An Amicable Apology for the Physical Book

I composed the following essay in the months trailing the death in late 2015 of my friend Brett Foster, a poet, Renaissance scholar, and bibliomaniac. The section on the happy fate of hundreds of volumes of Brett’s library appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Hedgehog Review and is now available on Hedgehog‘s website as both text and an audio file. In the now nearly two years since I composed the piece, the future of the physical book has begun to seem less dire thanks to the signs of what one commentator has called the “reverse migration to print.” The market for print has apparently improved since the great ebook scare a few years back, as some readers have ditched their Kindles and others (including the present author) have developed “hybrid” reading lives, consuming some texts on digital devices and others in paper- and hardback. That the need for apologies for physical books has dimmed a bit of late I count good news even if it makes my own contribution seem less urgent. Rather than filing it away, though, I am depositing it here–just in case occasion for such an argument arises again…

I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

— Czesław Miłosz, “And Yet the Books”[1]

The codex has obsessed the court prophets of the digital age, and their forebodings have been, it hardly needs saying, overwhelmingly ruinous. Even veterans of the old book world have resigned themselves to reading’s paperless future, as exemplified by these remarks from the late James Salter’s 2012 introduction to Jacques Bonnet’s bibliophilic memoir, Phantoms on the Bookshelves:

A tide is coming in, and the kingdom of books, with their white pages and endpapers, their promise of solitude and discovery, is in danger, after an existence of five hundred years, of being washed away. The physical possession of a book may become of little significance.[2]

As far as visions of media apocalypse go, Salter’s ranks among the mildest. No violent hand (human or android) is raised against codices here, nor are libraries abandoned en masse in some spectacular ritual shaming (as was once the fate of the disco record). Salter offers instead a natural process doing its impartial work, while the tide-watcher waits, out of danger, on the beach. But even if wrapped in mellower imagery, Salter’s prognosis is essentially the same as that of the more strident, overtly triumphalist digiphiles: the codex’s demise appears inevitable. Go ahead and buy that Kindle or download that reading app, Salter implies, if you haven’t already got one (or two).

Such oracles have incited, in turn, a conservative counter-genre, which I’ve taken to calling the apologia pro codice, or the defense of the physical book. The present essay would make a case of this kind, yet with different emphases than those of the familiar apologetics. How do such arguments usually go? Most check off a few of the technological advantages the codex has over its digital rivals, such as the extraordinary durability of medieval and early modern models, paper’s dogged independence of service providers, and early findings that users of old-school surfaces fare better on reading tests than their e-counterparts. One apologist has playfully mustered fifty reasons why, in his words, “real books are vastly superior to ebooks.”[3]

A genre largely inhabited by professing bibliophiles, the hearts of these apologies—or, better said, testimonies—really lie with the haptic and aesthetic qualities of codices that digital platforms can’t mimic. For example, Robert Darnton, prince of book historians, reported in a 2009 interview with the Harvard Gazette that books “delight the eye, feel good to the touch, and even smell good.”[4] More provocatively, William Giraldi, in his “Object Lesson: Why We Need Physical Books” (2015) for The New Republic, has argued that books should be prized not only for their “physicality” but “sensuality.”[5] Playing with the venerable anatomical trope (built into books’ spines, faces, heads, and feet), Giraldi praises the book’s “body,” which “permits you to open it, insert your face between its covers and breathe, to delve into its essence, its offer of reciprocity, of intercourse.” Pity the disembodied e-reader:

Forgoing physicality, readers of e-books defraud themselves of the communion which emerges from that physicality. Because if Max Frisch is correct in defining technology as “the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it,” then one might argue that we aren’t really experiencing a novel or poems on our e-readers. We might be reading them—although I find that an e-reader’s scrolling and swiping are invitations to skim, not to read—but fully experiencing them is something else altogether.

In Giraldi’s account, the codex’s quietus threatens to collapse a network of pleasures. The book’s body graciously opens itself to the reader, thereby closing out the flickering, beeping world. By contrast, Amazon Fires (Giraldi’s archetypal villain) and other web-infested e-readers stoke distraction, and thus inhibit engagement with works like Paradise Lost (Giraldi’s archetypal masterpiece) that “will not put up with rapidity and diversion.” To enjoy the aesthetic and intellectual rewards offered by Milton and his daedal peers, the reader needs to give his or her fullest attention to the text. Bare-skinned, the codex beckons.

