A Pleasing Array of Spines (Or the Catharsis of Culling One’s Library)

Commenting on my latest post, Thomas Bertonneau mentioned some reflections he had had while culling his library. His particular reflection was that many of the books he had been obliged to read in graduate school were distinctly repulsive volumes. That they should be discarded he never questioned, his only doubt being whether fire might be safer than the landfill. Cracking the covers of a once-celebrated slab of postmodern lit-crit was, as often as not, like cracking the cover of a long-forgotten Tupperware container from the back of the refrigerator. Poor Thomas recoiled from the metaphysical odor of dead and rotten things.

This led Thomas to some more general reflections on the cathartic effect of culling one’s library. I think he is right, although I would not have agreed with him all that many years ago. You see, I was once a bibliomaniac who had a hoard, not a library. My hoard was not a pile of dragon’s gold, but a pile of old books (although many approached the color of gold because they were cheap paperbacks printed on high-acid paper). These were the booty of innumerable raids on book barns and budget bins, and every last one of those brittle and broken-backed books was mine!

There were, I’m glad to say, a few diamonds in the muck, but I was too much of a book dragon to care about the difference. The walls of my dismal apartments were lined with rustic shelves that groaned under a load of pretentious trash.

Part of the pretense was, of course, that I had actually read all those books. I don’t remember the title, but Woody Allen has a movie in which some pretentious quasi-intellectual inhabits an apartment that is overshadowed by an absurd wall of books. Sensing that Allen was inviting us to laugh at that prig was my first inkling that there was something ludicrous about a book dragon’s hoard.

My next step towards being a former hoarder of books was the recognition that life was not long enough for me to re-read half of my books, that at least half of these had been a mistake to read in the first place, and that I might, you know, occasionally wish to enliven my golden years with a book that was new.

This reminds me of one of life’s little pleasures. There is a certain class of highbrow journalist who likes to claim that they re-read some ponderous classic “once a year” (or “once a decade,” it hardly matters). These journalists decorate their journalism with lines such as these: “I make it a point to reread War and Peace at least once a year,” or “I cannot say how many times I have reread Remembrance of Things Past, or The World as Will and Idea, or The City of God.” It’s all nonsense, of course, but good for a laugh, just like that wall of books in Woody Allen’s movie.*

My last step towards the catharsis of culling my library was when I developed a hearty dislike for all the ponderous tomes I would like to have read, but really had no desire to actually read. For instance, that big fat copy of Gargantua and Pantagruel, or The Golden Bough, or The Anatomy of Melancholy. These and other great works had grown accusatory rather than aspirational, until at last I found myself averting my eye from their censorious spines, as I would from the face of a friend I had betrayed.

I still own a good many books, but it is nothing like a hoard. I culled my library and it was cathartic. The criteria of my culling were completely arbitrary, which means that I kept the books I liked and discarded the books I only wanted to like. My culled library is not meant to impress you, or to accuse me, or to furnish reading material in my golden years.

It is meant to present my eye with a pleasing array of spines.

For that is what my culled library comes down to: a pleasing array of spines. I know this will shock all of the young bibliomaniacs who are amassing hoards (and, I trust, reading long into the night), but the truth is that most books of long acquaintance are best remembered by gazing at their spines. If you actually read the blasted thing, that is all you need to feel the warm afterglow of that first (and maybe second) reading.

It is very pleasant to look at an old spine and know, in a general way, what lies within. In a mature reader, this pleasure will not be in the least bit tainted by a desire to take the book down from the shelf and reread it.

Because I wish to look upon a pleasing array of spines, I ruthlessly culled all of my ugly books. If I must keep an ugly volume for practical or sentimental reasons, I shove it behind the comely books, where its depressing drabness will not disrupt the pleasing array of spines.

Last of all, when I became a culler of books instead of a hoarder, I stopped arranging them like a librarian. Once I’d gotten over the pretense that I was going to reread these books, and accepted the fact that I would mostly gaze at their spines and remember having read them, it became far less important that they be arranged by author and subject. There is still an order to my culled library, but my shelf placement is now primarily guided by my feeling that they look nice that way.


*) P. G. Wodehouse is the only author I regularly reread, which may be one more reason I’m not a highbrow journalist.

14 thoughts on “A Pleasing Array of Spines (Or the Catharsis of Culling One’s Library)

  1. Pingback: A Pleasing Array of Spines (Or the Catharsis of Culling One’s Library) | @the_arv

  2. As a like-minded used-book seller once told me, these tare-weights of discards are useful in winter, and the deconstructionist tomes burn the hottest. Treasure them as fuel. Throwing out books (and my waste-disposal service will, tomorrow, haul away about two hundred and fifty pounds of them) is the final, superlative form of literary criticism. Or perhaps it is soul-criticism. By the way, there is no longer any market for second-hand books, except, for select books, on Amazon.* The second-hand book-sellers have become quite criterious in their purchases and have no interest — as they once had, when I lived an hour’s drive from East Lansing in the 1990s — in “brilliant” tomes likely to be hankered after by ambitious graduate students across the street in the English Department at Michigan State. The thing is that the list of those books now obsoletes itself every two weeks. It is a capitalist ploy, of course, like the “new model” of whatever Japanese or Korean sub-compact car, or “latest model” smart phone, you bought six months ago. Or three weeks ago. Or yesterday. (An aside: It’s a good thing that the phones are smart.)

