Book-hoarding, 10th Century Style

by Pamela Toler

Anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time with me in recent months, whether in real life or in some virtual space, has probably heard me bemoan the state of my office bookshelves. As the photo above attests, they overflow. Loaded two deep and stacked rather than shelved, there is still not enough room. Worse, for the first time in my life I am having trouble finding things. Twice in the last year I bought a book I already owned. Once because I couldn’t find the copy I was sure I had and needed right then. Once because I didn’t even realize I owned a copy. It makes me itchy.

Recently, a factoid has begun popping up in my universe that makes me feel even worse. According to Alberto Manguel, author of A History of Reading,

In the tenth century… the Grand Vizier of Persia, Abdul Kassem Ismael, in order not to part with his collection of 117,000 volumes when traveling, had them carried by a caravan of four hundred camels trained to walk in alphabetical order.

Manguel goes on to explain that the camel drivers effectively served as librarians, each responsible for retrieving volumes from his camel at the vizier’s command.

At first, I found the factoid charming: a lovely illustration of the importance of books in the early Islamic world. Then I felt a little jealous at the idea of owning 1117,000 books. Now I just feel inadequate at my inability to keep control over a couple of thousand books without the added complication of moving camels.

Something’s gonna change.


  1. Palladian says

    I see a kindred soul … and kindred bookshelves … just like mine. I’m trying to pare down … I just get caught up in the books I pick … again. Lucky me.

  2. eddi says

    This is the tragedy that has driven me into the arms of ebook media. A small apartment and a love of reading are ultimately incompatible. I keep up a trickle of print books, but nothing like my old habits.

  3. Carricklass says

    The factoid about Abdul Kassem Ismael is indeed thought provoking. The thought of 400 camel drivers having to co-ordinate, without the web, is mind boggling. Even with the alphabetization, it sound like a mammoth task. Then there’s the fragility of the books themselves and the environmental conditions of heat and dust!

  4. says

    I feel for you, and for myself, with having exactly the same problem. Where is that book just when I need it? Some books really disappear, spooky. Or reappear when I just bought it anew.
    Camels are not a practical solution. Maybe winning the lottery and bying a bigger house is. Or just quit buying books, but that definitely is the least attractive one.

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