No serious inquiry into this genre may bypass William Gass’s contribution, “A Defense of the Book,” which became a classic almost immediately after rolling off the press in 1999. The book’s physicality is also the center of this apologia, though Gass stresses not its sensuality but its reassuring solidity:

We shall not understand what a book is, and why a book has the value many persons have, and is even less replaceable than a person, if we forget how important to it is its body, the building that has been built to hold its lines of language safely together through many adventures and a long time. Words on a screen have visual qualities, to be sure, and these darkly limn their shape, but they have no materiality, they are only shadows …[6]

Gass’s book is a vehicle for personal remembrance. Codices capture not only the thoughts that we scribble in their margins but also the crumbs of messy lived experience. With an e-reader, he claims,

I cannot enjoy the memory of my dismay when, perhaps after years, I return to my treasured copy of ‘Treasure Island’ to find the jam I inadvertently smeared there still spotting a page precisely at the place where Billy Bones chases Black Dog out of the Admiral Benham with a volley of oaths and where his cutlass misses its mark to notch the inn’s wide sign instead.[7]

The physical book is impressionable in the way that an e-book is not, and cannot be. Each book is subject to happenstance, to the accidents of embodied life. Our libraries preserve dimensions of our reading lives that e-books cannot plumb.

My apology picks up here, sharing Gass’s fascination with the process of osmosis whereby physical books absorb their handlers’ stories. Or perhaps I should say that my course sets out from here. An unexamined assumption prevails among the apologists that the codex’s value is best established by egocentric metrics. For the most part, defenses have been built around the inner mind, and/or the private body, and/or the single lifetime. Books appear almost exclusively as things that you or I read or keep or caress for the delight and enlightenment of your or my particular and separate self. As a fellow biblio-epicure, I embrace these arguments. I implore you, dear reader, to savor the pleasures of reading and coddling and spreading marmalade across your books! But these apologies—and the current debates about the book in which they wade—also seem to me shortsighted in their insistent ipseity. They overlook other common ways that we put books to use. As Damien Searls has noted in his Michael Pollan-inspired “In Defense of Book” (2013), recent debates about the book suggest that we are “aware of only three things a book is or does: you can buy a book, you can hold it, and it delivers information.”[8] Many believe, in turn, that if you can “Replicate these features” in an e-book, “you’re done.” Adopting a mantic disposition of his own, Searls foresees that coming decades will reveal “more, though surely not all, about the moral, social, and geospatial dimensions of the book.” Perhaps all three elements in this list are relevant to my apology, but my starting point is the second, the “social” or, to use my preferred language, relational dimensions of the book’s remembrance.

It goes without saying that books have their uses within families and among friends, and that’s, in my view, a grave problem. Debates about the future of the physical book, as well as its past and present, have been impoverished by disputants’ relative neglect of what happens to books and to us as they circulate among us, an activity that seems to me as elemental to the understanding of what “the book is and does” as Searls’s triad of buying, holding, and informing. To put the point in bookish terms: a codex can acquire rich associations as result of its provenance, the history that carried it into the current owners’ hands. But certainly this point is more richly illuminated by calling to mind—or fetching—a cherished volume given in commemoration of some holiday or triumph. Or in commiseration. Or as consolation. Or for friendship’s sake. The memories that such objects clasp are both personal and interpersonal. They are records not only of our histories but also of those who mark them closely, who have sought to share in the highlights and the hollows. So too are they invitations to sample another’s tastes, discoveries, experience. Remarkably, the printed text might not even need to be read for a physical book to become talismanic in this manner—though a donee may well prize another text, say an inscription, woven by the donor therein.

