University of Virginia Library


Every room in the place where each of us lives could be called a "living room" because we have spent a portion of our intimate (or nonpublic) lives there and because it fills us with memories of what has occurred within it. But the room specifically designated "the living room" serves especially well, by virtue of its name, to symbolize the role that physical surroundings and tangible possessions play in our daily lives. At least I can say that my own living room constantly brings me in touch with my past because it contains furniture, paintings, porcelain, crystal, books, and other objects that recall people and episodes from many parts of my life. Some of these items would be valuable (in historical or monetary terms) to anyone; others are valuable only to me. The rest of my rooms overflow with such objects as well, but the living room provides a selective index to my experiences. So if I now give the reader a tour of my living room (and the foyer leading to it), I can perhaps convey not only the pleasure I derive from my possessions but also some indication of how one's life story can be partially epitomized in one's accumulation of things.


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To take this approach to memoir-writing is particularly appropriate for me because I have spent much of my life thinking about the significance of artifacts—objects made by human beings in the past and, through their survival, bringing into the present a sense of their origins and of the previous lives they touched. Many of my writings, either directly or indirectly, reflect an appreciation of how artifacts enrich our lives, both through their intrinsic evidence of human activity in the past and through the associations that have gathered around them over time. When I write about book collecting and book preservation, these points about artifacts are obviously basic, since the emphasis is naturally on books as physical objects. But this focus is of course equally fundamental to my writings about analytical and descriptive bibliography, fields that engage in a special kind of reading—a reading of books' physical details. And my writings about scholarly editing take for granted that the original books and manuscripts conveying verbal texts—and not photographs or digitizations of them—are the essential source materials for studying and assessing the makeup of texts (indeed, that analytical and descriptive bibliography are tools of the process).

I make no distinction between my approach to books when I am writing and my thoughts about artifacts of all kinds during those far longer periods of time when I am not writing. Whether I am looking at a first printing of Moby-Dick or a vase from my grandmother's house, I observe an object that was seen and handled by many people before me, one that brings a part of the past into the present. Whether I am examining books in the rare-book room of a research library or looking at the objects around me wherever I happen to be, I am reading physical evidence. The connections between the inanimate and the human are always part of these thoughts. Thus when I look at what surrounds me in my living room, I think of the creative efforts of the individuals who brought the objects into existence; and because these pieces have become part of my life, they also reconnect me to the friends with whom I associate them. Their personal meanings for me form the latest stage in the history of the responses they have evoked.