My ideal library would consist of 5 beautiful books: beautiful to behold and to taste. In grad school, we lined wooden planks and cinder blocks with the coolest books then available and when we threw a party people came over to admire–our books. They opened the door, said hello, and made their way over to the book shelves. There they gazed and scanned as if observing totems or idols. That, I suspect, was the desired effect.
Professors did us one better. Their collections were more extensive as well as more exacting. Naturally, it was important to transform the shoddy reality of a post-war office into a shrine devoted to the god of specialization. As they got older, they piled books sideways.
Can filling our brains with the wrong sort of stuff really harm us? Conservatives certainly think so and have barked loudly about obscenity since the time of Lawrence. Liberals have generally countered that anything goes. With books, it’s all free love–Man.
Maybe, though, the books we gather round us could actually raise or diminish our powers, could dampen self-examination, could snuff out aesthetic contemplation. It may not be that reading about one too many sex scenes will scar you for life, but it could be that reading, collecting, and liking the wrong books could flatten you out and obscure your views.
The right books may be like lovers whom we taste in different ways, at different times, and well more than once. But over the course of our lifetime how many lovers can we truly get to know?