The aforementioned Jacques Bonnet characterizes the book as “the precious material expression of a past emotion.”[9] Thus, its destruction or departure “would bring the risk of a serious sense of loss.” (Recall Gass’s jammy copy of Treasure Island.) My point is that the book’s expressiveness does not dissipate at the horizons of the single self. The giving of a book is, and long has been, a powerful gesture of human connection, a way of opening our thought-worlds and hearts’-delights to others. What’s needed, then, in our negotiations about the book’s future is a more robust understanding of the ways that books work not just for us but between us. We must learn the alchemy behind what Andrew Piper in Book Was There well describes as books’ “almost magical power to hold us together.”[10] How do books bind us conceptually and physically? How does the book’s body mediate ours?

I won’t pretend to peddle the answer to such questions in a definitive or exhaustive sense. I offer instead two occasions for reflection. Both of my examples set the book on the deathbed-side table—first of Michel de Montaigne’s great friend, Étienne de la Boétie, in 1563, and then one of mine, the poet Brett Foster, late in 2015. I present the extremity of death as the ultimate “edge case” (to borrow a bit of engineering lingo) by which to test the technology of the codex. In my estimation, the codex edges out its digital alternatives at life’s margins, and partly, as we’ll see, because of what can happen on the physical book’s.


Montaigne waited on La Boétie throughout his last days, and later chronicled them in a lengthy epistle to Père Montaigne. Within that report, our theme leads us to the moment when both men recognized the likelihood that La Boétie wouldn’t recover. At Montaigne’s gentle pressing, La Boétie now addressed his property’s future, about which the thirty-two-year-old had made no formal pronouncements. After assembling an uncle, his wife, and best friend, La Boétie named the first his primary heir, urged the second “to be content with what I give you of my goods,” though “little in comparison with your merits,” and then turned to the third. (Note: the translations from the French, Latin, and Greek that follow are the author’s.)

The dying man saved his best words and worldly goods for last, or so at least Montaigne’s staging suggests. As the Montaigne-the-essayist was to do nine years later in “Of Friendship,” La Boétie touted here the singular nature of their attachment. To grasp this claim, we must recall that the two men were stalwart humanists, believing that the scholarly exhumation of the Greco-Roman classics in recent centuries had recovered vital instruction about how to live. “Brother” Montaigne, La Boétie explained, had been chosen to partner in a project of world-historical import: to “renew … that virtuous and sincere” form of friendship unpracticed since Antiquity. He meant the φιλία praised by Aristotle and the amicitia dear to Cicero, the most dignified love that many Greco-Roman writers could imagine, a bond proper to equals (videlicet, aristocratic men) who sought to live virtuously. What bequest could measure up to such a standard? Only the matter that brought these learned types together in the first place six years earlier, the source of their shared amicable ideal—books, of course:

I entreat you to accept as a legacy my library and my books, which I give to you as a sign of my affection toward you: a very small present, but one which comes from a willing heart and which suits you because of your love of letters. It will be μνημοσυνον tui sodalis.

La Boétie published his gift with mannerly understatement, since a library was anything but a “very small present” in sixteenth-century France. Books were a luxury item, particularly the sort of tomes lawyers like La Boétie acquired, and any good humanist’s collection represented a substantial investment. Montaigne does not record how the uncle and wife received this news.

The final sentence allows us to imagine that the two men discoursed in the humanist equivalent of Spanglish, mixing modern and ancient languages as the occasion required. The last three words have been often and accurately enough translated as “a remembrance of your friend.” Humanist, though, was a profoundly archaeological tongue. In the present case, any translation short-changes the act of textual remembrance that La Boétie offered for his friend’s enjoyment—and Montagine, in turn, his letter’s reader—, for these words adapt a phrase, mnemosynum mei sodalis, used by Catullus in his Carmen #12.[11] One of Catullus’s gentler invectives, the poem rants against one Asinius Marrucinus, filcher of an exquisite Saetaban linen handkerchief sent to the poet by friends Fabullus and Veranius while in Spain. Catullus demands the return of this treasured “souvenir” in the phrase that La Boétie adapts. A few lines later, the poem ends on a sentimental (and especially memorable, given that this a Catullus poem) note that also resonates with our dying man’s purpose: haec amem necesse est/ ut Veraniolum meum et Fabullum, or, “it is necessary that I love these things/ as I love my Veranius and Fabullus.”

