How optimistic are you about the future of the book?
I don't think the book of paper and ink will disappear, as long as we allow for technologies to coexist. The notion that one must replace the other is simply the urge of the new to exist alone on the planet, but it doesn't happen - it didn't happen with photography and painting, it didn't happen with film and theatre, it didn't happen with video and film, and it hasn't happened with electronic technology and the printed page. I was delighted when Bill Gates, a number of years ago, wrote his book about the end of paper and then printed it on paper; I think that says a lot.
You don't use e-books yourself, then?
I don't. I have nothing against any of the gadgets, but I just use what I find useful. I mean, I find cars very useful and I don't drive.
What room does the culture make for books these days?
We have displaced the library and replaced it with the bank at the centre of our societies. These positions are not unmovable; even though our notions of value are now mercantile, those can eventually be changed. If making a financial profit is your aim, then you will say, "How does reading
make a financial profit?" And the answer is, “It doesn't." So reading gets relegated to an unessential corner in our society. It used to be that readers were relegated because they considered themselves far above society, and so the metaphor of the ivory tower developed. Now there's still this idea that the reader doesn't take part in the social game and in politics, the res publica, but for other reasons: he doesn't do it because he's not making any money.
Your new book, A Reader on Reading, contains an essay entitled "Notes Towards the Definition of an Ideal Library". Which library in the world comes closest to that ideal?
There's only one for me, which is now in danger of disappearing, and that is Aby Warburg's at the Warburg Institute in London. This is a library that is set up according to the image of your brain, to the way one thinks, where books are arranged by association, not by any other order. There are no corners, so there's no false division. This seems to me as close as you can get to an ideal library. It has now been entrusted to the University of London, which is thinking of dismantling it. If it did so, it would be committing one of the great crimes of our time.
You have an extensive library containing 30,000-plus books at your home in France. What classification system do you use?
Well, first of all, because it's a private library, I can do whatever I want with it, and so there is one main division of books, which is by the language in which the book was written. That is simply because that is my first association to a book. Under each language - under English, for instance - the authors are in alphabetical order, and essays, fiction, poetry, everything's together. But then the exceptions begin: these are the areas that particularly interest me - so general history from the 18th century to the present day is one area, the Middle Ages another. Then there are sections for books around the Bible, books about the Quran, Jewish mysticism, the legend of Don Juan, the legend of the Wandering Jew, mythology, crime fiction, cooking books, gardening, travel . . .
You travelled extensively as a child because your father was a diplomat. And you've continued to wander. Has your library always been a fixed point for you?
I think books have always been that for me. I remember, as a child, the confusion of not knowing what this place was where I was supposed to spend the night: it's a disquieting experience for a child. And what I would do was quickly unpack my books and go back to a book I knew well
and make sure the same text and the same illustrations were there. There was always an immense sense of relief. That was home. I've never really understood attachment to a place for reasons of birth. That my mother happened to give birth to me in a certain place doesn't, to my mind, justify any thankfulness towards that place. It could have been anywhere.
“A Reader on Reading" is published by Yale University Press (£18)