Imagining a one-book library

The feedback (mostly email) from readers to recent columns regarding books in general, book shelving strategies, and bookplates has been both surprising and interesting. It encourages me to proceed in that vein. Down the line, we might consider public libraries and the wonderful freedoms they represent, but for the time being let’s consider private holdings — that is, the sort of personal libraries you and I have.

You can’t have a library without a book. But just one book will do it. Hopefully, it’s the right book, suitable to your unique needs. If you were forced to reduce your library to just one book, what would it be?

After some deliberation, my pick is The Odyssey. Homer’s epic has always fascinated me. It has most everything a reader could desire: adventure after adventure, seascapes and landscapes, monsters galore, bad hosts and good hosts, seductive sirens and a beguiling temptress, a descent into Hell, a whirlpool and a shipwreck, a return home (to Ithaca) where the hero’s patient wife (Penelope) weaves by day and unweaves at night so as to befuddle her many arrogant suitors, a faithful dog (Argos), and a thoroughly satisfying closing in which father (Odysseus) and son (Telemachus) pile up dead suitor upon dead suitor like bloody cordwood. There have been numerous translations: the one by T.E. Lawrence (himself a near-mythic figure) has special overtones; a more recent translation by Robert Fagles is one of the best.

Also on my one-book library nomination list: Michel de Montaigne’s Complete Essays, J. Frank Dobie’s The Ben Lilly Legend, Horace Kephart’s Camping and Woodcraft, J. Evett Haley’s Charles Goodnight: Cowman and Plainsman, E.C. “Teddy Blue” Abbott’s We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove and Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, Edwin Way Teale’s North with Spring, Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days, W.H. Hudson’s Far Away and Long Ago, Richard Jefferies’ The Story of My Heart, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Thomas Hardy’s Complete Poems, Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne, Louise Dickinson Rich’s We Took to the Woods, William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, George Crabbe’s Complete Poems, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Jupiter, E.O. Wilson’s Naturalist, William T. Davis’s Days Afield, Merrill Gilfillan’s Magpie Rising, James Thurber’s The Years with Ross, Llewelyn Powys’ Earth Memories, Virginia Woolf’s Complete Essays, and various others that reflect my eclectic and sometimes peculiar tastes when it comes to reading matter. Few will have even heard of George Crabbe, that poet of the East Anglican mudflats and ungainly flora, whose aim was to avoid in his verses, whenever possible, the poetic. But Homer’s Odyssey won, going away — his only near competition being Montaigne.

Some of the most satisfactory libraries are those housed on a single shelf in a remote cabin — or a portable one consisting of not more than 25 books carefully arranged in a wooden or cardboard box. When Kephart ventured up to his cabin on the Little Fork of the Sugar Fork of Hazel Creek in the fall of 1904, he bought with him that sort of library.

“‘Seldom during those three years as a forest exile,’ Kephart told a reporter in 1927, ‘Did I feel lonesome in the daytime; but when supper would be over and black night closed in on my hermitage, and the owls began calling all the blue devils of the woods, one needed some indoor occupation to keep him in good cheer.’

“It was the old life calling, the life of books that he had left,” the reporter noted. “For such a man there could be a beginning again but the old life could not be entirely disowned ... Out of the thousands of books that he had intimately known [as a librarian] there were only a few he could carry with him into the solitudes. He selected them with care, twenty of them. Here is the list in the order in which they stood on a shelf on his soap-box cupboard: an English dictionary; Roget’s Thesaurus; his sister’s Bible; Shakespeare; Burns’ Poems; Dante (in Italian); Goethe’s Faust; Poe’s Tales; Stevenson’s Kidnapped, David Balfour and The Merry Men; Fisher’s Universal History; Nessmuk’s [i.e., George Washington Sears] Woodcraft; Frazer’s Minerals; Jordan’s Vertebrate Animals; Wright’s Birdcraft; Matthews’ American Wild Flowers; Keeler’s Our Native Trees; and Lounsberry’s Southern Wild Flowers and Trees. The old man had become a new man, but the new man was a man of books ... and when the owls began calling, it was in his books that he found comfort. He took up writing, as it was inevitable that he would, setting down by night his experiences of the day.”

Then there is the home library — the sort most of us have, ranging from an hundred or so books to several thousand. If you have more than 5,000 books in your library, you may require counseling. If you have more than 10,000, it’s probably too late.

For the devoted, the home library requires an infallible shelving strategy, periodic rearranging, weeding and dusting, carefully chosen additions, and reading. Whether housed in a separate room, on a wall in the den, in the corner of a spare room, or (like mine) in bookcases and on shelves scattered throughout the house, the home library is, for many, a living entity.

Montaigne (1533-1592) was the first essayist in Western literature. The first and the best-able practitioners of the art like Bacon, Hazlitt, Emerson, and Woolf agree that he has never been surpassed. His subject matter was himself. In three volumes, he evaluated and quantified himself with calm objectivity, describing without cant what it’s like to be alive, what it means to be human.

After his best friend Ramond Sebond died, Montaigne’s library became his best friend, a place of refuge. At his chateau in the French countryside, one of the three-story towers was converted into private quarters: chapel, bedroom, and library. Of the forms of association Montaigne preferred — these included intelligent men and beautiful women — he ranked the 1,000 or so books shelved on the top floor of his tower first. In Of the Three Kinds of Association he wrote:

“In my library, I spend most of the days of my life, and most of the hours of the day there ... The shape of my library is round, the only flat side being the part needed for my table and chair; and curving round me it presents at a glance all my books, arranged in five rows of shelves on all sides. It offers rich and free views in thee directions, and sixteen paces of free space in diameter ... There is my throne. I try to make my authority over it absolute, and to withdraw this one corner from all society, conjugal, filial, and civil ... Sorry the man, to my mind, who has not in his own home a place to be all by himself ... I find it measurably more endurable to be always alone than never to be able to be alone. In my youth I studied for ostentation; later, a little to gain wisdom; now, for recreation; never for gain. As for the vain and spendthrift fancy I had for that sort of furniture [used] for the purpose of lining and decorating walls, I have given it up long ago.”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Go to top