Saturday, August 22, 2009

Enough Already

"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."

Samuel Johnson

"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."

Milton, Areopagitica

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.


Anonymous said...

A select few is comfortingly homely; but I find that as time goes by, I'm becoming increasingly more resentful towards the accumulation of dust that's worth more in its weight than the actual books themselves! Most of my reading is now done online. It seems to me the digital word is counterintuitively more meaningful once it has been stripped of its dusty accoutrements - the musty romanticism of the turned page is quaint next to the mighty scroll of the mouse key!

Access, speed, and quantity confers a qualitatively richer multi-dimensional experience. Is it really that extra cerebrally and spiritually nourishing to hear the crisp flip of the bygone page carry the waft of yesterday's pulp - as bibliophiles so nostalgically contend?

The depth of 'real' book absorption versus the superficial skimming of barely tasted online words? - I don't believe so. Gravity lies in the receptiveness to ideas, not in the weight of a tome.

Anonymous said...

How's that again????

Dr X said...


"A select few is comfortingly homely; but I find that as time goes by, I'm becoming increasingly more resentful towards the accumulation of dust that's worth more in its weight than the actual books themselves!"

I'm glad someone else shares my complaint. The books are the most annoying aspect of housecleaning. How do libraries do it?

I've done three purges in the last 20 years--also associated with moves. Of all the objects at home, I find that purging books is the most difficult. They can almost seem alive as I contemplate giving them away or disposing of them. Will they go to a good adoptive home? Can I end their lives if no home can be found?

Novalis said...

All told, I also probably spend more time reading online than I do reading books, but it's not a development I'm entirely pleased about. The Internet has exacerbated my natural propensity for impatience, as has aging too probably. A great book yields its secrets only with time, time that seems (no, is) more scarce with each passing day.

A friend of mine has a "fifty page rule" (if a book hasn't "caught him" by page fifty, he sets it aside), but one could argue that the greatest book would unfold its wisdom so subtlely and gradually that its greatness would emerge full-blown only in the last sentence.

If for no other reason, I will forever love books because they do not spontaneously lock up or shut down (or lose power in a lightning storm). To read online is to trust to the moment-to-moment stability of The Grid; it's like reading a book that any moment could suddenly crumble into dust in your hands. Granted, the Internet may be Zen in this respect, but if there's anything I don't need it's lessons in impermanence.

Anonymous said...

As an much older author of visual books formerly called artbooks ,I see no comment about yea or nay as regards your dust catching photography or painting books going to their glory.
Do they get the same treatment?
I ask as well has the electronic print media taken over the beauty of duo-toned engraving or sheet fed gravure printing and fine color plate making which we fought so hard to attain?.

I really am curious yellow and blue
and black and green and matte paper
versus glossy if yah know what i mean.
Yup! sorry for the last paragraph,lol.

Retriever said...

I think we have approx 3000 in main house and about 7500 up north and still adding (dump, thrift shop, second hand bookstore, And online for psych and medical. I resent that our library doesn't keep classics and doesn't stock most of the nonfiction I want (Danielle Steele is more popular I guess?). Also, tho I buy most of my new books on kindle they Are too expensive and not everything is available yet. I love having searchable digital text (great for exegesis of scripture) but I also love old bindings and typefaces and smell of leather and illuminated letters and photographs and engravings in books. I like being free of constant need of electricity and being able to give and loan books and not be afraid of breaking, losing or having a kindle stolen. I like casually leavingbooks around for people to find (on things theyare interested in). Mychildren teethedon and fell asleep looking at books as babies a d grew up readers and writers and poets all. One can be generous w a book whereas you'll have to pry this iPhone from my cold dead claw (so many audible and ebooks as well as music,apps, photos and mail on it). I would get rid of clothes and furniture before books. But ihate papers and files. (excuse touchscreen typos)