[VIEWPOINT]Musings About the Value of Books

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[VIEWPOINT]Musings About the Value of Books

A short time ago, a reporter asked me whether he could write a story about my library, but I felt embarrassed at the idea of publicizing my book collection to newspaper readers because it is nothing to be proud of.

I keep some of the books that I am now reading and those I often refer to on the bookselves in my living room. Most of my old books are kept separately in the attic. I estimate they are around 1,000 in number, though I have never counted them. So recently, when an opportunity arose, I decided to rearrange the books.

A priest who is very close to me asked me if I had any spare books I could donate to a small library that his church plans to set up. Since I had been thinking I should sort out my old books, I dedicated a whole day to the task. Surprisingly, I found that the job was not easy. "Which of the books should I give up?" I thought. If I throw away a book because I feel I do not need it right now, I might regret it some day when I do.

Most of the books were given to me by the writers themselves, and contain their autographs inside. How could I discard those books, as if they are just a bunch of trash, betraying the generosity of my writer friends?

Initially, I found it difficult to pick out just 100 books. But as I combed back through the piles of books a second and third time, my standard of value concerning the books started to change. What if I were to throw away these books, I thought. Most of them I do not read now, and am I really convinced that they will be of some use to me in the future? If not, why don't I throw them away, breaking the lingering attachment now?

There is a saying that "books are the bread of the soul," but leafing through the books I also wondered whether that many would really be necessary to nourish my spirit.

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-81), a former British prime minister, once said, "Books are fatal; they are the curse of the human race. Nine-tenths of existing books are nonsense, and the clever books are the refutation of that nonsense. The greatest misfortune that ever befell man was the invention of printing."

Besides Disraeli's cynicism, the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) also cursed books in his first novella "Bednyye Lyudi" ("Poor Folk," 1846). He said that novels have a hundred harms without a single gain and are things only to be read by good-for-nothing lazybones.

Emboldened by my remembrance of Dostoevsky's remark, I sorted through hundreds of books in almost no time.

But during the process, I was attacked by a sudden feeling of foreboding and fright.

I am a prolific novelist, who has produced dozens of works. Isn't it likely that some of my works are considered useless trash by other people and have been dumped like pieces of junk?

Isn't it true that my novels are, after all, collections of silly thoughts littered with lies? I might even be the sinner condemned by Disraeli, who pumped out curses on humanity through poorly written books.

After selecting more than 300 books, I sat shamefaced in the darkness of the library, not bothering to turn on the light. What saved me then was an anecdote about the French philosopher Francois Voltaire (1694-1778) which suddenly occurred to me.

When a person jokingly told Voltaire that his collection of books was about to be burned, Voltaire calmly answered what a thankful deed it would be. Voltaire added that books are like chestnuts - the more they are set aflame, the better they are roasted and attract more people to buy them.

That was it. Books are like roasted chestnuts selling on the street. No more, no less. So I do not have to agonize over the sense of shame about my poor writing or be ashamed of my inability to write a good book. What I have to do is, like Voltaire, set my thoughts on fire again and again until they are well-roasted like chestnuts.


The writer is a novelist.

by Choi In-ho

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