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Books Do Furnish a Life
October 9, 2009 12:54 PM   Subscribe

Roger Ebert on the owning of books.
posted by ocherdraco (133 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite

 
Books Do Furnish a Life

Q. F. motherfuckin' T.
posted by dersins at 1:01 PM on October 9, 2009 [4 favorites]


Excellent. My tiny apartment is TEEMING with books. Three entire walls worth, plus piles.

My boyfriend sometimes reads on the Kindle app, but I like to read books.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:04 PM on October 9, 2009


I've never understood the whole "You can't throw away a book!" thing. There's plenty of unwanted and worthless books around. Certainly you should try to find someone to give it to who would want to read it but I'm pretty sure it's ok to throw away a copy of Shogun.
posted by josher71 at 1:04 PM on October 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


I have about 1600 books in my collection. The only problem I'm having is the awful bookshelves available to the general consumer. They're usually made of particle board and fall apart within 5 years, unless you're using them for nothing but a jar of potpourri, a framed picture, and a dozen paperbacks like Ikea advertisements always show. Nope, don't have $4000 to spend on oak bookcases, either.
posted by crapmatic at 1:04 PM on October 9, 2009


When I visited City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, one of the things that charmed me was their using handwritten signs as "decoration." But one of the quotes stopped me in my tracks, and I ended up taking a picture of it because I wanted to remember it:

"The buying of more books than one can possibly ever read is the soul's way of trying to achieve infinity."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:05 PM on October 9, 2009 [85 favorites]


Mmm, HobNobs and tea and books. Sounds nice.

I don't mind reading on my iPhone -- I'm glad to have it, when I'm stuck somewhere I didn't know I'd be -- but a book is certainly preferred.
posted by fiercecupcake at 1:09 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


"If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need." - Cicero
posted by fraula at 1:09 PM on October 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


I just moved back after a year and a half on the road. When I rescued all my possessions from storage and brought them to my new apartment, the first things to come out were my giant box + suitcase full of books. I broke them out one by one, examined them, felt them, even smelled them, and read random passages before lining them up one by one on the shelf. And that was it. I could have left everything else in boxes and still felt comfortable and fully moved in.

Books are the one thing I hope to have a large collection of when I'm older. With virtually every other possession I have, I wouldn't shed a tear were a house fire or something similar to happen and take them out of my life.

Just not my books!
posted by mannequito at 1:09 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure it's ok to throw away a copy of Shogun.

No, it isn't. Every book is, in some way, a tangible representation of human knowledge. Such proof of civilization should at least be left in a cardboard box on the curb until it rains.
posted by Jon_Evil at 1:10 PM on October 9, 2009 [15 favorites]


I have about 1600 books in my collection. The only problem I'm having is the awful bookshelves available to the general consumer.

Wire garage shelving with black spray-painted foam core covering the wire on the shelf. It even looks fairly nice.

My spare room is filled with books. It smells like a library. Some days I go in there just to sniff the air and be at peace.
posted by winna at 1:11 PM on October 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


My answering machine message:

"Hi, you've reached XXX-XXX-XXXX, home to a large number of books and a small human being. Unfortunately, only the books are here right now..."

Needless to say, I approve of this post.
posted by thomas j wise at 1:11 PM on October 9, 2009 [20 favorites]


My book collection is over 1.8 million. I keep them on the shelves of the various branches of the Multnomah County Public Library.
posted by dipolemoment at 1:12 PM on October 9, 2009 [35 favorites]


I have never thrown out a book, and I add about 3--5 a month. (Much to the dismay of my better half.) I've also never not finished a book I started.

Clearly some people have an unnatural obsession with books.
posted by phliar at 1:14 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


"The buying of more books than one can possibly ever read is the soul's way of trying to achieve infinity."

