Books and the Revelation of Personality
by Derrick G. Jeter
“Private libraries reveal the personality of their owners.”1 So it has always seemed to me true. As a boy I didn’t particularly like to read, but I did love to stand in front of my father’s and mother’s book case and let my eyes wander to and fro over the spins of their books. The colors, heights, thicknesses of the books, the fonts and the titles fascinated me.
Today, much older (and I hope wiser) I revel in reading—a good thing since I make my living writing books. Yet, I’m not too far removed from that boy who used to stand looking at my parents’ library. Whenever I’m in someone’s house one of the first things I look for are books. I’m curious what others are reading because their books reveal their personalities—their education, their interests, their travels, their stage of life. Even if I’m intimate with the owner of the house I like to peruse their books again; perhaps they have purchased something I haven’t seen before, something that should be in my library. And I still, whenever I’m at my parents’ home, look at the books; I’ve seen them countless times before but I’m drawn to them, just in case I’d forgotten what was on the shelf.
My family thinks I’m a tad off plumb, especially my little sister. She refuses to buy me books for my birthday or Christmas. “You’re boring,” she tells me. “All you want are books.” I shudder at what she’d think if I told her I wanted a book on the contents of someone’s library and an analysis of what their library revealed about that individual. What a relief it is to know I don’t have to tell her about such a book because I already bought it for myself.
Kevin J. Hayes’ The Mind of a Patriot: Patrick Henry and the World of Ideas is a fascinating account of what Patrick Henry had in his library. Hayes, looking through the prism of Henry’s books, offers new insights into the great man’s personality. Influenced by Thomas Jefferson’s misunderstanding of Henry, who was an enigma to Jefferson, William Wirt, Henry’s biographer, said that books had little to do with “the formation of this great man’s mind. He was, indeed, a mere child of nature, and nature seems to have been too proud and too jealous of her work, to permit it to be touched by the hand of art.”2 What Hayes does in his work is disprove the notation that Henry was simply a genius of nature.
What Hayes expertly points out, Henry was, unlike his contemporaries who built large libraries, a practical reader and no mere collector of books. “Books were more integral to the mind of Patrick Henry than to other contemporary intellectuals who assembled great personal libraries,” Hayes wrote. “To men like Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin or John Adams, a library was an auxiliary storehouse for the mind. Whenever they needed information, they could enter their libraries and discover what they needed to know. Henry, on the other hand, sought to internalize what he read. To him, books were less material objects and more a medium through which authors communicated their ideas to readers. By keeping his library small and reading perceptively and intensively, Henry was able to make his books a part of his mind. Once he fully internalized what the books had to tell him, their importance as material objects waned.”3 In all, according to Hayes’ catalogue, Henry possessed 188 volumes, including multivolume sets.
These few books, as Hayes so skillful shows, provide a window into the personality of Henry that goes beyond the genius child of nature. His books and “the mind they helped to shape left an enduring mark on the United States and, indeed, on the universal idea of liberty.”4 No amount of genius, no matter how great, could do that without a sharp focus whittling and honing that genius into a powerful point of force. This is what good books can do; this is what good books did do for Henry.
Now, I only wonder what my library reveals about my personality . . . a scary thought indeed.
1. Kevin J. Hayes, The Mind of a Patriot: Patrick Henry and the World of Ideas (Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press, 2008), 105.
2. William Wirt, Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry (Philadelphia: Thomas, Cowperthwait & Co., 1838), 25.
3. Hayes, The Mind of a Patriot, 106.
4. Hayes, The Mind of a Patriot, 106.