Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Criteria for Culling the Collection

I have a great deal of trouble getting rid of books, any books. It even makes me anxious to read of other people divesting themselves of portions of their personal libraries. During my recent book reorganization, I agonized for some time and managed to come up with only one modest cardboard box full of books that I was willing to relinquish: outdated computer manuals and exercise books, cookbooks I’d never used, mystery novels that I'm unlikely to reread now that I know the identity of the murderer, and the odd duplicate fiction or poetry title that I’d inadvertently acquired.

But post-reorganization, for the first time in my life, all of my books are out of storage and on display. I’d like to keep it this way, yet the likelihood of my book collection ceasing to grow at this point is nil. Clearly, I’m going to have to buck up and come up with criteria that I can live with for the occasional culling of my collection.

I’ve found some inspiration in Lewis Buzbee’s The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop. Here’s a man who is as nuts about books as I am; more so if that’s possible. Yet he’s managed to come to terms with the need to let go of once-cherished volumes along the way:

As a bookseller and a rep, I’ve had many more thousands of books in my possession than my shelves at home would indicate. At one time, I tried to keep them all, but that quest soon became impossible; I now only keep the ones I’m sure I’m going to reread, the ones I’m definitely going to read before I die, and the ones I can’t bear to part with because of an aesthetic or emotional attachment.

This strikes me as a plausible blueprint for deciding which books stay and which go. The first category, the ones I’m sure I’m going to reread, is fairly easy to determine. I can see myself running into a bit of trouble with the second category though as I realize that I’m wildly over-optimistic about the number of books I’m capable of reading in my lifetime. And the third, well, my emotional attachment to many of my books runs deep, particularly the childhood favourites. I’m glad that Buzbee gives weight to emotional and aesthetic attachment though; it’s a nice change from the television organization gurus who lose me every time they force a tearful packrat to winnow his or her book collection down to a shelf or two.

Buzbee is also inspiring when he writes about the fate of the books he relinquishes, the majority of which are destined for used-book stores:

For me, one of the great things about selling my books is that I know the ones I’ve sold can now begin an entire new existence. No longer relegated to my shelf or worse, a box in the garage, these books can go to a new home, possibly staying forever, possibly being traded in once again.

“Used bookstores,” he concludes, “represent recycling at its best, a powerful and useful endeavor that’s important to both our cultural and material lives.”

One of the reasons that I find it so difficult to get rid of books is the spectre of them languishing in landfill. The idea of sending them back into circulation instead is very appealing to me. I know that no one else wants those outdated computer manuals and exercise books that I’ve consigned to the cardboard box. But there are some other fine books in my collection that I could bear to donate to Goodwill in the hope that they’ll wind up in the hands of another happy reader. Giving away books and throwing away books are two entirely different matters.


LK said...

Ohmigod, I am the same way -- I have divested of antique furniture and clothing before I have divested of books during my numerous cross-country and cross-state moves! I managed to cull 2 bags of books to give away -- and they are still in the trunk of my car. (I keep thinking I may change my mind on one or two of them.) But I love being surrounded by books, I love the feel and smell and look of them. Very comforting somehow.

Ella said...

"It even makes me anxious to read of other people divesting themselves of portions of their personal libraries."

Oh dear. I'm doing this, only instead of 'portions' it's 'nearly all'. Still thinking about what I want to say about the experience. You might want to stay away from the Box for a few days...

litlove said...

I find it very hard to part with books at any point. I did cull a few on my last reorganisation, and they were duplicates or books in German (which I've forgotten how to read) or some of my husband's old books (felt ok about them!). But the criteria you mention do pretty much cover everything else on my shelves.

Quillhill said...

There are some books that I purchase during a "fad" period, and when my interest fades I remove them from my collection. Otherwise, everything stays. I donate in the community, but why not offer books you must get rid of as prizes in some contest on your blog, so the books might live on among your devoted readers?

Danielle said...

When I bought new bookshelves recently I had to do some weeding. I came up with about 4 large grocery sized bags and a box full of books. Mostly old mass market paperbacks that I had either read or knew I won't read at this point. It was sort of hard getting rid of them, but I still have so many, that there was just no room for them. I still have one box that I want to try and sell--the rest went to the Salvation Army. As for the rest, I am not sure I can part with any of the others. I don't have room for them, but they all seem to fall into one of the three categories you listed. I am afraid that I will give something away that I will want to read later (and that has happened). Poor Ella....I hate to think of giving them all away!

Marcel said...

I absolutely LOVE getting rid of my books - and I am a HUGE lover of books!

When you go to the cinema, you don't expect to take the film home with you and put it on your shelf after you've seen it. You watch the movie and that's it.

I take the same approach with books. I buy it, read it, and give it away. I feel no guilt over this. (I used to, but I'm much stronger now.)

In fact, when I'm in a bookshop, just knowing that I won't allow myself to keep the book that I buy motivates me to read it as soon as I can - no pile up of unread books at home.

Of course, if you don't like the idea of buying books and then giving them away after you've read them, you should visit your library more often.