My friend Scott McLemee’s essay this week at Inside Higher Ed concerns the etiquette of bookshelves. Is it hypocrisy to place books one hasn’t read on shelves where casual visitors to one’s home may see them? A Time magazine blogger has suggested that it is, while an American Prospect blogger has suggested, contrariwise, that one ought to display unread books with special prominence, because they represent the readerly self one is aspiring to. A bystander might suspect that neither blogger has written without irony, but Scott takes each of them at his word, and points out that guilt about owning unread books is “a kind of guilt that no really bookish person would feel,” because intellectual curiosity leads one naturally into byroads, some of which inevitably turn out to be dead ends. If you are an open-minded reader, you’ll end up with books you once intended to read but haven’t so far and maybe, now that you know a little more about yourself and about the books in question, shouldn’t.
Should you therefore throw them out? From the comments at the end of Scott’s essay, it transpires that an important and enjoyable perquisite to having a library of one’s own is deciding what belongs in it and what doesn’t, and that different people decide the question differently. I’ve never worried about displaying books I haven’t read. “Have you really read all those?” sounds to me like a question that only illiterates ask. I find the discussion fascinating nonetheless, because lately I have been Throwing Books Out.
This does not come naturally, but I have no choice. It’s a question of limits. A larger apartment is unlikely, in the foreseeable future, and I realized a few weeks ago that if I were to buy that one last bookcase that I’d been planning on, the feng shui of my study would abruptly become prisonlike. The stacks of books clogging my study floor have nowhere to go, unless other books exit. There have been half a dozen trips to the Strand in the last couple of weeks, and several totebags’ worth of books have been cashiered.
I used to think of myself as a kind of Noah’s Ark of books. If I hadn’t read a book, all the more reason to keep it, because probably other people didn’t want to read it either, and it was in danger of vanishing from human memory unless I saved it. Narcissistic and crazy, I know. I am happy to say that in my maturity I find it kind of liberating and fun to destroy my collection. Paperbacks of lesser-known William Golding novels purchased at the town library booksale during high school? Don’t even cart them to the Strand; nobody wants them. Just bale them up with last week’s New York Times, and try not to think about the fact that you carried these books around with you unread for more years than you had lived through when you bought them.
Also fun: Selling off scholarly books that one acquired out of a sense of duty and which one had excused oneself from reading but not from continuing to own. Can I say something candid about the poems that eighteenth-century America left in manuscript for the late twentieth century to rediscover and print in scholarly editions? Most of them are wretched. Also, there’s a limit to the number of sailor’s narratives that even the most hardened Melvillean needs to read. Such discards are tricky, of course, because there’s not only ebb and flow but also cyclicality to one’s interests over time. Or, anyway, to mine. This is probably why I’m a journalist and not a proper academic. I really enjoy forgetting. It has become almost second nature with me to kill Caleb Crain in order to become him. (I have killed the Czech translator, the science journalist, the literature professor. Who next?) So why not throw out his books? The trouble is that sometimes one is later tempted to revisit one’s earlier self, and it would cause expense and hassle to have to repurchase two dozen books about, say, the Anglo-American rhetoric of sympathy in the early nineteenth century if some day one were to decide that one had something else to say about it. But there are a few places that I will not be returning to, and it seems clearer each year what sort of places those are.
Of course, the professionally unjustifiable books are often the ones I can’t bear to part with: the paperback about dinosaur physics, say, or the three slightly different versions of The Week-End Book (a miscellany of poems, songs, games, bird descriptions, and first-aid advice) dating from 1928, 1955, and 2005. I hesitate to catalog too specifically the books I have been getting rid of, because if I do someone will emerge to defend them. That’s why I get money for them at the Strand, after all. I will say, though, that as with Scott, the selection process for me doesn’t have that much to do with how I want others to see me. The underlying principle seems to be the kind of work and play I am looking forward to.