The Secret Life of Books

A book about books—how self-referential!

And how wonderful!

The full title of the book under discussion is The Secret Life of Books: Why They Mean More than WordsMore than words indeed. Tom Mole’s delightful paean to the book is largely about books per se, what one of my friends calls “dead-tree versions,”not about their content. He does mention audiobooks, Kindles, and even scrolls—briefly—but they’re definitely not the focus here. We’re talking about the codex, i.e. a physical bound book with pages. In other words, what most people call “a book.”

OK, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about this fascinating document. In eight chapters, totaling 212 pages of lively writing, Tom Mole tells you everything you wanted to know about “the book.” There’s so much of it that resonated with me! For example:

I always make a beeline for the bookcases. If, indeed, there are any. If you invite me into your house, sooner or later I’ll sidle over to the bookshelf and, head cocked to one side, examine the books. You can tell a lot about people by the books they put on their shelves. Are there expensive hardbacks, or antiquarian volumes in leather bindings? Are there multi-volume sets of the complete works of standard authors? Books in foreign or classical languages? The rows of red or green Loeb bindings favoured by students of the classics? The old Penguins sought after by collectors?

I plead guilty to some of these. You can figure out which.

And what do these books tell you about their owners?

If you look closely, you can see what the books mean to their owner. Some of them have been read cursorily, leaving little sign of handling. Others have not been read at all. Still others reveal from the wrinkles in their paperback spines (or, in earlier ages, their uncut pages) that the reader gave up partway through.

Ah yes.

In this age of Zoom and COVID, Barbara and I have noticed how many of the real people we see on the screen in meetings and in TV interviews have stationed themselves in front of bookshelves (usually live, but sometimes a fixed background, as I do with my math books). Also, in many Greater Boston interviews we see that authors prominently display their newest effort behind them. Apparently this isn’t new: Mole observes that “Universities often decorate their walls with portraits of senior administrators, who almost invariably pose in front of bookshelves, even if their working lives are actually filled with meetings, memos and emails, leaving little time for reading books. The books are there to signify that knowledge is their business… Reading them is only one of the things we do with books, and not always the most significant. For a book to signal something about you, you don’t necessarily need to have read it.” (As it’s nearly impossible to display an audiobook or an e-book, real books are necessary if you want others to notice.) The lesson here was driven home to me more than six decades ago, when my parents hired a professional photographer to shoot a portrait of me for my eleventh birthday; he posed me in front of the book I was currently reading (George Gamow’s One Two Three Infinity) in order to convey the right message:

OK, enough about me. Back to Mr. Mole. (No, not Wind in the Willows.) While reading it, I observed that The Secret Life of Books is remarkably comprehensive. About the only topic it doesn’t discuss sufficiently is bookshops, and how Amazon is wiping most of them out. But it does tell us about book clubs. I remember asking a colleague about her book club: are men allowed to join? She assured me that the answer is yes, although all the current members “happened” to be women. Hmmm… And now I read this passage in The Secret Life of Books:

Book clubs often seem like a women’s thing, and the survey of UK reading groups that Jenny Hartley and Sarah Turvey did in 1999 bears this out: 69 per cent of the groups they heard from were all-female groups, only four per cent all-male. Even the mixed groups often had a large majority of women. In some cases, the groups lamented the lack of male readers, but in others they reported that efforts to include men hadn’t worked well. Men, it seems, don’t talk about books in quite the same way. If book clubs are mostly female spaces, this is partly because they privilege a way of talking that’s often imagined as woman’s talk: non-competitive, non-confrontational, friendly, digressive, and collaborative.

Very interesting. Definitely food for thought—and for conversation with female friends.

It won’t surprise you that one of the many characteristics of books that has fascinated me ever since childhood is how they are organized and cataloged. I still remember back in third grade exploring the arrangement of the books in our very small school library. (I had only eight classmates in third grade; how large could the library be?) It was all very mathematical, based on Dewey, not LC. What didn’t occur to me until halfway through college is that organization schemes can have political implications: I asked an anthropology grad student in my dorm how to figure out whether a particular book would be classified under sociology or anthropology (in LC), and he replied “I’m not supposed to put it this way, but if it deals with civilized society it’s sociology but if it deals with primitive societies it’s anthropology.”


Mole makes this observation:

In the Library of Congress system, among the social science books (labelled H), there’s a subcategory HQ for ‘the family, marriage, women’, while HX is for ‘socialism, communism, anarchism’. Library classification systems gives the impression that they reflect an accepted order of things, shelving things together that naturally belong together. But only a little reflection reveals that they are actually making implicit arguments about the world beyond the library.

A couple of closing remarks about The Secret Life of Books as a physical book. Of course the author and publisher paid scrupulous attention to every detail, from proofreading to layout, since a lot of Mole’s writing concerns the book as an object, as a codex. The careful reader notices that the author is British, partly through the spelling of certain words, partly through single quotation marks and the logical use of unquoted punctuation outside of them, and partly through the use of spaces to surround dashes — like this, as I used to do. Now, however, look back at the first two paragraphs at the top of this post, and you’ll see that I have given in—following American convention—and omitted the spaces. In fact, the only reason I used to use them was that the automated line break algorithm in software like Microsoft Word used to treat dashes without spaces as indicating a single word, thus refusing to insert a new line before or after the dash, sometimes creating horrible line breaks. Fortunately that problem has been fixed.

Now go read Mole’s book!


Categories: Books