In my twenties and early thirties, my private library remained small. Since I moved once or twice year, I constantly had to assess which books I wanted to keep and I pared down diligently. I not only knew each book I owned, but I could say how it had come into my life. I knew why it was important and valuable to me. Then, after years of living in apartments, I bought a house with my wife, and one of the unexpected consequences was that it sparked a long period of book buying -- not just one or two at a time, but boxes and bagsful. The Friends of the Library sale became more exciting than Christmas.
Now, every room of my house has cases, stacks, and piles of books. My classroom and offices are similarly stuffed. Several years ago, my school library, desperate for shelving space, withdrew hundreds of books from circulation and put them on a discard pile for recycling. Many seemed obviously worthless. It was easy to understand that the library didn’t need four copies of the 1960s manual Motorcycling for Beginners. However, the pile contained works by Nobel Prize winners Theodore Dreiser, Heinrich Boll, Isaac Singer, Saul Bellow, and William Golding. How could I let these be destroyed? I borrowed a dolly and hauled boxfuls to my office. I still have them. I haven’t read any of them.
I used to rail against one of the items in Life’s Little Instruction Book that insisted, “Own good books even if you don’t read them.” No, I thought, that’s exactly wrong. Read them even if you don’t own them. And yet, what I believe and what I actually do have dramatically diverged. I have books that I know I will never read no matter how long I live. I have books that when I open them they make me sneeze and give me headaches; they literally make me sick. I have books that I have no idea where I got them. I have books that I don’t know I have.
Why am I keeping all these?
Is it covetousness? Are they talismans against death?
I used to find them comforting. I feel safer in a room with books than one without. Or, as Cicero said, “a room without books is like a body without a soul.” This, however, can turn books into a type of design element. The woman who owned the house before us had, on her buffet, ceramic replicas of classic literature. There were no actual books in the house. Just odd representations. I mocked this, but are my shelves of “real” books gathering dust any better? Few, if anyone, would say these piles are aesthetically pleasing.
I know that I keep many because of the “someday” factor. Someday I might want to read them. And yet … the older I get the more it seems increasingly unlikely that someday I might suddenly want to read Sigmund Spaeth’s “The Art of Enjoying Music,” (1942) or Margaret Forster’s “The Travels of Maudie Tipstaff.” And, if I really do want to read John Cleland’s “Fanny Hill” or reread Willa Cather’s “The Professor’s House,” I suspect I could find a copy. I’m not saving rare, hard-to-find, works just what I’ve fished from what has flooded past.
I hope that having books around will inspire my children to read and love literature. I believe it’s important for them to be surrounded by books, to read and to see me read, and, when they’re older, they may be interested in the authors that I’m not. Yet perhaps they feel just as oppressed as I do. Maybe they’ll grow up with a desire to escape these piles. Perhaps owning so many books devalues them.
Getting rid of these books would probably mean their destruction. The used bookstore won’t want them. After a few years in a thrift store or “free shelf” somewhere, they’ll end up in a land-fill.
And maybe that’s not so bad.
I’m surprised to find myself saying this, but maybe some of these books should be pulped, discarded, or burned. Not because they’re dangerous, but because the space and energy they take up isn’t worth what they offer.
I know some might have an as yet unrecognized value. I read something once about old porn films. Because so many were low-budget and done quickly in people’s houses, they ended up being a remarkable record of décor and interior design. Certainly copies of these books needs to be kept somewhere. But not by me. I think of Giles Corey being crushed with rocks yet continuing to say, “more weight, more weight.”
I don’t know who is to take care of them, but I can’t breathe. Each book is more weight.
I know they need to go.
Does anyone want some books?