Monday, June 23, 2008

3 Perspectives: Not All Books Are Keepers

overflowing bookcases

For those who love books, deciding to tackle the overflowing bookcases can be a bit traumatic. Here are the accounts of three people who have done their own weeding.

Seth Godin recently wrote about the Kindle, but the post also included this:
I just got rid of 3,000 books in preparation for an office move. That's two decades worth of reference books. I realized that most of the books I bought I didn't use any more (thanks to wikipedia and google) and that buying books in anticipation of giving them to someone else was generous but not actually happening in practice.
On A Strange Attractor, the writer decides to get rid of some books - and goes through them carefully in the process. The whole post is fun to read; here's an excerpt.
For the first time, I became aware that I have literally hundreds of mediocre fantasy novels. I have scores of books that I have not the slightest intention of ever reading again, old course books, books that I bought on impulse because they were on special offer, random non-fiction books that caught my eye in second hand bookshops, and an entire collection of Teach Yourself language books for which the only justification is that I once used them in an essay on linguistics. So really, the question is not “which books should I get rid of?”, but “which books are worth keeping?”.

So which books are worth keeping? Well, reference books, for a start, but really, in the age of the internet, the only reference book I regularly use is a good dictionary. And a road atlas every now and then. The rest can pretty much go. But can I really bring myself to get rid of a perfectly good dictionary of languages? A guide to English usage? One of those delightful Victorian books that profess to contain information on just about everything? Who’s who in British history?
And then there's Luc Sante, writing in the Wall Street Journal. Again, I recommend the entire article; this is just a small sample:
Now that I have moved again -- into a house that's not necessarily smaller but that I am determined to keep from being choked with books like kudzu -- I have just weeded out 30 boxes worth: books I won't read and don't need, duplicates, pointless souvenirs.

I discovered that I owned no fewer than five copies of André Breton's "Nadja," not even all in different editions. I owned two copies of St. Clair McKelway's "True Tales from the Annals of Crime & Rascality," identical down to the mylar around the dust jacket. I had books in three languages I don't actually read. ... I also had no need for books with funny titles, books acquired only because everybody else was reading them, books with no value except as objects, and books that inspired a vague sense of dread whenever they caught my eye -- possible cornerstones of culture that nevertheless only solitary confinement would ever compel me to read.

Related Post: Clearing Out the Bookshelves

[photo by Jaydot]


Cynthia Friedlob said...

Most timely! We've just done another book purge in our home. It's nice to have a little breathing room on the shelves again, but it is difficult at times to let go.

As for reference books, in addition to a dictionary, I'd add a thesaurus and Bartlett's as a minimalist collection. Yes, you can look things up on-line, but the process of thumbing through the pages works much better for me.

Also, writers can make lots of excuses to keep "reference" books. We're pros in that department in this household!

Jeri Dansky said...

Cynthia, I do some regular work as an editor, and some occasional work as a writer. My most-used references are the Associated Press style guide (on-line version) and my dictionary (AP's preferred dictionary, hardcover).

I subscribed to the on-line AP Style Guide when I needed the reference immediately - and since it's generally worked out fine, I haven't felt the need to buy the book. But every once in a while I do feel tempted.

The dictionary came with an electronic version, and I have yet to install it. There's something very nice about picking up the dictionary - a sort of tactile pleasure.

Jeri Dansky said...

Cynthia, one more thing: I have gotten rid of some dictionaries recently. I had three versions of the same dictionary - bought at various times for good reasons, but the reasons no longer apply. So I got rid of two of the three, and now I just own two dictionaries - a Webster's and an American Heritage.

I can't bear to part with either of them, even though I don't use the American Heritage very often.

Claire Josefine said...

If I were to allow myself an addiction (other than chocolate), it would be books. I grew up in a 2-story home in which every room was filled with books, used to go to bookstores as a Friday night "date" with my mom when we both lived in Berkeley, and had a large collection of children's books that I gathered over my years as a school teacher. These days I am down to one small bookshelf -- a few choice kids' books, books by authors who are also my friends, some gardening and nature reference books, and books related to my profession. In fact, when Mom died, out of all her books, I chose to keep only one: Peterson's guide to western birds (which I use at least once a week). The kids' books went to a first-year teacher; what she didn't take, i shipped slow-boat to my nieces in Scotland. I have yet to miss any book I released. And I rarely buy new books. I did buy a few used novels for a train trip last year, but left them (with a note inside) on the train and in other public areas for someone to find and enjoy.

Claire Josefine
author of The Spiritual Art of Being Organized, Earth-Friendly Organizing, and
Following Raven, Finding Ground: A Road Trip in Search of Home

Jeri Dansky said...

Claire, thanks for the reminder that you can love books and still not need to own a lot of them.

SueBK said...

I love reading. One of the joys of not studying is the freedom to read whatever I want. I've started blogging reviews ( of what I've read. Five books as of Thursday last week; and two more since.

I have more books than bookshelves so my golden rule is "will I read this more than once"? I rarely buy fiction (although I own all the Harry Potter books - all read at least three times, except for the last one ;-) I will sometimes buy a book because its a classic, either as defined by culture or by me (ie a couple of books I own are books I remember being very impacted by as a kid; if a story stays with me 30 years I don't mind finding room on the shelves for it).

I love the library. Each week The Girl and I borrow our limit (20 books each). Even better than books is the magazines. I used to subscribe to two magazines. My goodness, what space wasters are they! Now I borrow 5 or 6 magazines a week on a whole variety of topics. I'd rather keep my shelf space for books than buy magazines.

Jeri Dansky said...

SueBK, I just subscribed to your book reviews. I like your rating system - and I noticed that you have no hesitation about giving up on a book without finishing it!

My problem with library books is that I read a lot of nonfiction, and I read nonfiction with a highlighter in hand. What I did for a while - and plan to start doing again - is check books out of the library to see if they're worthwhile; if I have to take too many notes because I can't highlight, then I'll purchase the book.

Banshee Creative said...

ohh, books.. the joy of my life :) We have a LOT of books, and bookcases are also spread about the house LOL We don't have local libraries of any worth here unfortunately but we should do a book purge I think.That is a great idea. Now if only I could get hubby to do apurge with some of his comics!

Yard sale anyone? Ebay?

Jeri Dansky said...

Hi Angelia,

Some of this is U.S.-specific, but I just wrote a post on Clutter Control Freak about 13 ways to get rid of your clutter.

I also have a post here on 10 ways to find new homes for your books.

Banshee Creative said...

thanks jeri :D