Scholarly treatments of this scene often calculate the payoff of these accessions for Montaigne the future author. The manuscripts created occasions to him to grow more confident, the argument goes, addressing the wider republic of letters in propria persona (such as by affixing the deathbed epistle to his 1571 edition of La Boétie’s Latin poems), while the books comprised the “nucleus” of the thousand-volume collection that underwrote the Essais.[12] Such calculations have value. La Boétie no doubt expected that his friend would manage his literary legacy, and he may have even imagined that these materials would equip Montaigne for a writing career. The bequest, however, foregrounds neither possibility; the codices and loose leaves are portrayed, first and foremost, as mnemonic devices for their mutual love. La Boétie notably employs the future tense in his allusive final remark, suggesting thereby that the gift has an ongoing purpose. The enterprise that the two men launched together, the renaissance of classical friendship, would endure by virtue of the book.

That cargo of paper, string, and animal skins ultimately landed at Château de Montaigne, installed in the famous third-floor library where Michel retired in self-imposed exile from public life in 1571. “I pass there,” the essayist explains in his late “De Trois Commerces,” “the better part of the days of my life, and the better part of the hours of the day.” What was he doing? “I leaf at this hour through one book, and at that hour through another, without order and without design, through disconnected passages; one moment I muse, another I record and dictate, amidst my pacing up and down, the reveries that you find here.” On his sanctum sanctorum’s layout, he remarks: “The shape is round (its one flat wall allowing for my table and chair), and its curve grants me the prospect of all of my books at once, arranged in five rows of shelves throughout.” “De Trois Commerces” fails to mention, however, that the room’s bookishness extended beyond the shelves’ contents: on the beams above, the retiree gradually painted fifty-four Latin and Greek apothegms culled from his reading. Montaigne turned his library into a book, an architectural take on the humanist practice of scrapbooking wisdom.[13] The inscriptions comprised a “material enchiridion,” a “commonplace book writ large.”[14]

The essayist also keeps quiet about a band of Latin that ran across the frieze of the bookcases. These words were Montaigne’s own, and their subject was La Boétie. The inscription began eulogistically, cataloguing the dead man’s excellences: he was the “sweetest,” “gentlest,” “wisest,” “most agreeable” of men, the pearl of his generation. Montaigne also names his friend the “most intimate of companions.” That last word we’ve met before: it is sodalis, La Boétie’s allusive self-description. This linguistic debt called attention to the material one cradled in the shelves below, validating the dying man’s vision not only of their friendship’s singularity but also of his books’ powers as aides-memoire. In what followed, the author tasked his whole library, now the merger of his stock with his friend’s, to answer the great bequest: “Michel de Montaigne, wishing to see erected some singular monument to their mutual love, his gratitude, and his fidelity, consecrated to him [La Boétie] this learned, favorite source of his delight.” I see your μνημοσυνη, Montaigne was saying, and raise you a monumentum. The “library book” received its dedication.

This was no dusty memorial, however. The essayist’s method of composition put his books to work—that table witnessing a parade of volumes from which the author sampled ideas and quotations. Those inscribed with a “B” must have often migrated about the room, thereby regularly reminding their handler of words traded with their previous owner. Although the evidence here is limited, we have signs that La Boétie was, in good humanist fashion, an annotator. Montaigne thus met his friends’ notes and opinions as he dipped into his books, and he annotated them in turn. So the margins played host to a new dialogue. In “De Trois Commerces,” the essayist compares three sorts of society—that of friends, belles et honnestes femmes, and books—, and unsurprisingly, Montaigne judges the third worthiest. Our fuller picture of the tower library complicates this easy division, though, at least between the first and third categories. For La Boétie and Montaigne, books offered a continuing means of amicable commerce even after their physical parting. The library made remembrance tangible and collaborative. Through the bequest, the dying man gave a supernumerary meaning to his books and papers, which Montaigne extravagantly corroborated in the library’s configuration and consecration. Through the codex’s mediation, the friendship was more than a living memory for Montaigne: books became a memorandum in which he sought to live.

