In late 2008, I was offered a job, even though I was not qualified for it. I accepted the position since it paid nineteen dollars an hour with no background or credit check, and it was a dream job for me.
My task was to compile a list of the 1,500 most important works of literature, purchase them, and arrange them in my employer’s private library.
It was an old house in Austin, near the University of Texas, with empty shelves ready to be filled. JB, my employer, wanted to retire early and have all the literature that matters at his fingertips.
The Victorians would have classified this as a gentleman’s library. It would be filled with volumes collected for some special reason, displayed in a charming, dimly lit space, and read through until the reader tired of it or passed away.
JB, in his late forties, is a learned, inquisitive, and energetic man. His enthusiasm for reading indicates that, in the coming years, he will be one of the most widely read people in town.
Unfortunately, I am aware of the personal irony that I, one of the least read people, is the one responsible for helping him build his library.
When I first began the job, I was unaware of how much I lacked in terms of knowledge. I believed that I had read a diverse selection of books.
As a young boy, I had completed the Herge corpus, and as a teenager, I had worked my way through a lot of prison-escape literature.
In high school, I read some of Jack Vance’s lighter works, and while working at the bookstore I was able to read the free galley proofs and advance readers.
During the summer of 1995, when baseball was cancelled, I read Ulysses by an Irishman, but I only remember the first and last words: Stately and Yes. The rest of the book was like a summer-long literary fog.
With my wide range of reading, together with my bookselling and book-restoration expertise, I felt confident that I could easily draw up a list of books that was extensive and carefully chosen.
At our initial meeting, I informed JB that I’d have the list ready within a week or so, and he was pleased as he wanted the library to be fully stocked and prepared.
A week later, I told JB, visibly stunned, that it would take closer to a year to create a satisfactory list. My disclosure of this news left JB disappointed and downcast.
I explained to him that I had not anticipated the task being much more than merely making note of Pulitzer Prize winners, looking at the classics at Barnes & Noble, and gathering information from my father, who is exceptionally well-read.
Then I informed JB that I had not been aware that the Chinese had more than just the Art of War author; the Nigerians, Achebe; the Colombians, Marquez; or that a Maori woman named Patricia Grace had released the first collection of short stories; also, that Ayi Kwei Armah was the first Ghanaian to publish an existential novel; that Amos Tutuola was the first Nigerian magical-realist; that an unknown Nicaraguan wrote a play around 1550 called El G ueguense, which is the oldest work of theater in the Western Hemisphere; that Gilgamesh is not the oldest known work of literature (instead,
The Instructions of Šuruppak is older by four centuries and it is a Sumerian wisdom literature); that the Dark Ages were not so dark that writing was not done; that the European Renaissance of the fourteenth century began in the twelfth; that an Arabian man named Ibn al-Nafis wrote science fiction in the thirteenth century; that an Englishwoman of the seventeenth century, Margaret Cavendish, also wrote sci-fi; that an anonymous author from Balochistan created an epic ballad, Hero Šey Mu r ı ¯ d, a folkloric drama on par with the best Elizabethan tragedies; that the Danish Mette bor hos Morten og Erik was published eight years before the groundbreaking lesbian children’s book Heather Has Two Mommies.
I explained to JB that there is such an abundance of knowledge that it is impossible to decipher the importance of singular works; it is also impossible to avoid the unintentional exclusion of worthy pieces and the inclusion of unworthy ones.
I chose not to tell him that in reality, the library project would not take a year to complete, but that it would be a never-ending job.
The finished product would have books of importance, but they would be overshadowed by unworthy works and have missing pieces that should have been included, but I would not know which books or where to find them.
After my exaggerated negative outlook subsided, we started anew. We chose Spider House, a nearby cafe that plays Social Distortion in the morning, to hash out exactly what JB’s library should contain.
We discussed things like the types of books, editions, etcetera. After two hours and three cups of strong coffee, we were astonished to find out that JB wasn’t sure what he desired. I started to sense that he was expecting me to give him guidance.
He declared he was not retired yet, emphasizing that working ceaselessly was the only way he could have an early retirement. Due to this, he had limited time to commit to the library’s growth, which was why he hired me.