Nice! Borges? Benjamin?
posted by joe lisboa at 1:16 PM on October 9, 2009


I think books are pretty much the only collectible item I let myself purchase. I imagine if I had the space and resources of Ebert I would also end up with far more books than I could ever read.
posted by ghharr at 1:17 PM on October 9, 2009


I'm with dipolemoment--with most books being easily accessed elsewhere, why do I need hundreds or thousands at home? I mean, I have a PhD in English Lit, and I've kept some of the more special, sentimental, and rare volumes, but I've gotten rid of hundreds of books in the last few years. There's a certain fetishism associated with the physical book, and a certain vanity, too, I think--"just look at all the books I've read!" Erasmus and Cicero lived in a time when books were rarities, and literature couldn't be accessed any other way. I'm not sure I understand keeping that copy of Shogun around, either.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:20 PM on October 9, 2009 [21 favorites]


For the first time in our five years living together, my wife and I just got all our books out of boxes and on to shelves and it felt really nice. Especially because of bunch of them used to be regulars, but got boxed away a couple of moves ago and never opened. There was some really wonderful memories in seeing books I bought years ago, even ones I never read
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 1:20 PM on October 9, 2009


I'm pretty sure it's ok to throw away a copy of Shogun.

You know, I could never entirely be confident of that, which is why pretty much the only time my book collection ever got purged was when I lived within walking distance of the Book Thing. The challenge, of course, was walking back out of the Book Thing with fewer books than I brought in.
posted by EvaDestruction at 1:21 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


I had planned, this weekend, to venture down into the basement to restart sorting the thousands of books in the dozens of plastic tubs that got lugged down the stairs before our home remodeling project this past summer.

Some books will end up back on the shelves, some will get put back in tubs and shoved behind the water heater.

Some, though, will have to end up going to Goodwill or Half Price Books or out of my life for a while. None ever get thrown away. They just go to new homes. It's sad, but necessary work, I think.

I love the project of digging through those tubs and sorting the books into piles, though, and it takes forever. Almost compulsively, I have to flip through the pages of the books, because I find little notes I wrote to myself, of stuff I crammed between pages. I like the pricetags that used to be stickered to the back of books. "Oh, I bought that at the Monmouth College Bookstore? I remember that trip!" I like trying to remember why I underlined the first sentence of Still Life With Woodpecker, or whose phone number is scrawled in the back of Rules for Radicals.

I've done this project a couple of times, now- I inherited a huge library from a great-uncle, and, like Ebert, I still have a huge number of the books I've bought since childhood (with the notable exception of my Choose Your Own Adventure books- drat!), so I've had to cull from time to time. For some reason, I end up starting this project in the fall, which is the most wistful and nostalgic time of year for me, anyway, and looking through my old books just heightens this feeling.
posted by elmer benson at 1:23 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ah! Thanks for reminding me I need to get to the Book Thing this weekend.
posted by josher71 at 1:23 PM on October 9, 2009


I remember on facebook there used to be a group (probably still exists) called "I would marry The Beast (from Beauty & the Beast) just for his library."

I would have joined FB just so that I could be a part of that group.
posted by specialagentwebb at 1:24 PM on October 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


I love books also, but I FREAKIN' love my Kindle too!
posted by newfers at 1:25 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


I sometimes feel a deep rift between myself and another when they say something like, "I don't understand why you have so many books. Why do you want all of these?" as if I had been treading water on a familiar shore, then, no longer feeling sand kicked up by my feet, looked down and found a black chasm below me.

I recognize it is not for everyone, but ... I'll never look at you the same way again.
posted by adipocere at 1:25 PM on October 9, 2009 [19 favorites]


"We buy books because we believe we're buying the time to read them."
— Warren Zevon, or at least attributed to Zevon. Something he said not long before he died.
posted by eyeballkid at 1:26 PM on October 9, 2009 [29 favorites]


Erasmus and Cicero lived in a time when books were rarities

Especially Cicero, since books hadn't been invented yet!
posted by Faze at 1:27 PM on October 9, 2009


Here is a (likely unpopular) counterpoint:

YOU ARE HOARDERS!

It is ok to dispose of a book! It is ok to mistreat a book and ruffle the pages and dog ear them. Every book on your shelf is a book out of circulation. Dust, to a book, is chains. They are prisoners on your shelf, out of circulation. As you look at your book collection you are looking at books taken out of the world and no longer to be read by anyone, probably not even you. You love them not for their knowledge, but because they are fetishes of knowledge. You are collective objects, not books. Books are things that people read

Keep books in circulation. If you must have a library, why not the public library, why not open your own lending library? How can you say you love something if you keep it useless. Those books you keep on your shelves might as well be blank on the inside.

