We are stories, contained within
the twenty complicated centimeters
behind our eyes,
lines drawn by traces left by
the (re)mingling together
of things in the world,
and oriented toward the direction
of increasing entropy,
in a rather particular corner
of this immense, chaotic universe.

(Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time, via Andy Ilachinski)

(the author in 1945)

Here we go again with construction of a sprawling answer to what begins as a pretty simple Question for Convivium:

What books have been most influential in your life?

Or perhaps it's What's the story (the Narrative) of your life with books?

... the point being to think about and identify the books that were really significant at various points/phases of your life,
where the encounter led you in particular directions.

The more I think about this, the more complicated my answer becomes, so I'm off on another adventure of html overkill,
awash in discoveries and realizations. You're welcome to follow along, or not, as I unpack and map out my memories and explore the shelves.


Few want to invest the time in building a picture
anchored in the interplay of trends and forces over time,
to ask how what has come before shapes the landscape of what is possible next.
This is the shift in mindset wrapped up in the phrase solving for pattern.
McGee's Musings blog

Not often — a handful of times in a lifetime, if you are lucky —
you come upon a work of thought and feeling — a book, a painting, a song —
that becomes a fountain to which you return again and again,
and which returns you to your life refreshed each time.
(Maria Popova)

My engagement with this Question is yet another odyssey of discovery and rediscovery. The relatively innocent original formulation ("significant books") was quickly overwhelmed by both /significance/ and /books/: What is it to be "significant", and how do particular sources reach forward in time, and how does one trace back to antecedent significance from a book in the present; and what about sources that stretch the conventional definition of "book" to include the graphical, the aural, the non-codex format? It's been a delight to explore the dim and dusty corners, and to work at bringing my lifelong engagement into better order.

Hugh of St Cher ca. 1230
(first compiler of a biblical concordance)
(first portrait of a person wearing spectacles)

It turns out to be a revealing exercise to reconstruct and examine my lifelong pattern of reading, in search of constants and repetitions. Throughout runs a curiosity, and a conviction that books are a primary medium for exploration of the world's wonders. The pleasure of expounding my findings to others has been active at least since Stanford days, and probably before, though my memory of the Harvard undergraduate version is hazier than I'd wish.

I have always been surrounded by books, from the walls of book-box shelving in my father's office and library, with its library table with a gigantic Webster's Dictionary and a world atlas, and the tower of Encyclopedia Britannica (11th edition, the soft leather turning to dust...) ... and the bookshelves in my own room, which grew and grew. I remember going to Harvard's Widener Library with my father, and exploring the "fireproof" in the Theological School library. Having a library card was an important step in life (access to the Cambridge Public Library, and later the Andover Public Library), and as soon as I could at Harvard I wangled a "stack pass" which gave access to Widener. During my Harvard years, bookstores were probably more important than libraries, though the Peabody Library of Anthropology was significant. But I was really rather clueless about what to do with the library resources I did wrangle; the development of note-making strategies was a Stanford-era invention (of which not all that much remains), and the habit of thinking by writing things out didn't begin until I started teaching at Acadia, and needed to have something to say in my classes.

What I'm discovering via this Question seems obvious once articulated, but no less marvelous for that. It all comes down to a lifetime of engagement with libraries: their use, their construction and organization, their digital enhancement. My own saga begins in a succession of home libraries, adds public and then university libraries, and then finds me slipping backstage to become a librarian, all the while continuing to build my own libraries in various media, and to explore the resources contained within. The real purpose of this lifelong bibliomaniacal adventure is the continued evolution of what I know and can lay hands upon, which facilitates the informing of others. Not everyone's Cup of Tea, but absolutely mine. Curating all that is the most important thing I've done, especially if we include the media that deal with *music* and *images* and the world of *video*.

Making sense of one's own library means finding some means to co-locate books by subject matter (or some other overall scheme: grouping all blue books together, or shelving by height of spine, or alphabetically by title, or by author... all viable methods), or following some Procrustean Bed of cataloging (Dewey Decimal, Library of Congress, others...), or contriving one's own ad hoc criteria. In the most recent phase (2005-present) I've used LibraryThing as a framework for minimalist cataloging of books on my shelves, and summarized my holdings with a tagcloud, in which size of print is an approximation to number of volumes:

I realize how unsystematic and idiosyncratic my tagging of the LibraryThing catalog is, but playing with the

live tagcloud

does give a rough-and-ready subject access to my library as it is presently constituted,
and suggests that a week or so spent augmenting the existing tags would see its consistency and precision much improved...
but there are other places to put my energies in any given week.

The tagcloud is probably the best entrée to the subdivisions—to the 400+ photography collection, or the 50 having to do with Sarawak, or the sprawling territory of music, and so on.
LibraryThing needs constant updating, and I generally get to that every 6 months or so, but a lot of books can cross the threshold in half a year
(see 2020 and 2021 acquisitions and 2022 additions so far).

Thinking of early books of exquisite significance all my life,
it seems that when and in what sequence books enter one's life
is likely more important than we realize, or so I'm finding as I excavate memories.

Here's a chronology,

for anybody who might wish to explore the details
(I will probably keep adding to and refining these lists as other things occur to me)


A recurrent problem, which goes back probably 70 years, is that of acquiring books in hopes of thereby acquiring what they contained, but not completing the journey by reading (and writing). There are lots of books I've always meant to finish reading, and a lot that I know more or less what's in them, so they can be consulted when the subject comes up, and also a lot that are part of projects never completed but still in some sense underway and I might get to them someday. And there are Treasures, books that I have because how could I not after having found/seen them (Codex Serafinianus is one such; there are many...). And every day there's a parade of books to read, books-in-process, books put down but likely to be picked up again sometime. And there are books which it is meritorious to purchase and possess (the Oxford English Dictionary and Cambridge Greek Lexicon, for example). And books which lurk meaningfully on shelves, waiting to be rediscovered in a fit of whimsy. And a special subset of whimsical books, mostly titles that other people don't know about but I do...

Many were acquired to support some project I was working through. Nobody could possibly complete all the projects I start but then eventually suspend in favor of some novel/captivating something else, and at least in theory I could always pick them up again (looking at you, Hungarian demography 1900-1910), and sometimes I have done. Meanwhile the breadth of the magpie habit and the depths involved in serial investigation of rabbit holes complement one another as descriptions of what I do, and what I've always done. They used to pay me to do those things, but for 16 years I've been freelance, but with all the books I could eat...

Examples keep occurring to me and begging to be included, which could lead to a topiary of branching pages to further illustrate and explain, but then where would one stop?