Realizing I had no clue what I was doing, I said out loud, “I’ll try my hardest.”
JB was adamant on some points pertaining to the project: first, that a diverse range of nations, cultures, eras, and genres be included; second, that the works should be either in French, English, or Spanish, his areas of greatest fluency; third, that only critical editions should be considered; and fourth, that no more than one hundred dollars should be spent on any one book.
I inquired, “Is there anything else?”
“It is finished.”
I suggested that we should come up with a definition of literature and what makes it important.
Send me your conclusions.
After JB had purchased our coffee, we said our goodbyes. A wave of anxiety, which I hadn’t experienced since my junior high days, overwhelmed me, causing me to rush the thirteen blocks to my house. Once I got there, I was brought to my laptop and commanded to explain the library.
I had to make the choice that literature would include fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama, and orature – in other words, everything.
I then specifically excluded musical theater, shadow plays, declarations, manifestos, speeches, periodicals, constitutions and bills of rights, statutes and codes, patents, lyrics, broadsides, single poems, single letters, journalism, boilerplate, recensions, revisions, and exegeses of major works, and scientific/mathematical papers published in peer-reviewed journals.
Why those were chosen is a mystery, but I was the one who had to make the decision.
I had to decide what needed to be included in the selection, and so I determined that a candidate work should possess one of the following criteria (though this alone would not guarantee a place, since we only had a limited amount of shelf space): Is it particularly important?
Has it won awards? Stood atop the best-seller lists? Evoked extreme reactions? Been criticized by Kakutani or endorsed by Oprah? Or even criminalized by Congress? All of these are noteworthy, but not necessarily the deciding factor.
(1) Serious and/or long-lasting debates were sparked by works such as Simone de Beauvoir’s Le deuxi eme sexe, the Tridentine Council’s Index librorum prohibitorum, and Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
I soon realized that striving for objectivity was a lost cause; that the vast library would be filled with a literary novice’s suppositions. Terms such as serious, lasting, and controversy are just as vague as literature and important.
(2) Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger’s Malleus maleficarum, Seymour Hersh’s My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and Its Aftermath, and the anonymous Programa zavoevaniya all had a major influence in commencing or halting wars, revolutions, or genocides.
A bit more definite.
(3) Established a kind of writing, or was judged its classic example, for instance Jorge Luis Borges’s Historia universal de la infamia (1935; magical realism), Radclyffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness (1928; lesbian fiction), and Yoshida Kenko¯’s Essays in Idleness (1332; essays–preceding Montaigne’s by two and a half centuries!).
The concept of a “first novel written in English” is highly amorphous. An abundance of works have been suggested by various scholars, including Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver ‘s Travels, Sir Philip Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and William Baldwin’s little-known Beware the Cat from the 16th century.
(4) Its creation was marked by remarkable and unique circumstances, such as Anne Frank’s Het achterhuis, Leonora Christina Ulfeldt’s Jammers-minde, and Henry Darger’s History of the Vivian Girls.
No matter what type of work is created, it is incomparable and unique. Nonetheless, I selected twenty books from the library based on my understanding of this standard.
(5) Notable transformations in the way we understand the world have been brought about by works such as Nicolaus Copernicus’s De revolutionibus, Kurt Godel’s Über formal unentscheidbare Satze, and Baruch Spinoza’s Ethica.
Investigations point out that a great quantity of inquiring minds were enticed by these books all at once.
(6) Certain books, such as Miguel Servet’s Christianismi restitutio, John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, Taslima Nasrin’s Lajja, were subject to censorship, suppression, banning, or even caused the death of the author.
(7) The basis of a faith or group, like the Vedas, Martin Luther’s Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum , and The Book of Mormon serve as the groundwork.
Demonstrating great longevity, Hesiod’s Theogony, the Tale of Sinuhe from Eleventh-Dynastic Egypt and the Codex Dresdensis from the Mayans can be cited.
(9) In mainstream literature, it is possible to find underrepresented cultures, classes, or age groups that are well-represented, such as David Unaipon’s Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines, Briton Hammon’s Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammon, and Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues.