I'm sorry, but you all think it is great to have a huge library of books rotting on the shelf to enrich your own lives at the cost of imprisoning knowledge; it makes me very unhappy and slightly ill to my stomach.
posted by fuq at 1:29 PM on October 9, 2009 [62 favorites]


The books I love best are carved into my heart. To look at them is just to remind myself of what I already know and love.
posted by No Robots at 1:30 PM on October 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


Just another reason to like Roger Ebert.

I can totally relate to all of this. Doesn't everyone need four copies of The Great Escape? And one of them in French even though I can't read French.

Don't even get me started on all the paperback editions of Lovecraft. You know those Balantine editions with the creepy rat-face skull covers? Some of them have the title printed in yellow and some in white. The SAME book, but the titles are printed in different colors on different copies. You have to have both.
posted by marxchivist at 1:30 PM on October 9, 2009


One of the few times I've ever actually felt physical pain while watching a TV show was when the guy broke his thick glasses in the Twilight Zone episode.
posted by Melismata at 1:32 PM on October 9, 2009 [10 favorites]


josher, I'm happy to have helped. I miss it!
posted by EvaDestruction at 1:35 PM on October 9, 2009


Dust, to a book, is chains.
Right on, fuq. One of the things that cemented that idea to me, I guess, was when I found a gret outlet for my old, unused-anymore books--the Library of Congress Professional Association used-book sale. I knew my Moore-Knott would go to a good home, and what good was it doing me, anyway?
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:37 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm sorry, but you all think it is great to have a huge library of books rotting on the shelf to enrich your own lives at the cost of imprisoning knowledge; it makes me very unhappy and slightly ill to my stomach.

That might be true if I happened to own, say, the only copy in existence of "Bleak House" or something. There are multiple copies of every book in the world; me hanging on to my own copies is not robbing anybody of anything.
posted by OolooKitty at 1:38 PM on October 9, 2009 [5 favorites]


My book collection is over 1.8 million. I keep them on the shelves of the various branches of the Multnomah County Public Library.

Yes. I have very little space to fill, and some of it is given over to books -- but if I owned every book I'd ever read, I'd need a much much much bigger living space. So I buy only the books I love dearly and reread often, and I visit the library as often as I can.
posted by emeiji at 1:39 PM on October 9, 2009


We have over ninety boxes of books stored in the garage right now, waiting for us to build enough bookcases to hold them. Unfortunately before we can build book cases, we need to strip all the old wallpaper off the walls, paint and or re-wallpaper those walls, re-wire and refinish the floors. The books have been out there for two years now and they'll probably be out there for another two at least but it'll be like christmas when we can bring them in and unpack them again.
posted by octothorpe at 1:40 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


YOU ARE HOARDERS!

I guess you will all be seeing me on TLC soon.
If I had the world's only copy of War and Peace I would be guilty of imprisoning knowledge.

As it is, I just like to read and I think books are beautiful.
posted by mmmbacon at 1:40 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have an insane amount of books. Most are in boxes. Every now and again I think of buying shelves, but that would be that many less books I could afford.
posted by cjorgensen at 1:42 PM on October 9, 2009


There are multiple copies of every book in the world; me hanging on to my own copies is not robbing anybody of anything.

And more copies will be printed at the cost of the forest. Are you going to read the book again? If not, why not give it to someone that will and decrease the need for a harmful industrial process. Are you in favor of constantly using limited resources to print fresh copies of books so that you can look at the spine of a book whenever you feel like?
posted by fuq at 1:43 PM on October 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


"The buying of more books than one can possibly ever read is the soul's way of trying to achieve infinity."

What about the downloading of more books than one could ever read from from the alt.binaries.e-book hierarchy?
posted by Chuckles at 1:44 PM on October 9, 2009


Every book on your shelf is a book out of circulation.

Until xty years from now when it reenters circulation as a well-preserved antique, as opposed to being dipped in jam for three years and then thrown away. You are aware how often the typical public library turns over their inventory these days, right?

My estate sale is going to be a knowledge-splosion.
posted by ormondsacker at 1:45 PM on October 9, 2009 [7 favorites]


So my mother, kind woman that she is, boxed up all my childhood books when I went off to college, and stored them for me for 7 years. Last month, she cleaned out the storage space and started to mail them to me, one 4 boxes at a time.