The critic John Sutherland once observed that private book collections can become for their assemblers “intimate parts of themselves.”[15] As an example, he cited John Keats’s arrangements for the posthumous distribution of his books as he prepared for his ill-fated voyage to Italy (which we will consider below). Sutherland characterized the plan as a “quasi-sacramental bequest,” the poet wishing to issue parts of himself with the volumes of his beloved little library. Long before Keats’s death, La Boétie and Montaigne, as we have now seen, were celebrants of the sacrament of the book. Sutherland’s insight about the residue of old owners that books can retain helps to explain the hold that La Boétie’s books had on Montaigne. They had become a mode of transaction, signifiers on which layers of interpersonal meaning accumulated.

A familiar metaphor invoked in recent debates frames the book as a “storehouse of human knowledge.” Montaigne’s library was a warehouse grand enough to stockpile knowledge and enshrine his deepest personal connection. (That he tried to store himself inside one thus shouldn’t surprise us.) Books provided for both La Boétie and Montaigne a means of documenting their friendship’s history and extending their commerce over the gulf of death. Their example reveals that the relational meanings of codices lie not just in their service as gifts but also as interpersonal archives, as lines of communication, and as potent relics. Although there is as yet no standard history of this side of the book’s story (as there are of other elements), we can easily summon to mind anecdotes of books performing these essential services down through the centuries. As we ponder the book’s new place in our media ecology, and its rivals for our attentions and affections, this history deserves further attention. For some future chronicler, I offer now my recent encounter with the book’s staying power.


Brett Foster suffered, quite happily, from what Nicholas Basbanes has taught us to call “a gentle madness”: bibliomania.[16] The aforementioned Jacques Bonnet helpfully differentiates between two categories of bibliomaniac: the collector and the manic reader. The former collects for collecting’s sake, usually according to some category or field, such as incunabula, illustrated editions of Pilgrim’s Progress, or, to cite a more eccentric example offered by Bonnet, books by writers whose surnames begin with B. For the latter sort, accumulation is never an aim in itself; it is incidental, arising from “the itch to read and a wide-ranging curiosity.”[17] So they acquire. Manic readers, Bonnet argues, suffer acutely from a malady of memory in which books soak up “past emotions,” as well as its forward-looking counterpart, the expectation that new emotions and insights await in books unread. As the aforementioned Giraldi, an exemplary manic reader, writes, “Your personal library…is the promise of betterment and pleasure to come, a giddy anticipation, a reminder of the joyous work left to do, a prompt for those places to which your intellect and imagination want to roam.”[18] So manic readers cannot bear to release what they’ve caught. While the collector, Bonnet observes, “frets obsessively about the books he does not yet possess, the fanatical reader worries about no longer owning those books” in which are lodged “traces of his past or hopes for the future.”[19]

Which type was Brett? His bookshelves were a dead giveaway: yellowing paperback classics (often in clumps of the same title), ex-library hardcovers, and the forgotten issue of university presses congregated according to impossible geometries of vertical, horizontal, and diagonal heaps. In his office at work, despite shelving on all surfaces save the window and door, books were stacked two, sometimes three, deep. On the floor, serpentine piles of books propped against the bookcases had the appearance of stacks of dominoes arrested mid-tumble. Books took up residence atop of his desk, made do with drawers, and slumbered underneath. There was little in this multitude to tempt the collector, unless one happened to be obsessed with softcover copies of The Faerie Queene.

His dual professions of Renaissance scholar and poet sent Brett reading—and authorized his spending—in countless directions. To read the humanists well, he made, and kept making, a thorough review of their Classical forefathers. To read contemporary poetry well, he gathered up, and kept gathering, midcentury and Modernist influences. But then the Modernists were tussling with Victorian poetics, and the Victorians working out the fate of Romanticism, and the Romantics critiquing Augustan standards, and so on. His library was the physical enactment of T. S. Eliot’s argument in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (Eliot’s Selected Essays stuck somewhere in the Modernist section) that

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead … what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it.[20]

In Brett’s library, one could watch this process playing out in space: the appearance of a new work of art changed the forces applied to, and often positions of, the works that had gone before. His copies of The Odyssey learned their namesake’s wandering ways.

