’m not going to go into detail because that would spoil the pleasure that the reader will get out of these carefully crafted gems, but I will list the topics as given in the essay titles: 1) Book/Book, 2) Book/Thing, 3) Book/Bookshelf 4) Book/Relationship 5) Book/Life 6) Book/World 7) Book/Technology 8) Book/Future
The book is completed with a relatively small number of endnotes for each chapter, which include bibliographical references for deeper reading on the given theme and an adequate index.
If you are a book lover then this is definitively a book you will want to own and read. Both the original hardback and the paperback are at almost throwaway prices and this small volume would make a perfect stocking filler for the bookaholic in your life. However, be warned if you do give them this book for Christmas, they probably won’t speak anymore after unpacking it, as their nose will be buried in The Secret Life of Books.
 Tom Mole, The Secret Life of Books: why they mean more than words, ppb., Elliot & Thompson, London 2020
 Mole is going to push me to buy Henry Petroski’s classic study (Mole’s term) The Book on the Bookshelf, London: Vintage, 2000. I already own Petroski’s The Pencil, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2004 and it’s brilliant.