    My fierce hand hesitated in a few cases. One was a paperback English translation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. The reluctance stemmed from my long-standing ambition to produce Kant’s book on stage as a musical comedy. Lorenzo the Noumenon — maybe we’ll rename him as “Larry Newman” — and Enrico the Phenomenon — maybe we’ll rename him as “Harry Fennamen” — are both in love with the super-coquettish Daisy Ding-an-Sich, also known as Daisy Dingle. (Everyone is aware, I’m sure, that the angle of the dangle is directly proportional to the hotness of Daisy’s dingle. The dingle-an-sich, that is.) The male rivals come into conflict with one another over subtle epistemological questions, which give rise to uproarious slapstick. The second of the three acts will serve musically as the scherzo of the composition. Scantily clad, Busby-Berkeley-type chorus girls in contrasting, gauzy, white or black, semi-transparent swimsuits will perform a major-key antiphonal chorus based on Kant’s hilarious antinomies while they dance to an alluring, Koenigsberg- or Kaliningrad-type choreography. Much like Ginger Rogers in The Gold Diggers of 1935 or Botticelli’s Graces.

    Postmodern authors, who haven’t anywhere near the subtle humor of Kant, who has cracked me up innumerable times, and I mean really belly-laughingly cracked me up, tend to resist translation to the musical comedy idiom.

    Many of the spines on my bookshelf will advertise the name of EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS. His spines will stand next to those of ERIC VOEGELIN. There will be extravagant miscellany, none of it in alphabetical order, but only in aesthetic order, as one spine complements another. One thing that distinguishes a Burroughs or a Voegelin from a Derrida or a Foucault, is — a SPINE.

    *Vintage science-fiction paperbacks sell well on Amazon.

  3. Pingback: A Pleasing Array of Spines (Or the Catharsis of Culling One’s Library) | Reaction Times

  4. Among the books that I am sending to oblivion are those of Jonathan Culler, an early exploiter of deconstruction. One of the chapters of his book On Deconstruction (1982) is called “Reading as a Woman.” Culling Culler is a particularly pleasant self-purging critique of my penitent soul.

  5. It could be a salutary memento mori exercise occasionally for book acquirers to consider how many books they own, how many they read in a year, and how many reading years of life they may reasonably be expected to attain — this last, of course, to be considered with much humility, for a man knoweth not his time. One doesn’t object to the idea of coming, in old age, to one’s time of dying, and having -some- unread books on hand; but one doesn’t want to have -hundreds or thousands- of unread books on hand. Herein is another reason to cull books.
    One who often has the itch to buy books may also consider that additional acquisitions imply further “demands” that might displace the claims of some other books that one had intended to read or reread.
    Now a few weeks from retirement, I have selected forty books — already on hand — for a four-year personal “course” in the 17th century. This is an interesting period in which learned men have one foot in ancient and medieval tradition, and one in the study of new discoveries (geographical, astronomical, physiological, etc.). Anyone who’s digested some of Owen Barfield’s writings will probably have a sense of what I’m thinking.
    It was, then, a good way to “refresh” those books — many of which I’d had on hand for years. Some are obvious choices, some not (e.g. The Lady Ivie’s Trial for Great Part of Shadwell in the County of Middlesex Before Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys in 1684, ed. Sir John C. Fox, with a preface by “the Provost of Eton,” i.e. M. R. James).
    Readers might consider whether some similar enterprise could refresh their interest in books on hand (or mostly on hand; in my case, I did arrange printouts from archive.org for Glanvil’s Saducismus Triumphatus, Ward’s Life of Henry More the Cambridge Platonist, and Burnet’s History of His Own Time). I don’t have any major scholarly products in view as a result of this course of reading. It is an opportunity to make up some gaps in my understanding and imagination of that era — I almost wrote “æra” — and to keep faith with the self who bought some of these books so many years ago, e.g. a Penguin Classic of the writings of Sir Thomas Browne.
    Of course, these are earthly treasures, and their value is only relative.
    Dale Nelson

    • I like the sixteenth century prose. In a way it seems more serious than what came later. The stately periods of the eighteenth century are pleasant to read, but these don’t sound like men who are writing because their loves depended on it. Then the nineteenth century is flooded by great waves of sentimentality and scientism. I do think Carlyle retains some of the sixteenth century punch.

  6. Before graduate school I had a problem with too many books in my library. So many books had accumulated into piles and boxes because I found them interesting. After graduate school I developed a system to handle the problem referred to in this blog post. If I add a book to my library it must be directly related to a topic I am passionate about. If I am only interested in a topic or book I go to the local library so my library will not become as voluminous as it once was.

  7. “I cannot say how many times I have reread Remembrance of Things Past…
    Not so much remembrance as dis-remembrance then…”

    • “I’ve forgotten how many times I’ve forgotten that I’d already read Remembrance of things Past, and so read it again. At least I think I might have.”

      • Gentlemen: Think of all those poor souls who perished before Remembrance of Things Past saw publication. They never will have had the opportunity to have had forgotten whether or not they had will have had to have had to have read it. Neither will they have had the opportunity to have had to have looked forward to having had having previously read it, or to have had having to have postponed the reading of it. If only I could have been one of those people; I never would will have had to have had any worry about whether or not I had, or would will had have had to have had, actually already to have had read Remembrance of Things Past. Or to have remembered it. I never would will have had to have had, to have queried myself, whether time or mortality would will have had to have had permitted me to read it.

        Because all of that would have been blissfully in the future, not in the past.

      • But those poor souls could have written a book called Premonitions of Remembrances of Things Past. And then, of course, in their old age, Reminiscences of Premonitions of Remembrances of Things Past.


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