Folks, what can I do with half a set of Left Behind novels besides recycle them? And yet they sit on the shelf in my closet, mocking me with their terrible writing and morally dubious plot lines. It's been 3 weeks. At this point it is a disease.
posted by muddgirl at 1:46 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


I love his shout-out to Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. That and Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage are indispensable.
posted by blucevalo at 1:50 PM on October 9, 2009


fuq, some of us who "hoard" books do loan them out. My friends often request books from me, and it's gotten to the point where most of them just grab a book or two when they come over to visit. In fact, most of the book people I know do this. We like to share them and loan them out and give them to friends, because we want our friends to love them as much as we do.
posted by teleri025 at 1:52 PM on October 9, 2009 [4 favorites]


MrMoonPie: There's a certain fetishism associated with the physical book, and a certain vanity, too, I think ...

I agree. I love reading; it's certainly how I spend much of my time (and usually for research these days, as opposed to pleasure reading, though the two typically dovetail nicely in my case).

Several years ago I moved across an ocean and did a severe paring of all my possessions, and in particular my shelves and shelves of books. I kept all the ones that were rare, or which had special inscriptions or which I just plain could not bear to part with.

But if I could easily rebuy it in future? Or if I hadn't read it in the last ten years and didn't expect to read in the next ten? Or if I had purchased it and let it sit, always putting off reading it for another day? Gone.

I made a list and gave many of them away to friends and family – first come, first served! I sold a lot of the remainder, and the rest I gave to a charity shop. But until that point I had never considered the unnecessary attachment we give to books. I had been lugging these thousands of books around for years, moving them from house to house and straining my back, and to what end?

In the end, I still kept more books than I ought to have (safely stored in Mom's basement [thanks, Mom!]), but realizing that most of them were just objects I was keeping around to make myself feel good and smart was very freeing. I still keep the books that are important to me, but most of them need to travel on to another home, to someone else that can read them, too.

To me, the best part about books is that you can give 'em away to friends.
posted by barnacles at 1:59 PM on October 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


Every one of you book-loving motherfuckers traded your CDs and LPs for iPods years ago.

I'm not saying anyone should get rid of their books too...but Metafilter seems to have an awfully selective tendency toward physical-media fetishization.
posted by anazgnos at 2:00 PM on October 9, 2009 [7 favorites]


Every one of you book-loving motherfuckers traded your CDs and LPs for iPods years ago.

Actually, I buy CDs, LPs, and mp3's, depending on the album. You must not be aware of the resurgence of vinyl among the younger sets.
posted by muddgirl at 2:03 PM on October 9, 2009


Wrong, anazgnos, so very very wrong. I do not own an Ipod, or a Zune, or any of that nonsense. What I have are well over a thousand CDs, in their little jewel cases, not-torrented, or copied from a friend. I suspect that I am not alone.

Now, ask me about my movies.
posted by adipocere at 2:06 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


I love my books. At present, there are over two thousand in the house. In fact, I'm performing a cull as we speak. I'm getting old, I need to start finding homes for these voices who will outlive me before the task becomes too large. I've done a couple of culls before, so my life's total of books-owned is probably three thousand or so.

I want to thank my Mom, who repeatedly told me, as a child, "Just wait 'til you learn to read! It'll open up a whole new world for you," & the anonymous co-worker of my Dad who gave him a box full of old speculative-fiction books for the son who liked to read.

If you need to dispose of books, may I suggest your local Red Cross, who need all kinds of furnishings for the homes they maintain for people suddenly forced out of their own; also, your state prison system. Directors of Volunteer Services are good places to start. At the very least, give them to somebody's kid. They, like I do, will remember you with gratitude many years later.

Two thousand books is not that much compared to the libraries of many, but still, witless trogs have come up to me & said "You have too many books." Too many! Not "Gee, you have a lot of books,"—I've heard that plenty of times—but "You have too many books." This came from a person with a degree in English Lit.

I was flabbergasted, trying to process that. What would have been the correct number? Should I have arranged them for aesthetic effect by the colors of their spines?
posted by Forrest Greene at 2:06 PM on October 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


fuq, you are wrong.