It’s the same story. Every descriptive word and a few nouns can be understood in a multitude of ways.
As I’m not very well read, I calculated that a large portion of the library contained literature that was not adequately represented.
(10) Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty and Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, as well as Pai Hsien-Yung’s Ni ez ı _ˇ._ all transcend literary and cultural boundaries.
(11) The works of Xueqin Cao’s Hong lou meng, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologica are recurring topics of study, research, and course material.
Gregory of Tours’s Decem libri historiarum, the anonymous The Secret History of the Mongols, and Herodotus’s Histories are the only available sources of information that give a detailed account of a period of history that would otherwise have been forgotten.
Thus, from these vague principles, which JB accepted, a list could be constructed that needed only examination, interpretation, assumption, and guessing, and thereby negating any need for extensive reading. I would not need to read books; just read about them.
That was a great relief! I could do this. I could do it while sitting on my couch in my underwear.
I would look through other lists, and then research each title using the speculum maius, an ever-growing source of knowledge for the untrained, ever-increasing, and ever-enraging: Wikipedia.
A list was being compiled and patterns started to become evident. As the numbers added up, the statistics revealed the following: 60% of the books were written in a language other than English, seven percent were in paperback, 20% were by female authors, and 3% by Anonymous (as Virginia Woolf famously said: “Anonymous was a woman”).
Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft both had four books on the list. Three of these books had the same title:
The Red Book. The thirteenth-century mystical poet and jurist Rumi held a five-volume collection called The Big Red Book; the two other books were the largest and smallest single volumes in the library—their titles being Little by psycho-Leninist Mao Zedong, and The Red Book by psychoanalyst Carl Jung.
Moreover, six books had interrogative titles: Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Chernyshevsky’s Chto delat?, Lenin’s Chto delat?, Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Bloch’s Budushchaya voina?, and Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
The longest work—excluding the Yoˇngl e Encyclopedia—was the Gesar Epic, a twelfth-century Central Asian epic at around twenty million words.
The longest novel (unpublished) in the library was Henry Darger’s The Story of the Vivian Girls, In What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion: 7.5 million words, which was less than half of Darger’s lifetime output, but five times the length of Proust’s celebrated À la recherche du temps perdu. The shortest work was Lucy Terry Prince’s “Bars Fight,” a lyrical piece of only 183 words.
Exceptions to our set of principles were eventually included in the library. An example of this is Le code civil des Fran çais, which is a code of very civilized civil law and its first edition had the size of a hardcover book, just like Gone with the Wind.
This impressive body of work was a major influence in the civil codes of some European countries, Latin America, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, Quebec, and Louisiana. I got this information from a rare-books dealer who is also known for responding to emails from people he doesn’t know.
In order to do research on many works, I would contact the person who had studied the book the most, explain the library project, and hope for a response. Most of the time, I would get a reply.
Valerie Solanas’ 1967 SCUM Manifesto is a notable exception, which can be read either as a satirical or literal call for the eradication of men.
Its first printing of two thousand copies was created by mimeograph.
Additionally, Einstein’s letters to Roosevelt concerning the creation of nuclear arms also deserve special mention.
The “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech of Sojourner Truth; the famous J ‘accuse…! of Emile Zola; the anonymous Manden Charter; the Carta escrita al escribano de raci on de los Sen˜ores Reyes Catolicos of Columbus, reporting the discovery of the New World; and the Explosives Course of Abu Khabbab al-Masri can all be considered exceptions to the exceptions.
In spite of the “no-technical-stuff” rule, Andrew Wiles’s proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem was included.
This 106-page solution was the most well-known unsolved problem in mathematics until 1995. It is said that only two or three individuals can comprehend it, and it is unknown if Wiles is one of them.
Consequently, this work has earned the title of the most incomprehensible piece in a library full of them.
It is possible that a moment of consideration for readability is warranted here. As I got more familiar with the calculus, it was obvious that several of the qualifying books could be too difficult for the average reader to enjoy.
Chanakya’s treatise on polity, Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, and the Annotated Code of Canon Law could all be intriguing, but summaries located on the internet appear to indicate that they are in fact not, and that merely teasing any of these works could be enough to put somebody to sleep, or worse.
