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So Many Books

We remember what we learn more by the incidents of its acquisition than by its place in a scheme of knowledge. The voice of your teacher, the table where you studied, the stage of your life when you learned them – these are the things that make memories stick. (We learn best when we are young, not just because the mind is plastic, but because those are the years – the years of our firsts – we will always remember.) A book, as an artifact, is full of such adhesive incidents: binding, paper, cover and fonts; the author’s style and voice; its weight on or in your hand; how you marked it or took pains not to mark or mar it; who gave to you; where you bought it or took it out; who recommended it to you; how old it is – new, secondhand, antique.

A book is as mnemonically individual as a teacher and has the advantages of cheapness, reliable supply, permanence, and retainability – you cannot put a teacher on a shelf. Precisely because it is fixed and set, a book is not just a medium through which an item of data crosses from mind to mind; it is a thing in itself, fraught and sensuous, whose circumstances receive and bind, like spiders’ silk, gossamer and flighty thought.

The ancients, who had only fragile scrolls, and the scholars and schoolmen of the Middle Ages, who owned few books, built dream palaces in their memories, labyrinthine, full of niches and ramifying halls and galleries mortared from shards of remembered or imagined buildings. These palaces were miscellaneous as pattern books, like the strange buildings which haunt Renaissance backgrounds, Dürer’s rambling castles or the scenes where Poliphilo wandered; and which came as ruins to dominate Romantic landscapes, senseless conjunctions of towers and walls and columns; Piranesi’s prisons of invention, Death’s city in Poe, resembling nothing which is ours. These palaces housed only commodious niches, ranged along hall walls or between arcade columns, or grouped behind doors: and in each niche lived a vision, or a nightmare. Here is a fox-headed lady standing for a name beginning with V (vulpus); here is the goat with swollen testicles who was Cicero’s testator.

Why did the memory palace go out of fashion? Because of the library. Not because the sudden plenty of books made memory obsolete; but because the true palace of memory is the library, with wings of shelves, corridors of volumes, pages as niches where memory is bound.

So many counted light-years will not suffice to hold universe enough to justify, let alone satiate, the appetites and powers of the human mind; but books brought together do not add, but multiply; to be among books you know well is to be lifted out of mortal span and reach.