It's great when people have shelves full of books evn if don't read all of them.
I've found a lot if great books just by visiting people and browsing their shelves. Books that were too far under their own radar to be recommended actively by them, books I would've never known about.

Books on a person's shelf are neither out of circulation nor dead weight.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 2:07 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


I will preface this comment by saying that I am a librarian and a book-lover. From my experience, librarians (and book-lovers) fall into one of two categories:

a) people who buy a metric ass-ton of books
b) people who very rarely buy books

I have a coworker who is a Type A. He only buys new books because he doesn't want anyone to touch them before he reads them. He keeps every book he's ever bought or been given, even if he never read it, even if he read it and hated it, because of the memories associated with each and every one. He, like Ebert, can probably remember exactly where each one came from.

I, as you might guess, am a type B. If I want to read a book I check it out from the library (or buy it used if I can't find it at the library). If I check a book out more than three times I consider buying it, because it's probably a book I will want to have available to read at 3 in the morning. Nine times out of ten the books I buy are things I read during my formative years (classics, YA fiction, speculative fiction), or they're things I'm blown away by and know I'm going to want to press all my friends to read, so I get a copy to loan them. I pretty much only buy used books, because I like the history associated with them and I like the thought of sharing a book with every person who has read it and every person who will read it.

I personally find my coworker's point of view very baffling, but I don't think it means that either of us loves books any less than the other. And I mean that in terms of both the content and the physical object. We just love them in different ways.
posted by marginaliana at 2:10 PM on October 9, 2009 [6 favorites]


I suspect that I am not alone.

No, you're not! I'm a fervent record collector. I've always kind of thought the general vibe towards not-exclusively-digital music collecting on metafilter was that it was considered quaint, whereas bring up books and everyone goes gaga...but I'm happy to be wrong about that.
posted by anazgnos at 2:12 PM on October 9, 2009


There is a line in the Indigo Girls song "Galileo":

"But then again it feels like some sort of inspiration
To let the next life off the hook
But say look what I had to overcome from my last life
I think I'll write a book"

That's what books are, even the crappy ones. Reflections of a life even if totally fictional. Lives we can learn from. I have hundreds if not thousands of books, some on bookshelves, some in storage where they've been for 20-30 years. I cannot bear to part with any of them, even when I shudder to admit that I actually read them. Someone took a piece of their life and committed it to paper. The question is not whether its true or valid for your life, but that you read it, and made your own decision.

My poor family will have to endure a library of books, good and bad, when I die. Hopefully they'll read some of them. Would that I had the talent to add to that corpus.
posted by elendil71 at 2:15 PM on October 9, 2009


"I'm pretty sure it's ok to throw away a copy of Shogun"

No, not even the one with the broken spine and the cover falling off. I'll give it away before I throw it away.

"Are you going to read the book again?"

99% of the time, if it's on my shelf the answer is yes. I do get rid of books, but primarily the ones I sell or give away are essentially disposable books to begin with - those that were passed on to me second-hand, or those that I have replaced with nicer editions as money allows.

I have books I've read close to a dozen times if not more. My wife doesn't understand why I re-read a book. I think, why not? If I liked it the first time, why would it be any worse the second time? But you know how it ends, she says. Of course. And that makes me savor the beginning that much more, because I know how it ends and can enjoy the journey.

I am not the type of book purist who thinks that every book has merit and is worth preserving. There are quite clearly books in existence that should not be read by anyone, and in fact probably should never have been written, and certainly should never have granted the author one thin dime of profit for his or her work towards production of such vile, useless excrement. However, I am the kind of person who fully realizes that the books I would place in the above category are very different from the books someone else would thus classify, and I try to act accordingly.
posted by caution live frogs at 2:15 PM on October 9, 2009 [4 favorites]


It is ok to dispose of a book!

Yahbutt: Have you ever tried to do this? For a book that's more than two years old and wasn't that popular to begin with? That's been read more than once, who's spine has a few crackmarks and whose pages may be a bit dog-eared? Nobody wants them. Second hand stores won't take them, the library doesn't want them, the hospitals and old-folks homes only want "light fiction" (and large print), you'll get less than the listing fees back from auction and your Craig's list add will go unanswered (1500 books, non-fiction, fiction, free to good home; must have own truck!).

