Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The bespoke library: available right here, right now

I have something of a book problem.

Nothing I have to solve immediately, but in theIMG-20150109-00390 long run, I really need to figure out something to do with my husband’s books. There are hundreds of them, and I suppose I could hang on to them for old time’s sake. Which I’ll probably do with some of them. But I’m pretty ruthless with my own books, periodically culling them and finding homes for the ones that deserve homes, and tossing others – like the 60 cent paperbacks from high-school and the many useless business books I’ve somehow accumulated – into recycle.

So why hang on – other than for sentimental reasons – to more than 300 books that I would never read in a million years?

My husband read statistics books. He read economics books. Books about finance. Physics texts. Philosophy of science. History of science. Philosophy of philosophy.Mathematics.

I have been able to find good homes for some of Jim’s books – his cousin the amateur philosopher, his cousin’s son-in-law the professional mathematician, a couple of friends – but as for the rest…

Our virtual nephew Sam, who was exceedingly close to Jim, has expressed an interest in the full library. But Sam lives at present in a small flat in Brooklyn.

I will certainly not toss anything out before I give Sam the opportunity to stake – and remove – his claim. And his parents do have plenty of space in which to store these tomes. But I’m not going to live here forever, and I’m not going to hold on to these books forever, even I were to live here forever.

Not that I’m not sentimental. Eleven months after the fact, I still can’t bring myself to toss out Jim’s toothbrush, and sometimes when I pick up something that was last held by him, I lose it. (This is the first time I’ve fully appreciated the concept of a relic.)

But I really don’t want to hang on to all these books, which have about as close to a zero overlap with anything I’m interested in reading as is possible without being absolute zero.

Sam aside, it would be nice if I could have donated these to a high school or college library. Unfortunately, my husband annotated all of his books with red ballpoint, underlining sections he liked and putting his comments in the margin. He also didn’t believe in dust jackets, which he immediately tossed when he got a book home. Further, he did believe in ripping sections he wasn’t interested in out of a book.


Nonetheless, at a distance, Jim’s library looks pretty good, and on closer inspection of the spines, plenty brainy.

And there are, apparently, plenty of people out there who only care what the books look like – and say about you – from the outside.

They’re purchasing books in bulk to decorate their homes and, increasingly, they’re wanting their books in bulk to meet a particular content theme. (As opposed to ‘I only want books that match the rug.)

Or so I saw in a recent article in The Economist, which wrote about how London bookseller Heywood Hill – facing stiff competition from Amazon – is remaking itself as “a leading purveyor of bespoke libraries.”

The first major commission, in 2013, was a collection of books on 20th-century Modernist art and design for a chalet in Switzerland. The 3,000-volume library took four months to put together and three days to install at a cost of just under £500,000 ($788,000). (Source: The Economist)

Is it just me, or does it strike anyone else with 3,000 books worth of interest in modernist art and design would already have something of a collection amassed on his or her own over the years?

My husband’s library certainly speaks to his interests, as does mine (Irish literature, short stories, the Holocaust).

I suppose the purchaser could be someone with a ton of money who is authentically interested in modernist art and design, and wants this bespoke library so that if he or she gets a book jones in the middle of the night he or she can browse his or her own personal stacks for something of interest. But why do I suspect that it’s some rich poser who wants to look like he is a modernist art and design maven?

A Saudi businesswoman wanted her London boardroom lined with books about the West’s engagement with Islam and the Arab world. The thousand-or-so books—a reader’s selection rather than a true collector’s library—cost £80,000. In early December a hundred boxes of books on the art of the American west coast and on the great American novel were packed up for a client in southern California. Next, Nicky Dunne, who runs Heywood Hill, is squeezing books on current affairs into brown suede attaché cases for a suite of 30 private jets.

Well, this latter thing kind of makes sense. Those private jet setters are so darned busy, they don’t have time to actually buy books on their own – plus they’re not spending time in terminals with the hoi-polloi where they could pick up something worth reading in Hudson News.

But shouldn’t acquiring a library come with some of the pleasures of acquiring a library the old fashioned way? Poking around a bookstore – or clicking around the Internet – until you find something, read a few pages, and decide it’s worth a full read? Getting the book home and curling up with it? Even writing with red pen in the margins, if you so desire.

Maybe not.

The rich, after all, are different from you and me. And it’s not just because they have more money.

Anyway, if Sam decides not to take Jim’s books, I may end up putting it up for sale as a bespoke library for someone who wants to look like a economics, math, stat, and science loving goofball. If they never open the books, the red ballpoint musings won’t matter.


Frederick Wright said...

This trend has been going on for quite a long time. I remember the wonderful Spy magazine back in the mid-80s poking fun at Merger Moguls buying up books by the 'linear shelf foot' simply by specifying the subject matter and the finish on the spine. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the wealthy elite of Roman times projected their erudition by accumulating scrolls!

Maureen Rogers said...

I guess it beats shelves of fake books. At least if someone pulls a real book off, they have something they can actually read, rather than a cardboard shell!

Frederick Wright said...

But consider the embarrassment if someone DOES sample one of those books and it makes that awful, creaking, crackling sound as its seal is broken, revealed as a virgin book, unread by the owner. The horror. The shame. I'm going to post a TaskRabbit job right now as a book-opener for wealthy idiots.