"Have you read all these books?"

Anyone in possession of more than a handful of books, who is in the habit of standing them up side by side on a shelf, must be prepared for one particular question, “Have you read all these books?” Every time we have a guest over, or a man comes in to fix the heating, a quick glance at the shelves is enough to provoke this question.

Walter Benjamin cites Anatole France’s retort to the “philistine” who asks him whether he has read all the books in his library: “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?” Not particularly useful, this one. It seems to refer to a collector’s library, one with particularly precious books, and Benjamin himself is justifying just such a collection. (The condemnation of philistinism is gratifying, nonetheless). Umberto Eco’s response is, “No, these are the ones I need to read by next month, the others I keep at the university.” This, he claims, seems to suggest a certain sublime ergonomicity to his arrangement. He also quotes Roberto Leydi’s 1. Gabriel Zaid, covering this question, says that a library is not a trophy case ( Zaid: So Many Books 2). (Also, Derrida movie, and General Stumm in Musil: The Man Without Qualities 3.)

The best reason for having a large library is that you can filter out acquaintances from friends, based on whether they ask this question.



  1. 1Roberto Leydi, an ethnomusicologist, donated a private collection that included not only 10,000 books but also 1,000 tapes, 6,000 records and 700 instruments—response, “Many more, ladies, many more.” I keep the ones I’ve read in storage.” see Il Secondo diario minimo, See Eco: Secondo Diario Minimo [ Eco: Secondo Diario Minimo , Bompiani 1992.
  2. 2 Zaid: So Many Books , Sort of Books 2004.
  3. 3 Musil: The Man Without Qualities , Picador 1995.