23 February 2010

A Room Stuffed with Books

I live in a room stuffed with books. Many of you do as well.

From where I sit I can see trees, a squirrel, the odd passing cat or flock of turkeys. That’s the window view. Everywhere else I look it’s books, books, books.

On my right: A complete 20-volume set of the “The New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians” copyright 1980.

Also: Guidebooks to various computer programs; travel books that don’t fit on the other travel book shelves in this room; a 1907 set of “The Life & Works of Abraham Lincoln,” commemorative edition, partially bound in red leather; a boxed set in the original French of “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu” by Marcel Proust, some Boswell, a bit of Dostoyevsky, “The Fundamentals of Musical Art, Volume 10" which was a gift signed by two friends in 1990.

Those titles cover maybe 20 feet of shelves. There are 14 more eight foot-high cabinets in this small study. I admit it is lovely to be so surrounded. As if I had read even half these books. As if I ever will read most of them.

On her book blog this week Barbara Vey asks, “To Keep or Not to Keep?”

“...What benefit do I get from titles staring me down? Why daily expose my conscious brain to Kafka and Chekhov randomly placed next to Annie Dillard, Louise Erdrich, and Aldo Leopold? I’ll never read those books again. (Will I?) Just because they came into my possession doesn’t mean I have to keep them. ‘Possession’! I loved that book by A. S. Byatt. Where did I put my copy? Don’t tell me I got rid of it!” she writes.

I know that feeling so well that recently I purchased a hand-held scanner and the software to go along with it so I may catalog my collection, and find out how many duplicate copies I have and where my books are in the first place.

What prevents me from carrying out this plan is the certain knowledge that before entering all these books into a database I must organize them so the computer can guide me to a title it thinks I own.

How to make sense of such a crazily diverse group of books? Maybe I will label the shelves One Two Three and so on. Then the computer can report that “Photo Retouching & Restoration For Dummies” has a spot on shelf three, cabinet four. Or worse yet, physically move these books into categories... Do historical novels shelve with Fiction or History? Is it all Fiction? Should Dickens sit next to Dick? Cornwell near Calvino, Chaucer on the same shelf as Churchill?

As someone once asked in the bookstore, “Where is your NON-fiction section?” I had to think about that for a minute.

Right now I get along on memory and intuition. I remember holding a monograph on the ant. I was over by that chair, and the book had a blue cover. I’m pretty sure it’s still there, if I didn’t move it.

Gliding along a wall of multi-hued books I randomly pick out an advance uncorrected proof of “The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, & the Fault Line Between Reason & Faith” by David L. Ulin.

Back when I was an active bookseller, I probably said to a sales person, “Could you send me a copy of that earthquake book? Even though I’m not going to buy it for the store, maybe I’ll do a Words of Books on it.” That was six years ago. I really should dust more often.

Blogger Barbara Vey asks what should we do with books we may never read, or never read again? The first problem, for me, starts with the fact these are BOOKS, not week-old newspapers or burrito wrappers.

I could give some to friends, or swap with strangers on the Internet, but I’d just be exchanging one unread book for another. I offered a look-see to a used book dealer, but he turned me down. He has too many books, too.

I could give books to a local thrift store, but I’d probably end up buying some of them back, and anyway, could they possibly use them, or would they end up one-cent-sale-ing them into a box in the rain? It’s horrible to contemplate.

In the meantime, I live in a room stuffed with books. A few are valuable first editions, some so useless they really should go out with the burrito wrappers.

Taken together, I admit, these books provoke in me a quiet joy. They are silent friends, ready to speak in their many voices, never insisting on being heard. Eyes and hands will find them again one day.


Barbara Vey’s blog at Publishers Weekly got me thinking about all this.

An excellent software source for cataloging books, music, your just-about-anything you have a lot of...

A national directory of thrift stores.

A recent list of “The 10 Best Websites To Swap Books, Movies, Games & CDs”


John Bear said...

As to what to do with the books that won't be read (or read again): I have long been fascinated by the concept of www.bookcrossing.com. I do like the idea of it, but I signed up 7 or 8 years ago, and have only set 4 or 5 books free. Each time I do it, I feel good about it, but . . . what? . . . maybe it's more clubby than I'm comfortable with. Still, just writing these words,I'm reinspired to set a just-discovered duplicate Kim Stanley Robinson free at a local coffee shop.

As to cataloging . . . are you familiar with the London Library and its amazing cataloging system? Largest private library on earth, over a million volumes, founded by Thomas Carlyle and still following his mandates: 100% open stack (including the incanabula), and 97% can be checked out by anyone. They even mail things worldwide.

I said 'amazing' because I was amazed. As they describe it, there is a "unique and flexible system by which books are shelved in a subject order which can be readily and fruitfully browsed by casual reader and professional researcher alike." Went there a lot during the two years we lived nearby, and rejoiced in the system: it never seemed logical to me, but it always worked for finding things, both wanted and serendipitous.

I just noted that the catalogue is available online (www.londonlibrary.co.uk/), and shortly will visit to see if the unusualness comes through electronically.

(In the 70s, at least, London Library was also popular because it had 7 or 8 stories, with, for some reason (Carlyle?) transparent glass floors, and all those attractive young patrons in their miniskirts and . . .

peterr said...

Well, a book given to an interested friend or student or young person is perhaps going to contribute more to the wisdom level of the planet more than sitting on a shelf. I give them to the library to liquidate (I am sure some go to the dump or to fiber recycling) and only keep a few references, and those are soon being supplanted by the web. I keep a collection of Diffusionist esoterica (regarding pre-Columbian contacts across the oceans--a subset of anthropology) that really should go to the right library when I die, otherwise the effort to collect it will lost.
My daughter is children's bookmobile librarian in SFo. She says librarians get lots of crap from the public all the time for discarding books, but she defends the practice. Libraries have limited resources.
My friend Tim was throwing away 1500 pirated movies on VHS tapes, 3 to a tape. I couldn't bear watching them go to the dump so now I have a shed full. It was foolish to haul and shelve them when I just got a digital TV that plays Blu-Ray Hi Def.
Now, tools I collect too much of, and can't let go. They have wise sculptural beauty and promise.
Regards, Peter

Paul in Davis said...

You knew this was gonna get my goat, didn’t you? I’m relieved, though, that you have not catalogued them or shelved them in any order – just like me. I’m still sorta embarrassed by it. I tell people who see my bookcases for the first time, “Uh, yeah, I just unpacked the boxes last week. Haven’t found the time to organize them yet.” Then they run a finger over a shelf and notice a sheen of dust. “Oh, yeah, except for THAT shelf. That’s where I put the stuff that I’ve had forever.” They can see right through me. I’m such a bad liar.

I’ve thought of selling them. When I did first unpack my boxes after my move, I separated out the chaff from the wheat. I told twenty friends that I was going to have a garage sale of books, cheap, five bucks each. Two people showed up that Saturday – my neighbors. I took some back to the store (finished copies, not ARCs) and put them on the bargain table. After two months, the remainders (“remainders” – oh the irony) were put on a cart with a sign that said “HEY – want a free book?” and the cart was placed outside of the store. They were all gone in about two hours.

As I near retirement (only ten years away!!), I contemplate what I’ll do with the books still at home: unread, never to be read, or undesired. I know! I’ll will them to one of my nephews. Then HE’LL have to decide what to do with them!

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