Mortimer Adler on Books ~ BitterSweetLife

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Mortimer Adler on Books

I was just rereading Mortimer Adler's very memorable essay, "How to Mark a Book," and couldn't resist posting a few excerpts. I know this blog has become very bookish lately - but I feel no need to apologize for stuff like this. Adler is both brilliant and readable. First off, check out his take on "book ownership."

There are three kinds of book owners. The first has all the standard sets and best sellers -- unread, untouched. (This deluded individual owns woodpulp and ink, not books.) The second has a great many books -- a few of them read through, most of them dipped into, but all of them as clean and shiny as the day they were bought. (This person would probably like to make books his own, but is restrained by a false respect for their physical appearance.) The third has a few books or many -- every one of them dog-eared and dilapidated, shaken and loosened by continual use, marked and scribbled in from front to back. (This man owns books.)

I like the way Adler simultaneously shoots barbs at woodpulp owners and gives book owners a hearty slap on the back. But Adler isn't simplistic in his praise of the dilapidated library. That is, he has conditions. Such as, only I have the right to beat up my books.
If your friend wishes to read your Plutarch's Lives, Shakespeare, or The Federalist Papers, tell him gently but firmly, to buy a copy. You will lend him your car or your coat -- but your books are as much a part of you as your head or your heart.
Heh heh. I remember watching one of my friends pull The Problem of Pain off my shelf and nonchalantly bend the spine in half to read the preface, and me compulsively clenching my fists so that I wouldn't smack him down and rescue Lewis. Oh well. I guess I take a middle course here, because I do occasionally lend books out to people who have submitted to my background checks ("Uh, how are you with books?") or seem to be of general good character. Just last week I (or rather, Lindsay) lent out my annotated copy of Blue Like Jazz and got it back without any injury, and once I even let a friend borrow my prized copy of Phantastes by George MacDonald. But these are the exceptions.

Anyway, Mortimer Adler's essay is a great short read. Give it a look, and feel free to explain your own politics of book lending and marking. If you are brave enough, you could even rate the level of "dilapidation" your library currently enjoys...



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6 comments:

Timothy Goering said...

I can so relate to all of this! I for myself also have a problem with lending books. I always thought it was a selfish sin-spot in my oh so pitiful life, but now after reading this, I feel better!
When someone wants to borrow one of my books, I usually have to subtly work at discouraging their wish (especially if it is a brother). If that does not work - and it usually does not - then I end up having to hand it to them and give them the "please give this back"-puppy-look. Sometimes deep down inside I wish they woud lose it and have to buy me a new copy, that has a new preface...books are defintely more than paper and letters. The books are letters written on my heart (2. Cor.)!

R. Sherman said...

I've found the simple "no" to the question of borrowing books works well. I add no explanation. I just leave it at that.

Cheers.

Dustin said...

As a book lover, I tend to be very protective of my books, as I wish them to remain on my shelf for quite some time. However, I also realize that my love of books should be shared with those who may not have the economic means to compile such a collection. So, I am torn.

I also find myself purchasing books before I ever have the opportunity to read them. I put them on my shelf and say "I'll get to you later." However, by that time, I have already added several more books and am way behind before I know it. My goal for this summer was to catch up, but even then as I finished a book I seemed to add another book that was a recent purchase. It's a downward spiral.

tim said...

I generally refuse to lend books unless the would-be-borrower has an impeccable book-treating record and is firmly apprised of my unbendable expectations. I have a mixed collection, many are dog-eared and marked to pieces, but I also collect rare books--and I'll never mark those up while reading them. Some of those books I have two copies of, so that I can mark on one with impunity and protect the value of the other.

I think Adler slightly over-emphasizes book aesthetics as signifier of the owner's character--some people have fastidious characters and keep their books nicely without missing out on the treasures inside.

Will Robison said...

I wonder if you would say no to lending out your copy of the Bible? ;)

I find that books are meant to be read and shared with as many people as possible. If I am not reading a book, I pass it on to someone who needs a book. Share the wealth and the enjoyment within.

Of course, certain books I could never part with for obvious reasons. But for me, most books should go.

I also should mention of a deplorable lack of bookshelf space and could probably never hold all my books if everyone should return them at the same time. ;)

Ariel said...

"Sometimes deep down inside I wish they woud lose it and have to buy me a new copy, that has a new preface..."

Ha, you're not the only one, Timothy. Especially when someone says, "Well...I've kind of messed your copy up so I was thinking I'd get you a new one-" and then looks at you hopefully waiting for you to say, "OH NO, don't do that!" The silence is kind of awkward.

Sherman speaks like a father of children, and like someone experienced in litigation.

"My goal for this summer was to catch up, but even then as I finished a book I seemed to add another book that was a recent purchase. It's a downward spiral."

Yeah, I know what you mean, Dustin. Except for the downward spiral part. ;)

"I think Adler slightly over-emphasizes book aesthetics as signifier of the owner's character..."

Tim dares to question the brilliant philosopher. What a snob! Ok, not really. I think there's room for handsome books on the shelf, as long as it's not the pretty-book, unread kind. Many of my books are good-looking, but they are also quite rugged and manly.

"I wonder if you would say no to lending out your copy of the Bible? ;)"

Actually, I think I would. If someone wanted and needed a Bible, I'd give him a copy, right? If someone wanted to "borrow" mine, I'd give him a quizzical look and say, "For how long?" I pass on a lot of books, and give a lot of books as gifts, but I want copies of the really good ones at my fingertips.

As C.S. Lewis says:

"One may have some hopes of a man who has never read the Odyssey, or Malory, or Boswell, or Pickwick: but none (as regards literature) of the man who tells you he has read them, and thinks this settles the matter."

 

Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife