I’ve been pondering a seemingly unanswerable question having to do with books. I’m addicted to them – have spent most of my life, both as a child and as an adult, acquiring them and stubbornly refusing to get rid of them. Between the age of sixteen and now I’ve moved at least 14 times, and each time I’ve had to rely on the generosity of family and friends to help lug dozens of boxes of books to my new, inevitably-too-small apartment. I’ve stored boxes of them in my father’s attic much to his chagrin for years, until he finally refused to house them any longer (arguing validly that if I hadn’t needed them in all that time I certainly couldn’t need them at all).
Some of the books I’ve held on to for longest are children’s books, books my parents got for me to encourage the inherent love of reading that led me to want a career in the humanities and seemingly perpetual graduate-school. These books are precious in a particular way – they are treasured relics of my earliest reading, and therefore the hardest to get rid of while being simultaneously the least useful. If I were to have children, perhaps that would be a justification for holding onto them so long, but that seems like an especially bad reason to have kids. I re-read them all after this last move, which was preceded by the largest book-purge I’ve ever done. It was a self-preservation move more than anything, re-reading them all. Some of them, the large-format picture books for the youngest age-group, I read out loud to my husband in a bed-time ritual that lasted for about a week until I got through them all. The others I read to myself, delighted in re-discovering plots and characters that had become so familiar I could hardly remember first discovering them. But, I wondered, what was the value of keeping these particular books. They are not special editions, first printings, luxuriously bound, exquisitely illustrated. I certainly didn’t annotate them; marginalia was something I never even considered until I started reading theory as an undergraduate. They’re not inscribed by my parents marking the occasion of their being given as a gift. They’re for the most part in print and easily available at any local library. It’s only the sentimental attachment to these remnants of my development as a reader that keeps these moving from apartment to apartment, ritualistically taking up their own shelf on the bottom of the long, low bookshelf I tote around to house them.
Those are the oldest, but there are literally hundreds more. And that’s after purging an estimated two-hundred and fifty before my last move. It’s mostly thanks to Goodreads.com that I’ve been able to weaken my need to hold onto every book I’ve ever read. I used to justify it by saying that I couldn’t otherwise remember all the books I’ve read, but now I can enter them on one or several bookshelves online, and even make notes, so that excuse is out. And because of that I started using the library a lot more, especially for books I read for pleasure rather than for school or work. And because of that, I realized, why carry around hundreds of books that I never even open after finishing them the first time. So I went through my bookshelves as I was packing and added every single book to Goodreads, categorizing it and deciding then and there whether or not to pack it and move it half-way across the country.
My criteria were on the surface harsh. If it wasn’t related to my field (poetry and Latin American literature), if it wasn’t inscribed to me or annotated heavily by me, and if it was easily available at a library and still in print, I didn’t need to have it. That resulted in me getting rid of all the Milan Kundera books I’d been moving around since high school, all my Camus and Sartre and all the study of religion books I’d used for my major as an undergrad. Still, I kept many that didn’t fit neatly into any category – comic books I’d collected, for example, or art books from when I was working as a designer full-time. And of course I kept all the hand-made books I’ve acquired, and all the books I’ve designed or made. It turns out that the majority of what I own are poetry books anyway, so since that counts as my field I only got rid of duplicates (and I was surprised to find that I had at least a dozen books in two copies, and one in three).
Ok, so with some allowance all the four-hundred odd books remaining have some relevance to my current field of study, or my creative output either visually or linguistically. I could, if I really tried, get rid of another twenty. And I’ll try again at the end of next summer when we move, yet again. But even if I heroically manage to slough off another fifty, or even a hundred, that leaves three-hundred books that I’m carting around because they’re relevant to my field.
Because academics need libraries? Because the books are like battle scars on a soldier, without them there’s no evidence of accomplishment?