Creative destruction

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.

5 thoughts on “Creative destruction”

  1. Where else is one supposed to place one's unread books if not on bookshelves? Stashed away in the closet or under the bed? They'll never get read that way!

  2. Thanks, Caleb. For the record: I did see that Ezra Klein's item at the Prospect was a bit ironic (the Time guy, not so much) but had to assume the tone of Not Getting It just to write the column.

  3. It's a great piece, Scott. Thanks for the opportunity to riff on it. As for the advantage in the tone of Not Getting It, I'm all about that. One of my favorite moments in journalism came just before I interviewed by conference call the staff of a research institute. The institute director thought she was pushing the "mute" button but instead prematurely pushed "speakerphone," and then announced to her colleagues, "Well, I don't think we have to be too worried. He doesn't seem to know anything about the field." That's not an exact quote, but I think I still have the tape around here somewhere.

  4. In “Character Writings of the Seventeenth Century,” we find John Earle’s Pretender to Learning, who “is a great nomenclator of authors, which he has read in general in the catalogue, and in particular in the title, and goes seldom so far as the dedication.” In 1977, at Powell’s City of Books, then still a small town of books, having loaded up a box that included my Steinbeck paperback collection, I was rebuffed by a clerk who said they were overstocked with Steinbeck. I dropped my box just outside the door while I cashed out, but when I returned there were three or four people crowded around my box, helping themselves to my Steinbecks. I then noticed a handwritten sign over my box taped to the inside of the window: “Free Books.” This past summer I finally got rid of a bad habit and a collection of turn of the century (the 19th century) textbooks, mostly anthologies. I had tried to sell these too, but this time was told there is no market. The books didn’t do much better in a garage sale, nor were a couple of neighbors interested. Someone said I should try e-bay. I took them to Goodwill. They were collecting dust, and I hadn’t read much in them. I browsed them when I first acquired them, mostly at garage sales, but I hadn’t read them, didn’t feel a reader’s affinity for them, and they collected dust. I still found them interesting, the old drawings that accompanied the poems, for example, but few things make me feel older than pulling a book off a shelf and hearing it crack. I keep telling myself I need to clean out more of the shelves, but I don’t. Anyway, one newer unread book in my collection is Manuel De Landa’s “A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History.” I’ve had it for over a year and I’m just to page 50. One of these days I’ll finish it, and when I do, I think I’ll take it down to Powell’s and drop it in a box under the “free books” sign and watch what happens. Sometimes we find that we simply can’t pull open the heavy door to certain books, but if we keep them, find that later we are somehow able to enter them more easily; other books, read a very long time ago, we pick up anew, only to think “I can’t believe I ever managed to get through this,” because we can’t now seem to repeat the feat. Sometimes we’re ready for a particular book, and other times not. Given a choice, which book do we choose, and why, and must it have a shelf life?

  5. I generally at least read parts of all books I own, but some I never crack. Part of the reason is the mystery. For instance, I am quite sure I have gotten more mileage out of imagining what the seven types of ambiguity are in “Seven Types of Ambiguity” than I would have by just reading it. Those seven types, in my mind's eye, are a constantly shifting, brilliant exposure of all that I love in my favorite writing and art. If I actually read the book, those seven types would remain just seven types for all of time.

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