The End of Books
by Justin E. H. Smith
Moving to Paris in 2013, I found a temporary solution to the problem of my personal library. I drove the vastly greater part of the books I had accumulated over the years to a very generous relative’s home in Upstate New York, somewhere between the Hudson River and the Finger Lakes, and stored them in her spacious attic.
Over the years many people have told me there are inexpensive ways to ship books across the ocean, that enterprising Poles have established their own trans-Atlantic routes serving the Polish diaspora but also accommodating American expatriates, or that the US Postal Service itself offers special book rates “by the crate”. When called upon kindly to show me how these services may be accessed, somehow the people so ready to offer this advice never follow through. So just trust me: however you pack them up, whichever service you use, Concorde or barge, it would cost a fortune to get all of my books across the Atlantic.
And so for years I let them bake up there, and then freeze, and then bake again, a significant portion of the greatest thoughts ever expressed by human beings, huddling together, not exactly thinking on their own, but perhaps waiting, with dim awareness of their true “end”, to incite thought again.
Earlier this year my professional life almost brought me back permanently to North America. I am being very truthful when I say I am glad that did not work out. For one thing, the certainty that the rest of my career will happen in France has freed me up to speak with a new openness about American culture, particularly the elite American culture I orbit eliptically as a distant satellite. The only drawback is that the book question remained unresolved, only to sharpen considerably when, earlier this summer, I learned of the Upstate relative’s intention to sell her home. So, almost as soon as I got my French vaccination certificate and was thereby cleared for travel, I removed myself to the Northeastern US, from where I am writing at present.
Today must be the coldest Independence Day in the history of Boston, to be more precise about my location. This is one of the small number of cities in the Western world that I had previously barely known. I think in 1999 I was hired for my first job after an interview in a Marriott hotel room in Boston, but then again maybe the annual conference of the American Philosophical Association was in Philadelphia that year. It doesn’t matter.
Previously Boston had involved for me nothing but a curious grab-bag of associations, and, unaccountably, a good number of false beliefs that I always knew to be false. For example, every time I think of Harper’s Magazine, I picture its offices as located in Boston. I also imagine the former editor of Harper’s, Lewis Lapham, residing here, even though I heard directly from him of his residence in Manhattan. It gets stranger still: I have believed for all of my conscious life that the three branches of government are spread across three American cities: the executive in Washington DC, the legislative in Philadelphia, and the judicial in Boston. Whenever I hear of a new Supreme Court ruling, I picture it “coming down from Boston”. Whenever I see Clarence Thomas and the others in their robes, I see them in Boston. Boston is moreover a Republican city, but only insofar as the Republican Party is embodied in the caricature of the diminutive GOP elephant (perhaps I first saw this character decades ago on the cover of Harper’s). There are other places that inspire associations somewhat like these (in Tennessee it is always Thursday, a day that is in turn always brown), but only Boston comes to my mind fully formed by the forces of synaesthesia.
When I arrived at the house of the friend who is hosting me in Somerville —is that Boston? No, but if the Supreme Court can be in Boston, then a neighboring suburb can be too—, the youthful postman was walking by with his mail-sack slung over his shoulder like a Freitag bag, tattoos on his knuckles, listening, quite improbably, to House of Pain’s “Jump Around” of 1992, one of the few cultural products I know —correctly— to be from Boston.
It makes perfect sense that I myself should do something improbable, in a city that is for me such a congeries of synaesthetic delusions, as to roll up in a 10-foot U-Haul with a few thousand volumes of philosophy, history, linguistics, literature, &c., in several different languages, hardcover and soft, octavo and quarto, damaged and pristine. It had been my idea to sell them to the Harvard Bookstore. There were other university towns closer than Cambridge to the relative’s home —Clinton, Binghamton—, but I imagined Harvard, of all places on this continent, to be the one community learnèd enough to take an interest in my volumes on the prehistory of Western Siberia and the transcendental deductions of Kant. How naïve I was! What a misguided and romantic notion, to suppose that you can simply go to where the smart people are in order to offload your smart-people’s books on them, and be thanked for it!