Addressing JB, I inquired, “Are you sure you desire Paul the Deacon’s Historia langobardorum? It looks quite tedious.”
“Does it satisfy the requirements?”
“In a way.”
What choice do you have in mind?
“Twelfth in line.”
I am eager to have a look at it.
So, that concludes it.
My original rage and gloom began to lessen as the figures and peculiarities became more and more convincing. Hope and enthusiasm started to emerge. Yet so did new revulsions, recent biles, novel pet peeves.
Ascendant among them: the catalogs of others. Have you seen that catalogs of extraordinary somethings, like books, really trouble individuals?
That work of art shouldn’t be there, this one should, that list has no large-print adolescent religious self-improvement proto-dread, this one is all white guys, that one is gender-queer hostile, this one left off The Da Vinci Code, that one is for washouts, this one is for prudes.
I understand that the more I worked on JB’s list, the more aggravated I became with other lists.
In any case, they were totally important to the whole venture: the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the Twentieth Century (in addition to its cognate list for nonfiction); like collections issued by Le Monde , Time, the Guardian, the New York Times , Die Zeit , NRC Handelsblad, the World Library.
At that point there’s the Encyclopedia Britannica ‘s sixty-volume Great Books of the Western World, Thomas Jefferson’s rundown of essential reading, and, most importantly, Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon.
At whatever point my exploration dead-ended, at whatever point a knight’s visit of the web met with obliviousness, I went to Bloom, which incorporates a list of around 1,100 books by 900 authors.
The best of the best. Now and again, I felt like my list was drawing nearer to Bloom’s in extension and acumen, yet then I’d recall that Bloom had likely perused each and every book in his list, while I’d read around one-tenth of 1 percent of mine.
Possibly not even that numerous. Absolutely S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, however, and a few of the books with pictures.
After two years of extensive note-taking, with a number of extended pauses that, of course, agitated JB, the most enjoyable part of the venture was at hand; a part that I, as a rare-books dealer and enthusiast, was the best suited for: purchasing all the books.
To be exact, the project phase involved two tasks: buying and data entry. JB wanted his library to have not only shelves of books, but also a searchable database where each work would be categorized, described, summarized, reviewed, and labeled.
If JB wanted to find seventeenth-century Ethiopic philosophy, the perfect database would come up with Yacob Zera’s 1667 Hatata from North Africa, an eminent ethicist.
After trying out various private, downloadable programs and finding them all inadequate, we resorted to librarything.com, a site similar to Facebook except that books, not people, are the currency.
Though LibraryThing can be quite problematic – slow speed, unfriendly interface, and bulk uploads that Macs can’t do – its storage capability is seemingly unlimited.
You can also keep your work hidden from others, and multiple people can work on the same project at the same time.
This was useful for me because I knew I wasn’t going to be able to finish the task singlehandedly within a year.
Joan Hendrix, a film maker and rare book dealer, was available for hire and she proved to be adept at all aspects of the project, including LibraryThing, purchasing and calming JB’s annoyance with my slowness and lack of skill.
Before I was hired, JB had already had his shelves built. The area available could fit 1,500 hardcover books, and I figured the average book would be 1 inch thick based on my own collection.
However, my calculation was inaccurate since I didn’t consider books like Bjørneboe’s History of Bestiality (three volumes, eight inches of shelf space), the Obras of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (four volumes, nine inches), Wu Cheng-en’s Xi Yu Ji (four volumes, eight inches), and Moses De Leon’s (attr.) Zohar (four volumes, six inches).
The amount of books decreased to 1,400, then 1,300, and then 1,250. When Joan was hired and we started purchasing books, it became clear that even 1,250 would be too much for the shelves.
So, with no extra wall space to add shelves, JB called Roberto, a carpenter, to create extra room, and he managed to hold the 1,250 books with abridgments or microprint editions of huge books like the Oxford English Dictionary, the Talmud, and Churchill’s The Second World War.
A problem arose with my book list: I found other books that I had missed during my initial selection process.
To make room for these new books, I had to go through my list again, and replace the ones I had underrated with more suitable ones. There are currently two hundred books I have deemed unworthy of a place on my shelves, and these are awaiting a trip to Amazon for sale.
