Useful thoughts on my book problems

One of the frustrations of renting a house since we moved to California nearly three years ago is that we haven’t been able to unpack all of our possessions, particularly our books. We shipped 120 boxes of books from London to Berkeley, and most of those boxes are still in my sister’s basement.

Well, we’re hoping to buy a house soon, which would give us the chance to liberate all those books. But even in bookish Berkeley, the truth is that few of the houses we’re looking at have enough room to house our 4,000-odd books. So I’m taking considerable solace from Caleb Crain’s musings on pruning your bookshelves:

If you are an open-minded reader, you’ll end up with books you once intended to read but haven’t so far and maybe, now that you know a little more about yourself and about the books in question, shouldn’t.

Should you therefore throw them out? From the comments at the end of Scott’s essay, it transpires that an important and enjoyable perquisite to having a library of one’s own is deciding what belongs in it and what doesn’t, and that different people decide the question differently. I’ve never worried about displaying books I haven’t read. “Have you really read all those?” sounds to me like a question that only illiterates ask. I find the discussion fascinating nonetheless, because lately I have been Throwing Books Out.

This does not come naturally, but I have no choice. It’s a question of limits. A larger apartment is unlikely, in the foreseeable future, and I realized a few weeks ago that if I were to buy that one last bookcase that I’d been planning on, the feng shui of my study would abruptly become prisonlike. The stacks of books clogging my study floor have nowhere to go, unless other books exit. There have been half a dozen trips to the Strand in the last couple of weeks, and several totebags’ worth of books have been cashiered.

I used to think of myself as a kind of Noah’s Ark of books. If I hadn’t read a book, all the more reason to keep it, because probably other people didn’t want to read it either, and it was in danger of vanishing from human memory unless I saved it. Narcissistic and crazy, I know. I am happy to say that in my maturity I find it kind of liberating and fun to destroy my collection. Paperbacks of lesser-known William Golding novels purchased at the town library booksale during high school? Don’t even cart them to the Strand; nobody wants them. Just bale them up with last week’s New York Times, and try not to think about the fact that you carried these books around with you unread for more years than you had lived through when you bought them.

Also fun: Selling off scholarly books that one acquired out of a sense of duty and which one had excused oneself from reading but not from continuing to own. Can I say something candid about the poems that eighteenth-century America left in manuscript for the late twentieth century to rediscover and print in scholarly editions? Most of them are wretched. Also, there’s a limit to the number of sailor’s narratives that even the most hardened Melvillean needs to read. Such discards are tricky, of course, because there’s not only ebb and flow but also cyclicality to one’s interests over time. Or, anyway, to mine. This is probably why I’m a journalist and not a proper academic. I really enjoy forgetting. It has become almost second nature with me to kill Caleb Crain in order to become him. (I have killed the Czech translator, the science journalist, the literature professor. Who next?) So why not throw out his books? The trouble is that sometimes one is later tempted to revisit one’s earlier self, and it would cause expense and hassle to have to repurchase two dozen books about, say, the Anglo-American rhetoric of sympathy in the early nineteenth century if some day one were to decide that one had something else to say about it. But there are a few places that I will not be returning to, and it seems clearer each year what sort of places those are.

3 thoughts on “Useful thoughts on my book problems

  1. Ferruccio Fortini

    Unwanted books? Donate them to a public library! (You can even get some tax relief on that, or at least so our California tax advisor tells us — ask the library you’re donating to, they can give you the receipts you need). In Berkeley (just as down here in Silicon Valley) SOMEbody will think of them as treasures, not junk — guaranteed!

  2. David Derrick

    Quote ‘“Have you really read all those?” sounds to me like a question that only illiterates ask.’

    V true. Always irritating when guests say it.

    You can go for the storage option, in the receding hope that one day you will live in a bigger place.

    There’s a case for getting rid of stuff which is easily accessible online. That can mean much reference material and even public domain stuff (at least poems?), unless your edition is special. Picking up a book may be more beautiful than accessing it online, but that might eventually cease to be true.

    There’s consolation in thinking: for every book I get rid of, the quality of my library is going up, since only the fittest survive.

    As far as not reading every book is concerned, my godfather, some of whose books were practically as old as printing, said: “Books are radioactive. If you live with them, you absorb their contents mysteriously without reading them.” Which is, mysteriously, true.

    He also said: “Read 4 hours a day.” Which I consistently fail to do …


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