Awhile back I promised a post on my philosophy for your personal bookshelf. I’d sort of forgotten about it until last weekend. As you know, I’ve been suffering through some extensive remodeling that’s caused disruption and chaos in my life (and subsequently in my writing). But there have been other effects.
One is: it’s impossible to move my downstairs bookcases without unloading them, at least partially. So piles of books ended up in the bedroom for several days. And . . . offered a perfect opportunity to review what was on my bookshelves and how I really felt about them.
I ended up letting go some 200 volumes.
WHY OWN BOOKS, ANYWAY?
For bibliophiles (that’s Greek for book lovers: biblio, meaning book, and philes, meaning addicted to the point of getting into a blind panic without)–and if you’re reading this blog, you almost certainly qualify–that’s a dumb question. You own books because . . . well, because they’re books.
The flip side of that problem, however, is that you have a limited amount of space to store your books. Space costs money. You buy some bookshelves, and eventually those fill up, so you start double stacking them and after awhile they overflow onto the floor and pile on all the table surfaces and eventually you end up holding a book and looking in dismay at the mess and wondering: now where am I going to put this one?
MY PERSONAL PHILOSOPHY
My wife, Kate, is a professional organizer, which means: 1) she’ll help me work through problems like this, and 2) she absolutely won’t tolerate books piled all over everywhere. For the hard core bibliophile, choosing between keeping your spouse and keeping the books is not a particularly hard choice. But I’m not that hard core; I elected to keep the spouse and develop a habit of not keeping everything.
SO: here are the acceptable reasons to own books.
1. YOU’RE GOING TO READ THEM. This is your “Reading Shelf,” and should not be co-mingled with the rest of your library.
How many books is it permissible to have on your Reading Shelf? I use the rule of thumb, about a year’s worth. But I confess to having more than that–about 100 or so. My Reading Shelf is in the bedroom and separate from the other bookshelves, so I fall back on the simpler guide, “Whatever fits there.”
Which means that periodically you have to cull your Reading Shelf. But it’s not that hard. You picked up some books, usually classics, at a library sale and had the bright idea that you might read them because you hadn’t gotten around to in college and now 5 years later, they’re still right where you put them. They can go.
2. BOOK YOU’RE GOING TO REREAD SOMEDAY. This is a perfectly acceptable reason to keep books. But it’s also the most abused category. You’re not holding onto War and Peace because you’re going to reread it, you’re holding onto it because you’re proud that you made it through the first time. Out it goes (unless it fits Category 4).
3. BOOKS YOU’RE HAVE ON HAND SO IF SOMEBODY WANTS A RECOMMENDATION, YOU HAVE SOMETHING TO HAND THEM. Again, a perfectly acceptable reason. But this is the second most abused category. Don’t just let them gather dust on your shelf, hand them out to friends! Get them circulating!
4. REFERENCE BOOKS. This is a big category, and includes everything from How to Landscape your Water Garden to History of the Western World since 3000 B.C. Hey–I’ve got news for you. You don’t go to a book to find some obscure fact any more, you just use the Internet. Cull here first.
5. BOOKS WITH SENTIMENTAL VALUE. Ah, here’s the real problem. You read Atlas Shrugged as a college freshman and you loved it. I mean, it changed your life. And you’re never going to read it again–I mean, 15 years ago you reread the first 10 pages and wondered what the hell you ever saw in this clunker and besides, it’s 1200 freaking pages, that’s a couple of months’ investment when you can be reading something you’ll actually enjoy.
This is where most bibliophiles flounder. There are books that you just can’t throw away. Actually, you can. Here’s my guideline: 1 shelf’s worth. That’s it. Order your love, linger over each one, cull down to 1 shelf. It’ll be a fun and teary experience, and you’ll feel better in the morning.
For me, that’s it. If you collect valuable books and signed first editions, those aren’t “books” in the same sense, so they’re outside the boundaries of this discussion. High school yearbooks: books with sentimental value, but perhaps not subject to the 1 shelf limit.
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“So,” you ask. “If you’re such a hot shot self-disciplined librarian, how did you end up getting rid of 200 volumes?” Short story, interests changed. I used to be a big-time military historian and war gamer, now I spend my time writing fiction and making music instead. I probably could have just pitched my whole military history collection, but there’s that whole sentimental value thing. Plus I do read them now and again. Next time I have my tile changed, maybe.