Shelf Reflection

"Books! Books! All the books I'll need! All the books, all the books
I'll ever want." — "Time Enough at Last", The Twilight Zone
One of my least favorite sentences to hear is "We need to get rid of some books."

I bet that made some of you twitch, too. When my wife said this to me recently, my immediate reaction was denial. What do you mean we have to get rid of books? They're books! Unfortunately, the clear, simple logic of that argument is a bit too simple and oddly unconvincing, and while I may object to the necessity of the task, I'm not actually delusional. Not about this, anyway. As I looked around our apartment, even I had to admit that we have a book problem.

The thing is, I've never considered it a problem. Out of all the vices I could be into, collecting books is the most harmless. They're books. Books are good, worthy things. The more, the better — except when you're getting ready to move, or when you need to make more space in your apartment to, you know, live in. I've gone through a book cull each time I've moved, the most severe of them when we relocated from NYC to Philadelphia. Years of living in the publishing capital of the world tends to fill your shelves to bursting with free books, plus you attend a lot of readings and book launches of fellow writers. I'm also incapable of walking past a table selling used books without stopping (or at least slowing enough to survey the offerings), and there are many such tables lining New York's sidewalks. No matter the cost, no matter the diminishing space, I have never felt guilty about bringing home a new-to-me book, or an old favorite.

When we reached Philly, we had a smaller, but still large book collection. We immediately filled three Billy bookcases and an Expedit room divider from IKEA, with some room to grow. It turns out that only encouraged me; the books soon grew beyond those arbitrary boundaries, ending up in stacks on the floor and windowsill of my office. Many, many stacks. Serving on an award committee tends to fill your apartment quickly with free books, plus I began participating in a lot of panels, readings, and signings — often bringing home more books than I sold. Whatever, they're books.

So yeah, okay. Now I see that we have a problem. But I guess I'm the one with the issue, since I'm the one bringing most of these books in. It's not quite on level of hoarding, and it's hardly indiscriminate, but I definitely have more books than I have time to read, and that's been the case for a while. I'm a collector: I used to have a vast, nigh legendary VHS collection, which was decimated in the same NYC to Philly move, the essentials replaced on the much more compact DVD. I still have a sizable laserdisc collection, likely the next to be winnowed down. I have more than 200 8-bit Nintendo cartridges, painstakingly acquired and curated — which I will never get rid of. But the books are different.

I'm a writer now, but I was always a reader first, and I still am. I love books. They're what made me pursue writing in the first place! My wife loves books, too, but she doesn't seem to need to keep more than a couple shelves' worth of her best favorites around. Why can't I let them go?

It's not so much the possibilities that each book offers, though I like always having many books to choose from. Part of it is the fear that I'll want to reference a book I've read already and it won't be there. Or I'll want to reread a section or a story, and I won't be able to find it. I also want to keep around copies of books I've enjoyed to lend to people. I like being surrounded by books — it's part of my identity, there on display to all: I am a reader.

After pondering the situation a lot in the past week, I've decided that I like owning books. When I was a kid, we couldn't buy new books very often, so most of my reading came from the library. The small collection of books I had — built up from dime sales at the library, trips to the Salvation Army, yard sales, and gifts — was precious to me. I reread those books over and over again, and I still own many of them today. But somewhere along the way, once I could afford to buy books, the act of having them became more important than the act of reading. The more books I owned, the less I valued each one.

Having all those books to choose from at any time was pointless because I rarely picked any of them over some shiny new book I had just purchased, or my latest selections from the library. The books have become limiting, and as I consider each individually, I've discovered that my collection more reflects what I used to want to read instead of what I want to read right now. Still valuable perhaps, but I've been carting around some of these for more than 15 years, unread. Perhaps that ship has long sailed. I have accumulated a lot of short story collections, but I'm mostly reading YA novels these days, and my interest in reading short stories has waned a bit. Time to move on.

We're being much more ruthless on this go round, but I still have trouble discarding books for any number of reasons: That one's out of print. That one was written by a friend. That one is signed. That has a cool cover. That book wasn't that bad. Where do I draw the line? What I've come up with is a system that still varies from case to case, but boils down to keeping only favorites that I plan to reread, unread books I am definitely still interested in reading (and even some of those may be discarded if I can get them from the library), some books written by good friends, books I feel like holding onto for sentimental reasons, and signed/personalized books that I like. That latter category is the trickiest — I am really torn over passing on signed books, but I actually do have a lot of them now, and I want to prize the ones I decide to keep.

Also: Books are meant to be read and shared, and so in some ways, I'm freeing these books from their dusty captivity to hopefully inspire and delight other voracious readers. Another thing that's consoling me through this difficult process is the fact that eBooks are so accessible now. I am not a big fan of them — I still prefer paper, obviously — but I know I can call up an old book quickly if I need to. I have a lot of unread eBooks too, but at least they're only taking up space on cloud storage. I suspect that from now on, most of my new book purchases will be eBooks, unless I already know that book deserves a place on our shelves forever, and I'll continue to rely heavily on the library, which remains the best way to get free books. If I love a book enough to shell out for the hardcover even after I've read it, as I did recently with Jaclyn Moriarty's A Corner of White, then I know it's truly a keeper.

Where do you draw the line? How do you approach a dreaded book purge? Please share your tips for keeping strong and making those hard decisions below!


wtf mate said...

Technophile that I am, I nonetheless understand the aversion to e-books, but you can't deny their practicality. I've taken to using similar criteria to those you describe to decide between e-book and physical copy when purchasing books. If it's a book I really care about, a book I want to get signed, or a book whose electronic edition has known or suspected issues (often the case with equation-heavy non-fiction science and math books, or anything with unusual type, which can include a lot of fantasy), I go for print. But otherwise, not overflowing my shelves and having my entire collection wherever I go are two benefits too big to ignore. Now that I use a color tablet instead of an e-ink reader, I even get many comic books this way.

E.C. Myers said...

Good point on the issues with some eBooks. Plus, some books are just gorgeous — one of my other criteria is whether I want the book around as a physical artifact in itself. I'm still stuck collecting issues of a few ongoing comic books, but as they end, I'm going to try switching over to electronic versions for comics too. Weirdly, I think they cost exactly the same as the print copies.

Lenore Appelhans said...

Oh I definitely have a book problem too! My husband and I have come up with a semi-solution that every time a book comes in, a book has to go out. Let's see if we can keep it up!

E.C. Myers said...

Lenore, I've been thinking of adopting a similar policy. We also used to have a shelf of free books for visitors to take with them, but that doesn't work anymore since we don't entertain much these days.

Lexie said...

I had much the same as a child - I had a very very small collection of books that were "mine" and most of what I read was either my dad's small fiction selection or from the library. Point in fact I graduated HS with only 25 books to my name, by the time my 10th year reunion came around I had nearly 4000 (in just English, we don't count the non-English books). So...yeah I have a bit of an issue.

I do however trade/donate/sell around 800 a year, but I get in closer to 1000 a year so it doesn't even out. I think I've read maybe 65% of my total collection though, so that's not too shabby. I just hate the knowledge that the second I hand something away--and with the vast majority of my books out of print and hard to find cheaply now--I'll desperately want to read it...

E.C. Myers said...

Lexie, I know that feeling! We're holding onto roughly a bookcase worth of books we have prioritized to read this year, but the rest have to go. I just finished tallying them up: 300 books! Where do you usually trade, donate, and sell?

Unknown said...

Are there libraries or schools that can use them? I know that our local library was looking for hardcover especially...

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