"The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write: a man will turn over half a library to make one book."
"As good almost kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye."
The last couple of years have involved a good deal of packing and moving, into and out of homes and offices. Books do not travel particularly well. They are weighty, they are easily nicked on the corners, and their myriad shapes and sizes seem designed to fatally vex their efficient packing into boxes. The other day, gazing upon such boxes stacked in closets, their contents accessible only in theory, I was seized by an impulse to purge the library. Last year I had conducted a purge, but this would be a larger one.
How many books does one need, particularly in the age of Kindle and the Internet, where many of the classics in particular are perennially available if one doesn't mind reading from a screen (granted, a big if)? And if one does suddenly crave a particular book, it is only a click and a day or two away. In my current demesne I have roughly 50 bookshelves worth of space divvied up among a number of bookcases of various sizes, and their contents leave perhaps half again as many books in boxes. Grossly estimating an average of 20 books per bookshelf, I gauge my library at around 1500 volumes. This doesn't sound as many as I may have thought, but due to upgrades made over the years most of these are hardbacks or substantial paperbacks.
I am no Thomas Jefferson, obviously, but he has always been a figure of fascination for me as for many others, and not least because of his famous library. His ideal was the erudite and cultured pastoral gentleman, and for most of human history, of course, if you wanted to live far from the city, you had to bring your culture with you. That he certainly did (thanks in part I suppose to slave labor). I read that he had between 9000 and 10000 volumes, a staggering number now, and a stupendous one then. But when the young Library of Congress was burned by the British in 1814, he sold over 6000 of his books to restock the institution. Presumably he realized that one man, no matter his genius or the flow of visitors to his doorstep, could not possibly make regular use of 10000 books.
One person can't make regular use of 1000 books either. But there are a substantial minority that I do dip into again and again, if only to revisit a chapter or look up a phrase. There are a number that I love for their sheer physical beauty; the arts books obviously fall in that category, but many others do too. And of course a number arouse various kinds of nostalgia, because they were gifts from special people, or because they bring to mind a certain phase of life or state of mind. Someday a 1000 book collection may be a veritable antique in the house--that day may come sooner rather than later--but no matter how prodigious the Internet becomes, a stocked bookcase will always mean the life of the mind to me.
These books have been amassed at a fairly regular pace over the past 25 years, with spurts here and there as cash flow permitted. For many years I couldn't get enough, and disdained the very notion of the public library. Why would I give a book my time--than which commodity nothing arguably is more precious--if I didn't want to keep it with me? It was bad enough that I couldn't hold onto periodicals. But there comes a point where even words and ideas can become clutter, and I don't have Jefferson's Monticello--or his slaves--to best store and manage this library.
So after several hours of sifting (yes, one's hands can become sore from the sheer handling of books), a dozen boxes--probably some 200-300 volumes--are going, whether to used book stores or wherever they can find a home. They range from genre fantasy from the mid-1980's to philosophy and professional books from just a couple of years ago that left me underwhelmed. A few of them, bought already well-used 20 years ago, will find no home, and of course the used-book stores won't take them all. How are dead books best disposed of? With fall coming on, we could use some extra fuel for the fire pit out back which the kids love. But no, not that.