A home library - experts offer advice on how to start or upgrade your book collection

Novelist Anne Bernays keeps a personal library of over 500 volumes in her Boston-area home. It's made up of ''all kinds of books. I'm a reader, and I collect the things I like to read,'' she explains. ''I like classics, and love to reread Dickens and Austen. And I read other kinds of books, too.

''I can't imagine a writer living in a bookless house. Books are the tools of our work. I love to be surrounded by my books. To me it's a feeling of comfort.''

Bernays's husband, Pulitzer-winning biographer Justin Kaplan, counts over 1, 200 books on the shelves in his study. His collection has more reference works than his wife's - in fact, an entire shelf, which includes a set of literary biography and books on language.

Of course, the Bernays-Kaplan family is more literary than most, reminiscent perhaps of the privileged families of earlier eras who were the only people fortunate enough to own books. Yet today hardly a home is without a few books of some kind - a dog-eared dictionary, perhaps, alongside some best sellers from a book club or store rack; maybe a new volume on saving energy, sandwiched between some aging textbooks that haven't been opened since high school or college.

Can ordinary readers, who aren't writers or collectors of rare books, get more value out of their home bookshelves - more of the answers they need to everyday questions, more food for serious thought, more fun and entertainment? Can they add more resources to help foster a love of reading and learning in their children? And at a reasonable price?

A number of authorities surveyed by the Monitor say yes. A basic home library can be a useful resource for every member of the family, and can be assembled for $60 to $6,000, or more, depending on size and scope.

The experts interviewed - librarians, writers, and educators - recommend that the home bookshelf begin with some basic reference works and then expand to include the kind of literature that best fits family interests or aims. And they offer a clear outline of how to get started, where to find needed information or guidance, and what considerations to keep in mind while selecting books.

Most experts say basic references should include: a current facts book, such as the Information Please Almanac 1983, (A&W Publishers Inc., $5.95 in paperback); a world atlas, like the Hammond atlases priced from $16.95 to $65; a Thesaurus, such as the familiar Roget's (from $2.25 in paperback); and a guide to clear, grammatical use of English in writing, such as Strunk and White's Elements of Style, third edition (Macmillan, $1.95 in paperback).

A good dictionary, of course, is also essential. For many households an up-to-date volume, such as The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition (Houghton Mifflin, $13.95) with 200,000 entries and 25,000 new words (including computer and technical terms) will come in handy. And in some homes a comprehensive unabridged volume like Webster's Third New International Dictionary (G. & C. Merriam Company, $69.95) or the Oxford English Dictionary, Compact Edition, 2 Vols. (Oxford University Press, $150) is worth the price. (See accompanying list for children's dictionaries.)

An encyclopedia may also be a good investment, depending on the amount of use it will get. Often parents don't realize how helpful an encyclopedia can be for satisfying a child's insatiable curiosity about what, where, how, and why - even before he or she reaches school age. A good junior encyclopedia can serve all ages from preschool through high school, the authorities say, especially if the publisher provides a good yearly update to keep the set current. Several librarians recommend the following as particularly useful for school children: Compton's Encyclopedia ($549), The New Book of Knowledge ($349.60) and World Book Encyclopedia ($499-$599). These sets are expensive, and they aren't sold in stores. Parents who want to examine the books before speaking with a salesman can usually find them in a public library. Factors to consider include indexing, illustrations, and the scope of the entries. Adults looking for a thorough reference for their own needs might consider the Encyclopedia Britannica ($1,099 -$7,500), Collier's Encyclopedia ($899.50), and the Encyclopedia Americana ($950 ).

Beyond these general books, naturally, one might want to add other references that fit one's professional or personal interests.

But just what to do after stocking the reference shelf involves another level of decisionmaking and probably some research at a public library. If that sounds like too much work, remember that the shopping itself can be pleasurable. It can take you not only to conventional book stores or quaint and cluttered used bookshops, but also to book fairs, auctions, those intriguing yard sales, and roadside flea markets where wonderful bargains are sometimes to be found.

A basic question: Do I need regular hard-cover editions, paperbacks, or leather-bound heirloom volumes? If heirloom durability counts, sewn bindings and acid-free paper are the things to watch for. But these top-quality features can push prices into the stratosphere - especially when the book is finished with leather covers. Yet these books may be worth the price difference to some buyers , since normal clothbound books, which still seem to be the most popular choice for the home bookshelf, today average about $18 in price.

For the family that wants the most for the minimum cost and for which attractive bindings and heirloom durability aren't important, or for whom storage space is limited, the good news is that paperback editions are sturdier than ever before. And they are available closer to the original hardcover printing date than ever before. The bad news is that they're more expensive than in the past, averaging $8.95, and sometimes ranging up to $30 for large-format pages with top-quality color illustrations. Nonetheless paperbacks still represent a savings of nearly half over their clothbound counterparts.