Brett mined his reading for insights and bons mots, recording his discoveries according to a bespoke system of underlining, circlets (often in clusters), dashes, checkmarks (up to three, depending on his excitement about what he’d found), exclamation and question marks (sometimes circled for further emphasis), and ejaculations like “YEAH!” and “or not!?” He pored over—and, in the process, poured himself into—his books. One can see in his annotations not only the reader’s search for wisdom and delight, but also the writer’s probe for openings and opportunities. His reading inspired new poems, new essays, new critical pieces, and these initiatives necessitated new acquisitions. A feedback loop arose: new books unleashed new projects, and new projects demanded new books, on and on, as if there were shelving without end.

By delicately coaxing a book from its nest or mound, visitors gave Brett a chance to share its history, which was, of course, another way of sharing his. Readers of Walter Benjamin’s famous essay on book collecting, “Unpacking My Library” (1931), will recall the author’s description of the memories of old haunts and book-hunting grounds (such as “Süssengut’s musty cellar”) that “crowd in upon you” when a book’s acquaintance is renewed.[21] So it was for Brett: he relished the remembrance of the used-book stores and library sales where he made his great “finds” (always a deal)—whether in his native Missouri or one of the cities of his twenties, Boston, Palo Alto, New Haven, or one of countless Half-Price Books franchises nationwide. If the source didn’t instantly come to mind, one needed only to give the book a gentle shake, and out fell some memento—a faded receipt, a bookmark bearing the store’s name, or some scribbling on stray paper or a napkin—that would jog his memory.

Unlike Benjamin’s largely solitary account, though, Brett’s stories always featured multiple characters. He preferred hunting parties to solo shopping (though, if forced by cruel circumstance, he would go it alone rather than be denied his prey). “Oh!” he would cry with childlike delight, “I got that one the time my friend [insert one of perhaps a hundred different names] from [insert one of a hundred of locations across North America and Europe] and I went to the Book Barn [or some other dilapidated-sounding shop] in [insert locale somewhere in the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Italy—you get my point].” His books registered all of his adult life’s adventures, foreign and domestic, and he gloated over them like a globetrotter over the stamps in her passport. Still more importantly, they recorded the history of his closest connections at home and on the road. He had done love and friendship by the book. To the untrained eye, his library may have seemed a pedant’s lair. But that anarchic architecture was for Brett, and for those whom he taught how to read it, a memory palace.


On the question of what’s to become of a library after its owner’s demise, perhaps we can say that English literary history is of two wills. The first is exemplified by the seventeenth-century diarist and bibliophile Samuel Pepys. In its day, Pepys’s three-thousand-volume library was remarkable for not only its scale but also its catholicity, containing medieval manuscripts, English incunabula, naval records, ballads, maps, and calligraphy. Pepys had amassed quite a few of his “curiosities”—as his collector-friend John Evelyn called them—at the auctions of other great libraries of the age, and was keen to spare his own such an end. A few months before his death in 1703, he added a codicil to his will stating his wish that, after the death of his nephew and heir John Jackson “all possible provision should be made for [the library’s] unalterable preservation and perpetual security against the ordinary fate of such collections falling into the hands of an incompetent heir; and thereby being sold, dissipated, or imbezzled [sic].”[22] In keeping with its assembler’s hopes, the “Bibliotheca Pepysiana” (Pepys’s phrase) came to rest at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where it remains today. On this view, a library is an organic whole, and thus warrants preservation in its entirety. On the breaking up of Lord Maitland’s grand collection, Evelyn observed in a 1689 letter to Pepys how “it heartily griev’d me to behold its limbs, like those of the chaste Hippolytus, separated & torne from that so well chosen & compacted body.”[23] (Consider, again, the example of La Boétie: Montaigne received the whole of his friends’ bookish remains intact.)

