The Personal Library

Books do furnish a room. Books map the brain of a reader. Our choice of books and our arrangement of them have meanings that tell stories and reveal patterns of thought.

Think about Walter Benjamin’s lovely essay in Illuminations on Unpacking a Library and how his books establish patterns and relationships. (If you have an Amazon account, look inside the book “Illuminations” at page 59.)

In the law I remember at the start of my career working with lawyers who had the luxury of extensive shelves, the curiosity to acquire books and the possibility posed by cheaper prices than today and the existence of bookstores here that sold legal books beyond the mandatory texts of law school. Browsing among Chief Justice McRuer’s shelves and noting the marginal jottings revealed a lot about him and his times.

Deep in the stacks of the Great Library at Osgoode Hall is Chief Justice Riddell’s private library. Quirky, eclectic but a wonderful glimpse into the intellectual attic of a great judge and one who was largely — with George Johnson — responsible for making the Great Library great in more than its Georgian elegance of design.

My colleague John Morden late of the Ontario Court of Appeal recently sold the house he had lived in for decades. John’s father and grandfather had been prominent Ontario lawyers and they’d accumulated personal libraries — the eldest had a collection of the Law Reports from England back to 1865. In a private house in Toronto.

Given his move John had to decimate his library. Prime to go – a complete bound set of Ontario Reports. Their value estimated only at the value of the paper for recycling.

John mentioned that Caesar Wright encouraged all his students to subscribe to the Dominion Law Reports at the student bargain price of $6 per volume. Who imagines any student today getting any law reports beyond the Ontario Reports which come with membership? Or that law books would actually be bought for interest and browsing?

Yet the presence of those books likely encouraged their reading on a routine basis. Something that’s stopped with the proliferation of law reports and their escalating expense. It certainly served to enrich the jurisprudence of both Justice Mordens.

Next for John trimming the texts. Then hundreds of books donated to the United way. The rest likely bound for blue boxes.

We lose when these collections are abandoned in favour of institutional libraries.

Nice essays by Anne Fadiman in Ex Libris and a recent piece in the Guardian reveal the challenges of marrying two libraries together and the pain of discarding books. Wendy Lesser even took photographs of the shelves she had to leave behind, to remind her of the world she had lost.

As libraries become collective resources and digital commons we lose something of the connection between the individual reader and the books that make a life.

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