Tuesday, December 29, 2009

NY Times: Books You Can Live Without

It's that time of year again, when you clean out your bookshelves in preparation for the new year, (or maybe you just want to forestall anyone submitting your name for future episodes of Clean House or Hoarders).

"Books You Can Live Without" asks several famous writers how they decided to clear out their libraries. Shorter version: (1) books I'm never going to read again; (2) outdated reference books; (3) books I'm tired of pretending that I'm going to read some day.

In a fit of cleaning not long ago, I did a version of this and got rid of a bunch of books, though not without a few pangs. Some I took to the used bookstore to be traded in for store credit (so I can buy more books, of course!) and some I took to Goodwill. Some, sadly, I couldn't even give away: I had to leave copies of old textbooks in the "Free" bin at the bookstore. I usually put them out on the Free Books table on campus, but I wasn't on campus this semester.

I needed to think about each book, but some were easier to chuck than others.
  • Fodor's London 1992, from my in-laws' trip there? Other old reference books? Gone immediately.
  • 10+ years of a print run of a journal now online? Gone.
  • A couple of books of highly elaborate and stylishly difficult postmodern contemporary fiction from 10+ years ago that I bought from the bargain bin, never got around to reading, and have never heard about since? Gone to the bookseller's. Apparently they were neither pleasurable enough to read nor absorbing enough in a literary sense to make the effort of reading them worthwhile. Who am I kidding? If I need to read them--well, that's what libraries are for.
  • Some ancient books of criticism--you know, the kind that talk appreciatively and in general terms about "innate female modesty and reticence" and "robust nature imagery"--that I picked up from a Free Books shelf when some equally ancient professors were retiring--gone.
  • The one book I ever bought in the How I Went to Tuscany, Fixed Up an Old House, and Learned about Life from the Quaint Italians series or whatever that genre of book is called. I bought it in an airport one time but even a long plane ride couldn't make me get through it. This one--gone without a backward glance. Let's just say I never bought another book about privileged white women Finding Themselves while Learning Life's Heartwarming Truths from the Simple, Close-to-the-Earth People of Another Culture.*
But even though they might not pass the "will you read it again in 100 years test," I kept a lot of books. What are your criteria for getting rid of books, assuming that you have to get rid of some?

*[In case it isn't obvious, I think the whole idea is highly insulting to other cultures.]


moria said...

I tend to give my mass-market paperback genre fiction away to friends or, sometimes, travel acquaintances (for lighter suitcases). I have an overflow problem as it is: what the hell would I do if I had to shelve three to nine thousand-page volumes of this or that fantasy series, a whole row of that sci-fi author, etc? I have been accused of developing this habit out of snobbery - I allegedly don't want anyone seeing these books among their higher-brow cousins on my shelves. That is nonsense. And part of the glee of giving the books away, of course, is the glee of having comrades in my genre-fiction-loving geekdom.

I took a box or two of textbooks to a public library once.

Beyond that, I have never actually executed a book-purge. I dread it. It will be a long, long while - decades, maybe - before I will admit the necessity. I don't know if it's fetishism, exactly, or compulsive creaturely acquisitivism, or what. But my books are my books. I don't even like returning borrowed books to the library. A few years ago, I cried when I returned the hundred or whatever that I had out for my senior thesis. I mean, bent-double, sobbing, hugging books to my chest, cried. There was more to it than information, or even a comfortable, nostalgia-inducing, fetishizable information technology, of course - it was about what those books signified, what I had achieved with them or next to them, the person I had become in the year or so I spent in their presence. Maybe that's true of the current books, borrowed and owned, as well. Every one a little bit of myself - like so many benevolent little horcruxes. And maybe horcruxes are just masquerading fetishes. But so be it. I'm a book-hoarder. That's not likely to change.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Unlike Moria, I keep genre fiction---if I love it and re-read it. There are fashions in these things, and beloved books can go out of print and become fetish items that you can't count on finding in libraries. Fiction I didn't enjoy can go. I tend to keep all scholarly stuff, even the ancient "innate feminine modesty" type, because you never know . . . I might need to use such a quotation sometime, or need to nail a plagiarist. Admittedly, plagiarists now copy from the internet, but I developed a habit of acquiring my own copies of the critical books my students were most likely to copy from, back in the day. The more cunning ones kept the library books checked out, you see, though the dumber ones didn't bother. It's hard for me to get rid of books, though not impossible.