For an alternative, we turn again to Keats. About a month before his departure for Italy, Keats wrote a few instructions for the disposal of his property to his friend Charles Brown on a mere “scrap of Paper.” This humble last will and testament was crowned by this single pentameter line (possibly the last verse Keats penned): “My Chest of Books divide among my friends.”[24] It was a fitting last rite for a member of a little society of letters in which friendship and the book were thoroughly entangled. Keats and his companions conducted a robust economy of book-lending and -borrowing, replete with surprise deliveries, reminders of unfulfilled requests, and appeals for the forgiveness of late returns. Surviving volumes from their libraries often bear the marks of several hands, the value of a book apparently rising with each new inscription, marginal comment, sonnet tucked in the end-papers, or passage flagged according to a shared system of double- and triple-underlining.[25] Their reading was littered with signs of others’ kindnesses and cogitations, and they, in turn, inked their books in expectation of friendly review. Sutherland, once again, invites us to see this gesture sacramentally, the division of the chest an attempt to dole himself out to those whom he loved. And so it was. But we must also note that these books did not belong to Keats in the way that Pepys understood his to be his. They had become the common stock of the circle, and so back into that circulatory system they went when Keats’s failed. Dissipation, for Pepys a fearsome prospect, is here the library’s fitting end, the book a testament to the collective rather than the collector.

In the last weeks of Brett’s cancer-shortened life, no codicils or pentameter lines on the library were appended to his will. When the question of its future was gently raised, he was unresponsive. Those closest to him sensed that his very self had become so bound up with his books that it was simply too painful to imagine them without him. The ruling on the library’s doom fell to its inheritor, Brett’s wife, Anise. Preserve its integrity or commission its dispersal? The way of Pepys or of Keats? Her virtue, coupled with her decades-long study of his character, made the books’ purpose now plain: They were to be invested in the gift economy of his wide circle of friends. The books he stashed at home would keep their stations, but the office door would be opened. First, to his colleagues in the English Department. Then, to faculty throughout the college. Next, to students, however recent or ancient. The cavalcade soon included neighbors, co-parishioners, local writers, baristas. All accessories to that magnificent reading life were offered the chance to become material shareholders.

“Now,” Auden wrote in his elegy for Yeats, “he is scattered among a hundred cities / And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections.”[26] Brett loved this poem (as poets generally do), and he appreciated any opportunity to rattle off those lines (if not the whole stanza they inaugurate). With slight revision, they provide us with language to read Brett’s books’ fortunes. For how better to explain what has happened than to say that now Brett is scattered among a hundred libraries? That his affections linger among his familiars in a thousand gifted vessels? If you’ve followed my thread this far, you’ll have seen this coming: to inherit these secondhand books was not simply to salvage a bit of Brett; it was to take over the annals of adventures—in Keatsian “realms of gold” as well as shabby Book Barns—in which we had been coconspirators. To receive these books was to retrieve what already, in so many ways, had been held in common.


The cases cited here—Montaigne, Keats, Pepys—all tend, I will readily admit, to the hyperbolic. The first amassed one of the great libraries of his age, the second ranks among the finest poets and annotators of his, and the last, well, I don’t think further comment is needed on the voluminous symptoms of his madness for books. My aim, to begin to round up this essay’s fugitive claims, is not to engender an outbreak of bibliomania (as if that were possible or desirable). Rather I have reviewed these almost larger than life examples in order to throw familiar experiences and practices into high relief, to magnify what we tend to take for granted in our dealings with physical books. The trick works, in other words, whether one owns a thousand treasured volumes or a handful. To recall Robert Fogelin’s formulation in Figuratively Speaking, hyperbole “is exaggeration on the side of truth.”[27]

The truth is that we’ve long been using and making meaning with codices for purposes other than, or in addition to, reading. The histories examined here all preach lessons of presence, which is another way of making the argument for the codex based on its materiality. Giraldi, once again, argued that by “Forgoing physicality, readers of e-books defraud themselves of the communion which emerges from that physicality.”[28] Giraldi would have us revere and, in turn, conserve the communion of reader and book. But perhaps the examples of Montaigne and Keats testify to a different sort of communion that the physical book can foster. In these cases, the codex has served as a medium in both a physical and spiritual sense, a tangible nexus between past and present.

