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November 27, 2006

growing up in a library

(Syracuse, NY): We're stuck in my hometown after Thanksgiving weekend because of a delayed flight. Over the weekend, my wife Laura and I measured the bookshelves in the house where I grew up. We estimate that my Dad has filled 2,663 linear feet of shelving with his books, which he has collected over fifty years in several countries. We were interested in the aggregate length of his shelving because all of us want to know how much space the books would occupy if we had to move them. Apparently, we would need about 110 standard-size, eight-shelf bookcases--but since Dad really packs the books in tightly, I think we might need 125. We didn't count volumes, but a rough estimate would be 27,000-30,000.

Sometimes an increase in quantity causes a change in quality. To grow up in a smallish house that contains that many books is to grow up in a different kind of place: a library rather than a standard home. The books were unusual, too. Most were published before 1900 and some are as old as the late 1500s. They are musty, worn, crumbly, well-traveled, and well used.

Social scientists often ask children how many books are in their homes, because this is a proxy for socio-economic status (SES). Kids can estimate numbers of books better than they can guess their own parents' incomes and educational credentials. By that measure, I was enormously privileged--far better off than any billionaire's kid. In reality, there may have been some diminishing returns after the first, say, 20,000 volumes arrived in our home. But it was a privilege to grow up amid so much vellum and parchment and so many carefully written words.

Posted by peterlevine at November 27, 2006 12:05 AM

Comments

I often wonder why so many books are necessary. How often does one look at them? Does having so many books afford a sense of security?

Posted by: airth10 [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 27, 2006 12:00 PM

This particular collection is the working library of a professional historian, regularly consulted for reference. I don't know how common that is.

Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 27, 2006 07:23 PM

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