Musil’s Librarian

“‘General,’ he said, ‘if you want to know how I know about every book here, I can tell you! Because I never read any of them.’”

The general is astonished by this unusual librarian, who vigilantly avoids reading not for any want of culture, but, on the contrary, in order to better know his books:

“It was almost too much, I tell you! But when he saw how stunned I was, he explained himself. ‘The secret of a good librarian is that he never reads anything more of the literature in his charge than the titles and the table of contents. Anyone who lets himself go and starts reading a book is lost as a librarian,’ he explained. ‘He’s bound to lose perspective.’

‘So,’ I said, trying to catch my breath, ‘you never read a single book?’
‘Never. Only the catalogs.’
‘But aren’t you a Ph.D.?’

‘Certainly I am. I teach at the university, as a special lecturer in Library Science. Library Science is a special field leading to a degree, you know,” he explained. “How many systems do you suppose there are, General, for the arrangement and preservation of books, cataloging of titles, correcting misprints and misinformation on title pages, and the like?’”

Musil’s librarian thus keeps himself from entering into the books under his care, but he is far from indifferent or hostile toward them, as one might suppose. On the contrary, it is his love of books – of all books – that incites him to remain prudently on their periphery, for fear that too pronounced an interest in one of them might cause him to neglect the others.

How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read
Pierre Bayard

Reference is to:
The Man Without Qualities
Robert Musil