Steven Gilbar, a California author interviewed by the Monitor, says he collects paperbacks, ''because I grew up in a time of them, and I like the feel of them. Also, they are less expensive, and take up less space.'' Anne Bernays, also likes paperbacks - not the drug-store-rack variety, but the large, attractively bound editions known as ''trade paperbacks.'' Oxford, Penguin, Vintage, and Touchtone are among the publishers that offer an impressive number of titles covering major works of both old and new writers.

Once the basic decisions have been made about what kind of books suit one's needs, the would-be home librarian must also decide what kinds of subject matter will best answer the family's questions, stimulate and entertain, inform and educate - and most of all be opened and read. No authority surveyed was so bold as to prescribe a core set of books that should constitute a representative home collection, knowing that personal interests and tastes play the key role. One educator ventured: ''I think the days of the booklist may be gone. There are now so many books that may affect a person's life. To say that these few books on a list are the key to learning - or to life - is no longer possible.''

Yet a number of books are available to guide readers who want advice, once they've pinned down family needs and interests.

For a good source guide to various kinds of literature, Artemis G. Kirk, director of libraries at Simmons College in Boston, recommends The Reader's Advisor. This three-volume, layperson's guide to world literature is a valuable roadmap to the kinds of reading one might want to have on hand.

Readers interested in literary classics through the ages might turn to Mortimer J. Adler's and Charles Van Doren's How to Read a Book, which includes a recommended list of 137 books from ancient Greece up to this century. The authors cite works that challenge reading skills and help develop the ability to reason. Educator-philosopher Adler believes in frequent rereading of these books , since the lessons of great literature can't be absorbed by one or two perusals.

Readers interested in modern as well as classical writers may want to turn to Clifton Fadiman's The Lifetime Reading Plan (Crowell, $12.95), which includes several of the books Adler and Van Doren recommend but also a number of more current books. Fadiman lists 104 titles, devoting at least a page of discussion to each. His aim was to choose, not the ''best books,'' but those that could be called ''original communications.''

A new name amid the compilers of reading lists is Steven Gilbar, the California paperback collector who is also an attorney-turned-writer. Gilbar devotes a brief paragraph each to 9,000 books (in 500 subject areas) in his 1982 volume, Good Books: A Book Lover's Companion (Ticknor & Fields, $9.95 in paperback). ''I'm a pleasure reader,'' Mr. Gilbar told the Monitor. ''My criteria for including a book is that it is rewarding and pleasurable. I compiled this book because I found there was nothing like it in print to help readers.'' Gilbar's list offers a varied mixture of fiction and nonfiction in subject areas ranging from places, to nature, people, and professions.

An important question for parents is the value of a home library for their children. ''When children grow up in an environment where they are surrounded by books, books become part of their culture. Later those children are more inclined to be readers and to use reference works,'' says Sally Rueter, children's librarian in Wilmington, Mass.

Educators suggest that a good time to begin a family library is with the birth of the first child. Within a matter of weeks parents are encouraged to start reading to the infant, to help develop the language and learning skills that will serve for a lifetime.

A visit with a children's librarian (if you are fortunate enough to have one; in this period of budget cuts, they are becoming an endangered species) is valuable. She or he will be able to tell you about the books that have lasting value and point you to the right shelf for any age, so you can examine the books and decide what would be most useful to have at home. The librarian also is likely to have an assortment of booklists within arm's reach.

In A Parent's Guide to Children's Reading (Bantam, $3.50 in paperback) author Nancy Larrick recommends a Mother Goose book, a song book that includes lullabies and the folk music of childhood, several books of poetry, and one or more collections of stories - fairy tales, legends, myths, and animal stories. There should be ''picture books,'' she writes, ''storybooks, and informational books selected for each child's particular interests. . . . Reference books - dictionaries, encyclopedias, almanacs, and atlases - are tremendously important to children, even those under five.'' Sally Rueter's basic list is strikingly similar. Ms Rueter adds that ''it's especially handy to have a children's activity book on hand for those rainy days when youngsters are in the house.''

In his Read-Aloud Handbook (Penguin, $5.95 in paperback) Jim Trelease notes the value of keeping books within a child's reach, by quoting his 9-year-old son: ''Sometimes when I wake up, I just look up at the titles, and if it's a book I haven't seen or read, I try to figure what it's about from the title.''

As you can see, the decisions about a home library go on and on. But people willing to devote some effort to upgrading those home shelves can find a stimulating alternative to TV for every member of the family. There's plenty of advice available, from librarians or compendiums or lists of recommended reading. Whichever sources you may choose to consult, the results are bound to be intriguing, time consuming - and especially fulfilling.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to A home library - experts offer advice on how to start or upgrade your book collection
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today