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.