Used-book assayers are a notoriously hard-nosed and unsmiling species, but nothing could have prepared me for the cold shrewdness of the one currently on duty at the Harvard Bookstore. I made dozens of trips up and down the stairs, depositing heavy-duty recyclable shopping bags full of my books in front of his counter. My friend George Scialabba showed up, and graciously, supererogatorily, took on a share of the work as well. “This is one of the great minds of our age,” he said to the clerk (or something along those lines), pointing at me, “I hope you’ll give him a good deal.” We got a small smile back for that, but when the assaying was done, the smile was gone and the deal was far worse than anything I had imagined. I was offered $150 for about thirty of the books, and was kindly asked to return the dozens of bags back to my U-Haul parked outside to dispose of them elsewhere as I see fit.
Some of the books, admittedly, were in poor condition, marked up in pencil and pen, stained with coffee and wine. But others were rejected not for being defective, but only because they were deemed “too scholarly”: rare and expensive enough to be unlikely to ever sell. As one friend pointed out to me, it would have been better to take them not to a dense and overeducated place full of “smart” people, but rather to a place, much like the region of Upstate that I had just left, where real estate is cheap and one can afford to store a rare Sanskrit grammar for a decade or more before it sells. The Harvard Bookstore, I’m told, lost a million dollars last year, no doubt mostly because of the cost of doing business from the center of Cambridge. Anyhow I was so happy to see George that I was still in a good mood when we got the quote back. “I don’t think I would have stayed so calm in that situation,” he said. “Don’t worry,” I replied, “I’ll get a good Substack out of this.”
Turned out from the Harvard Bookstore with a U-Haul full of books and thirty-six hours before I was scheduled to fly back across the ocean, I quickly undertook a painful triage. I left a small selection of the books in the office of the same generous friend who is hosting me in Somerville, mostly the ones that remain in relatively good condition, and the rest, the ones with stains and dog-ears, underlinings and ratures, I casually distributed around Cambridge like some used-book fairy. In the summer of 1979 our home in rural Northern California was infested by a plague of tree frogs. They fell from the ceiling and came up through cracks in the floor; when you turned on the sink, tree frogs would come out of the faucet. That’s what it’s like to be stuck trying to discard a personal library: there’s just always more.
Unsurprisingly, the “free libraries” scattered throughout this twee town were of little use, as they seem intended only for the deposit of, say, a single copy of Elizabeth Warren’s Persist. Enough people have already attempted wholesale dumping as to impel the volunteer street-librarians of Cambridge to post a warning against this practice. To leave a bundle with the “free library” was thus as delicate an operation as throwing an entire bag in the dumpster behind Whole Foods without being chased away. Still, when it comes to leaving the works of Descartes on a city bench, it surely is better to be in Cambridge than in, say, Utica, as the reaction you are mostly likely to get when noticed is: “Heh. Harvard.”
It’s a very sad end, both to my time as the holder of a significant personal library, and to the centuries-long history of the book, which is plainly coming to a close. To put the matter simply, books are just too heavy.
This weight I had been lugging around, U-Hauling from California, to New York, to Ohio, to Canada, back to New York, changed in character for me as it grew and aged, and as I grew and aged. When I went to teach in Istanbul for a year, in 2002, I stored my books, by some arrangement I can no longer recall, in Chicago. Upon my return, I picked them up, and rather than renting a U-Haul, I simply crammed as many as I could into the trunk and onto the seats of my 1991 Acura Integra. I was driving on the highway in rural Indiana just east of Indianapolis when another driver —who, I would later find out, was full of mind-altering substances— got the idea to cut right in front of me in order to make a u-turn on the emergency-service driveway that cut across the highway’s center divider. I ran right into him at 65 miles per hour.
I don’t know quite what the physics of our impact involved, but I do know that when the dust had settled Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and Thomas Bernhard’s Auslöschung were among the many hundreds of books strewn along a considerable length of the Indiana highway. I squeezed out of my wrecked car and staggered over to the other guy’s. I saw a POW/MIA sticker in the window. “Are you OK?” I asked. “Yeah,” he said, and it was only then that I noticed the blood streaming down behind his ear. The ambulance came and the highway patrolmen came. After the other driver had been taken away, and it was determined that, somehow, miraculously, I was basically unhurt, a small team formed to collect the books. “You read all these?” one of the troopers asked. “Yeah,” I said.