Anonymous said...

I hate to admit it but one of my criteria is tatteredness; another is having marked it up too much or broken its spine while studying for my MA exam. I will relent on this for rare and antique books, but there's nothing like a totally tattered bookshelf to make things look depressing and shabby.

Also, if the spine is now so faded that I do not identify the title as the book sits on the shelf, I get rid of it. I am not going to recognize it, so I am going to take it out of the library or buy a new one; might as well admit this.

undine said...

Moria, you're not getting rid of books by giving away that genre fiction; as you say, you're creating new fans! I have the same feeling that you do after I've returned books that have been checked out for a long time; I see them on the library shelves and think, "wait--aren't you mine?"

Dame Eleanor Hull, I never thought of that--keeping the old books in case students would plagiarize out of them or that they'd keep the books checked out so you couldn't check.

profacero, I keep tattered ones or ones where I can't see the title because something about the physical properties of the book on the shelf makes it identifiable anyway.

Anonymous said...

I had great difficulty with this one because I tend, no I AM a book hoarder. And this post made me feel guilty because I know only too well that there are books I shall never read/use again. Each time I start sorting I look at those books and I find a genuine ? reason to leave well enough alone!

I suppose the only criteria I might have is space, or (eventually) lack of it. Then, with great reluctance I rid myself of duplicates mainly or (some) genre fiction to charity bookshops. I even get friends a seperate copy of book(s) I think they'd like rather than give away my own!

Perhaps your post may even spur me on to having a purge in 2010? I read somewhere it helps one to lose weight???

Happy New Year Undine ...


Anonymous said...

"that they'd keep the books checked out so you couldn't check" ... yes, this is one reason why I started hoarding books as a TA, but I would now be grateful to have someone try to stump me in that way, it takes talent and you actually have to go to the library and get the book.

Bavardess said...

I'm a book-hoarder, too. Some years ago, when I was moving house, I sold my collection of 1920s-30s mysteries (Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers & co.) and ended up regretting it. I've since replaced most of them, but the Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh can be hard to find these days, even second-hand.

I did, however, abandon a doorstop Michelin guide and a bunch of other guide books in a hotel room at the end of a trip around France. In that case, a lighter suitcase outweighed the attractions of the pretty guide books.

undine said...

Bavardess, that's my fear: that I'll get rid of some books that'll be very hard to replace. I've never even seen 1920s versions of Dorothy L. Sayers's books.

Anonymous said...

I suppose I'm a book-hoarder, though fiction has to go through a very tough "will I ever read this again or miss it if it goes?" text to get on the real shelf at all. A lot of stuff I will likely never read but was given by an old professor clearing out her office--that stuff is morally awkward to dispose of even though in twenty years it will largely be useless to me. The music tapers' ethic that if it was made available for free it can be circulated for free but if it was for sale you must pay for it applies here; I can't sell that which was given to me. But mainly for now my solution is more bookshelves and try only to buy things I will at least open within a foreseeable timeframe, and put off the day of reckoning a little while yet. (It is much, much closer with my CDs, to which I am arguably more attached as I can't get them temporarily from libraries with the same ease as I can books.) Meanwhile I have started jumping things up my to-read shelves that I already consult, which will eventually cause a kind of deselection to operate on the useless I suppose.

undine said...

tenthmedieval, I know what you mean about how awkward it is to get rid of books you've been given: you can't exactly sell them, but that may be the most expeditious way to find them a home. Now I want to organize a to-read shelf.