Whenever feasible, Joan and I opted for the authoritative editions, or related resources, in particular for the heavy, highbrow readings such as Derrida’s De la Grammatologie (#1,087), an obscure French essay wherein something called deconstructive criticism is defined;
Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (#990), an essential text on feminism and queer theory composed of sentences of remarkable length; and Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (#1,235).1
Joan and I obtained books from a variety of sources. We bought most of them from the usual platforms like Amazon, Alibris, Biblio, and AbeBooks.
We also acquired books from private dealers and scoured second-hand stores, thrift stores, and the shelves of friends and relatives.
Most of the online orders were from retailers in the US, but a fifth were from foreign entities, notably Europe, Latin America, Australia, Canada, and India.
Notably, many of the Indian books were reprints of ancient texts from the British Raj era, such as the Panchatantra, a Sanskrit conduct book from the third century BCE.
(It’s worth mentioning that these often smelled of kerosene.) Additionally, some books from France carried an aroma of tobacco, German books smelled of coal, Latin American books of the sea, British books of mildew, and books from New England had a hint of road salt.
A few books even came from space, which I printed out and self-bound.
It was not simple to produce one ebook: the Liber Juratus Honorii, a thirteenth century grimoire. The only place to find a modern-English version of it is online. You may be wondering why it was not printed and bound as before. The answer is in the opening statement of the webpage:
Making a single handwritten copy is allowed for personal use, with the stipulation that the executor of the will make a strong oath (juramentum) to bury it with the master in the grave. Anybody copying this holy text without authorization from the publisher will be cursed.
I’m not especially superstitious, nor am I scared of the possible repercussions of disregarding supernatural warnings, but I felt Joseph H. Peterson, the translator and expert on the Liber Juratus, was serious.
Therefore, I wrote to him and asked for permission to copy one edition without facing damnation. He was courteous and enthusiastic when he accepted.
Sadly, I have yet to receive JB’s approval, as it would consume a great deal of time to transcribe and bind the three hundred pages of the Liber Juratus. As of now, it is one of the few books that I have yet to be able to acquire.
It was a relatively simple task to acquire the books; all it took was to search, select, purchase, and wait. It usually took between three to eighty days for them to arrive through USPS.
Bryan, our mailman, had to endure a lot as the temperature soared to 109°F during the months of July and August. He had to deliver up to thirty packages a day, but he kept on going without any grumbling.
On the other hand, Joan’s mailman, a very passive-aggressive individual, gave in to complaining every day and eventually left before the project was completed.
The best thing about the workday was the arrival of packages, but sometimes they brought disappointment.
Most of them were as advertised, but occasionally an item labeled “Very Good” by a small, second-hand business that profited by charging exorbitant shipping fees, would be more like a pan-fried fish.
In my experience, the truthfulness of the seller regarding the condition of the book is in direct correlation with the return policy. Unfortunately, items that have been “pan-fried” can’t be returned; the only option is to write a mean comment and leave the fish where it lays.
The catalog is inadequate, laden with mistakes and displays a lack of expertise. It is particularly deficient in drama, non-English nonfiction, Chinese, Japanese, and Southeast Asian texts, children’s books, history, sociology, and oral tradition.
If I remain on the payroll, I may be able to remedy some of these genres. We have around 150 volumes to be brought to JB’s and shelved, and then the project will be concluded.
Unofficially, I can’t help but continue to work on the list as it has become a compulsion.
In the time it took me to write this essay, I’ve identified five books that must be added to the library: Tacitus’s De origine et situ Germanorum, Wharton’s Age of Innocence, Shannon’s The Mathematical Theory of Communication, the anonymous Utenzi: Utendi Wa Tambuka, Utenzi Wa Shufaka, and Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century French Hermaphrodite.
To make room for these, five more will need to be taken away.
These books have been assigned a readability ranking by me, based on what I have read and the book’s physical structure. Those books that are thick, dull and printed in a small font are at the bottom of the rankings. (The higher the number, the less readable the book.)
In the 19th century, a term for the craft of bookbinding was “slang.”
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