There was of course a time when displaying these objects on my shelves was necessary for cultivating an intellectual identity. Looking at the spines of books is itself a sort of reading. I can remember the years I spent in a carrel in Butler Library at Columbia. I would go out into the stacks and run my fingers over the titles: a form of tactile reading, literally superficial, but also somehow contributory to the form of “dim omniscience” that I began to seek at that time. I used to enjoy selecting a small number of books by some aleatory process I’ve forgotten, and bringing them back to my carrel for careful study. Later I would carry the books back out to the stacks in a pile, and joke that I was “returning them to their natural habitat”, as if they were catch-and-release fish.
I sometimes say that my twenties and early thirties were “the input phase” of my life, while evidently, as this newsletter among multiple other documentary sources attests, in my forties I have been in full output mode. This to some extent explains my growing away from books: it would have happened as an in-built part of the life cycle, no matter how things had turned out.
But this particular life also just happens to coincide with a world-historical shift towards the dematerialization of information. I can recall in 2011 when I felt, for the first time, what now strikes me whenever I am standing in stacks or surrounded by shelves. In the sleek, modernist library of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, built like some sort of IBM mainframe circa 1960, it suddenly seemed to me that I had gone inside the internet, like in that one Pixar movie I watched on an airplane, and discovered as if for the first time the physical reality behind the information I had by then grown used to pulling up mostly on screens.
By that time commercial bookstores had largely converted for the sale of book-themed tchotchkes, and in a certain sense even the books themselves had become “book-themed”: objects that had been produced for the sake of profitable marketing to “book lovers”, rather than as the inevitable consequence of the need of authors to transmit ideas. The libraries I occasionally saw at big state universities began around that time to feature massive “book sculptures” in their foyers — discarded and unloved volumes recycled now as public art, often hollowed out, cut in half, disfigured. These were intended as “celebrations” of the wonders of reading, even though it was obvious to anyone who had ever read a book that what was really happening was a variety of desacralization bordering on vandalism.
The best work-study job I had in graduate school was at the library of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia. My task was to bundle up yellowing newspapers from around the world —Le Monde, El Pais, FAZ, Komsomolskaya Pravda, dating back to the 1970s— and to throw them into the incinerator. This was also the work of the protagonist of Bohumil Hrabal’s marvelous 1976 novel, Too Loud a Solitude. Like the character in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace who cremates dead street dogs, Hrabal’s hero and I venerated and commemorated as we destroyed. Even today, middle-brows love to invoke clichés about book-burning —Heinrich Heine’s observation that wherever they burn books they’ll be burning bodies next, for example— as if a book is only ever one transhistorical thing, as if the stakes of smuggling a vulgate Bible into England today were the same as in the era of William Tyndale. Like it or not, books just ain’t what they used to be. If you burn the book I wanted to read, I’ll just go and pull it up on the internet.
I still write books, for now, and I hope that they will not be burned, or rudely discarded on some public bench. I also aspire to write books that are more than merely book-themed. If I ever abandon this activity, which I have often thought of as a “calling”, this will be with the same mixture of regret and relief that has stalked me across the Northeast these past few days.
As I filled up the truck, I found myself looking at the books with a certain hostility. There is a very real sense in which they ruined my life. At twenty-five I believed that by absorbing their contents —or, short of that, by hauling them around with me from place to place— they would somehow redeem me. At forty-five I found myself still unredeemed, worrying about money in a way I never imagined possible, angry at the false advertising by which mere learning is said to lead to happiness. These books destined me to an unbalanced life, like a poorly packed U-Haul that leans too far to one side; like a cheap Ikea particle-board bookshelf, bought only as a temporary and partial solution, sagging under the weight of its books.
About the Author
Justin E. H. Smith is an author and professor of philosophy in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Paris. The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, will appear in 2021 from Princeton University Press.
All photographs are by the author.