I am not calling for a boycott on e-books, (which would be hypocritical, given their role in my own reading life,) only acknowledgment of their inadequacy for one of the codex’s longstanding offices. A growing array of services would help us to manage our e-estates, to enable the passing down of our digital affairs. One can now inherit an e-book. Given the right access codes and software updates, the e-book heir receives evidence of another’s preferences, purchase history, clues into how far into a work the previous owner progressed, perhaps even notes and bookmarked passages. Missing in this scenario, though, are those impressions of embodied life, whether intentional, as in Keats’s shared annotations, or accidental, as in the jam preserved in Gass’s copy of Treasure Island. Exactly the qualities that we love about e-books—that they’re weightless, that they don’t settle in a single spot, that when we’ve finished with them, they don’t clutter our rooms—are, in the present “edge” case at least, their undoing. As Miłosz recognized, books are resilient in the face of our deaths. They remain “there on the shelves,” weighty, spacious, particular, bodily.[29] Our books are, the poet teaches, “Well born, / Derived from people.” To which we may now add, well borne, too.

Physical books are something to hold on to, and pass on.


[1] Czesław Miłosz, “And Yet the Books,” in New and Collected Poems (1931-2001) (New York: 2003), 468.

[2] James Salter, introduction to Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet, trans. James Salter (New York: The Overlook Press, 2010), 1.

[3] Ferrar, David. “Fifty Reasons Real Books are Vastly Superior to Ebooks,” The Best Schools Magazine. Accessed 1 September 2017.

[4] Sarah Sweeney, “In Defense of Books,” Harvard Gazette, 3 December 2009. Accessed 1 September 2017.

[5] William Giraldi, “Object Lesson: Why We Need Physical Books,” New Republic, 19 April 2015. Accessed 1 September 2017.

[6] William Gass, “A Defense of the Book,” in A Temple of Texts (New York: Knopf, 2006), 164.

[7] Ibid., 165.

[8] Damion Searls, “In Defense of Book: Awaiting a Reader’s Manifesto,” in The Believer (January 2013), 15.

[9] Jacques Bonnet, Phantoms on the Bookshelves, trans. James Salter (New York: The Overlook Press, 2010), 27.

[10] Andrew Piper, Book Was There (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 84.

[11] This episode opens a window into the humanist grammatical condition: the dying man in fact resets the Roman poet’s Latinized version of μνημοσυνη in its Greek grammatical equivalent.

[12] See, for example, François Rigolot’s essay “Montaigne’s Purloined Letters” in Reading Montaigne (1995).

[13] Montaigne was not unusual in seeing his room as an opportunity for writing, though the number of inscriptions remains notable. As Juliet Fleming observes in her Graffiti and the Writing Arts in Early Modern England (Reaktion Books, 2001), writing on walls—particularly proverbial matter—was widely practiced in the period.

[14] William Engel, Mapping Mortality: The Persistence of Memory and Melancholy in Early Modern England (Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1995), 101.

[15] John Sutherland, “Literature and the Library in the Nineteenth Century,” in The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 141.

[16] Nicholas Basbanes. A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books (New York, Henry Holt, 1995).

[17] Bonnet, Phantoms on the Bookshelves, 27.

[18] Giraldi, “Object Lesson.”

[19] Bonnet, 28.

[20] T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in Selected Essays (London: Faber and Faber, 1936), 15.

[21] Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking my Library,” in Illuminations (New York, Schocken Books, 1969), 59-67.

[22] Samuel Pepys, “Will,” qtd. in The Anatomy of Bibliomania by Holbrook Jackson (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 644.

[23] Ibid., 644.

[24] John Keats, “My Chest of Books Divide Among My Friends,” The Morgan Library Blog, 12 August 2010,

[25] For further discussion of the circulation of books in the Keats Circle, see H. J. Jackson’s Romantic Readers: The Evidence of Marginalia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).

[26] W. H. Auden, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” in Selected Poems (New York, Vintage, 1979), 81.

[27] [27] Robert Fogelin, Figuratively Speaking: Revised Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 17.

[28] Giraldi, “Object Lesson.”

[29] Czesław Miłosz, “And Yet the Books,” in New and Collected Poems (1931-2001) (New York: 2003), 468.

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