Book lovers enjoy writing/talking about the sanctity of books. The tactile pleasure. The superiority of the physical object to the ethereal electronic version. The knowledge. The immersive experience. The old friend thing.
But the time comes when every bibliophile must face an inexorable fact: he/she owns too many freaking books.
You look around. Mortality stares you in the face and you realize that, even if you’re put under house arrest, even if you alone survive nuclear war, you will never read all of the books in your collection. You won’t read half. You won’t read even a modest number because you’ve reached an age where you keep re-reading the same clutch of old favorites.
Unless you happen to live in the Clue mansion with its library and murder-minded cleaning staff, it becomes both clear and unbearable that the $%^(#&$)# books are everywhere. Filling the closets and the stove, along the baseboards and atop the windowsills, fashionably piled next to doorways and unfashionably strewn about bedrooms. They’re like sand, but harder to vacuum.
And we all keep buying more. Not just because a book looks interesting, and not just because its a symptom of a problem (though it is), but because so many of us feel an obligation to support book stores and the publishing industry. To support that vague notion called culture. In these times more than ever, given the political ascendance of a new minority (?) group called Knowledge-hostile America.
The difficulty in weeding a book collection—it astonishes me. Suddenly, books sort themselves into categories, and most of those categories only exist to justify keeping the books. In this pile: books needed for future research of half-baked ideas. In that pile: gifts (Sidebar: I am unable to get rid of anything given to me as a gift. This includes the salt and pepper shakers of two pigs locked in an intimate pose that my youngest sister gave me decades ago.) Another pile consists of The Greats and another of pristine hardcovers bought on impulse while another, the largest, forms a skyline of books that still look interesting but will remain unopened until your heirs devote them to the public library.
The list, like all excuses, can go on forever. Yet there are a few valid categories that, with a little discipline, can make up the only books you need to keep:
Rarities. These run a gamut between foreign editions bought on trips abroad to adored bookstore finds, whether first editions (for those who like that sort of thing) or curios like that pocket guide to Napoleonic War uniforms or genre fiction with tacky covers.
Books with notes in the margins. You may need to remember what you jotted down about Of Mice and Men when you were sixteen.
Beloved books you re-read all the time. No one’s asking you to donate Forever.
Attractive coffee table books. Never scrimp on decor. A subset of this category would be books that look good on the living room bookshelf, with the caveat that once you fill the shelves, the category is closed.
People, I share your pain. Just last night, while going through a milk crate of books, I felt a sudden affection for a history of cholera that I haven’t seen since at least 2003. It went back into the crate, to be mulled over again the next time I move. Don’t be like me. Stick to the easy-to-remember categories above and liberate your sofa today. A book is only like an old friend in that it comes into your house and will not leave.