I don't keep books prisoners, I provide homes to refugees no one else will take in. I still twinge a little when I think of having to let some go.
posted by bonehead at 2:15 PM on October 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


The fetishistic worship of books needs a counterbalance of reality. I genuinely get it. But with a room or two full of them what the hell is the point of proudly displaying another Russo or Coetzee or the latest Jess Walter? I'm into my third book on my iPhone and have read more and in less time than ever before because it's the first thing I go to when I have more than a minute's downtime. And frankly it's liberating to be free of the need to stick the book up on a shelf so I can appear literate when guests come over. Carrying a dog-eared copy of Hemingway in your pocket should stop when you leave college.
posted by docpops at 2:19 PM on October 9, 2009 [5 favorites]


There are quite clearly books in existence that should not be read by anyone, and in fact probably should never have been written

Hey, you leave the Necronomicon outta this discussion.
posted by joe lisboa at 2:21 PM on October 9, 2009 [8 favorites]


I'm actually about to put a load of books on the street. right now. I'm not going to read them, maybe someone will walk by who will. Perhaps, it will rain and the books will be destroyed. As it has been pointed out, there are many many copies of these books in this world and me disposing of mine is not depriving anyone.

I am however acquiring space for new, fresh books I haven't read yet, and I am excited.
posted by fuq at 2:22 PM on October 9, 2009


Guess it's a minority opinion, but I have no romantic attachment to information stored on analog media, and I'm happy to own as few books as possible. You're going to be reading crystal clear text off your augmented reality glasses or contact lenses within 10 years anyway, so I don't see the point in collecting more ink on dead trees

Still collecting those LPs, too?
posted by crayz at 2:27 PM on October 9, 2009


That's what books are, even the crappy ones. Reflections of a life even if totally fictional.
No--that's what literature is.

I have plenty of reverence for literature, and I'm not some sort of soul-less utilitarian. I have walls-full of "useless" art, competing with a larger-than-average selection of books to which I attach great value, and all my old books go to sales, hopefully to be found and appreciated by a young, poor grad student, as I once was.

I'm not questioning reading books; I'm questioning the indiscriminant collecting of them. No one owes me an explanation for anything, mind you--I'm just really curious about this, as there seems to be (as evidenced in this thread) an unquestioned good associated with such collecting.
posted by MrMoonPie at 2:30 PM on October 9, 2009


Books are objects as sacred as objects can be.

Recently I read, in Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines, a quote which went something like "Collecting things is good, but walking is better." I took it to heart. I got rid of a lot of books that seemed, well, uncrucial - and I've become an adventurer much of the year, walking around countries and learning to read in a different sort of way. But I love book hoarders still . . . aren't they just a little sexier than other kinds of people?
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 2:30 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yeah, and what's the point of cooking a real meal? I'm happy to get all my nutrition from shakes and pills.
posted by muddgirl at 2:31 PM on October 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


When I'm feeling my craziest & most fucked-up, the only things that reliably calm me are a trip to a bookstore—just to stand there, smell them, see them around me—or to the woods—same deal.
posted by Forrest Greene at 2:37 PM on October 9, 2009 [5 favorites]


The BBC celebrated 40 years of the IKEA Billy bookcase last week, with a piece on why we keep books.

Why indeed.

Orwell wrote in 'Bookshop Memories' that he lost his love for books while being in the trade of selling them. There just was too much printed paper around.

Ever since I began a booklog in 2005 writers and publishers have overwhelmed me with requests for book reviews. But there really is a lot published I don't want to read, let alone own. And that has really made me think about all the books in my cases.

My personal library has peaked in quantity, at around four thousand titles. Ideally it should be 2,500 to 3,000 to harbour everything I need, or simply like. Its quality will get higher, with every book I remove.
posted by ijsbrand at 2:38 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


I can't read for very long off a screen. Short bits of information, sure, but not long passages of text. Like those found in, say, a book. So kindles and the like are useless to me. The need for the screen to glow in order to see the text hurts after a while. So I go to my books.

As to why I own them, or buy them, instead of just borrowing them from the library? Because I read in bed, and it falls down the sides, and since I'm reading more than one at a time (usually) I forget its there, and next thing you know its five weeks over due. Buying used books is cheaper than paying fines. And keeps those books in circulation. Plus if I own it, and I can't sleep, its there for me to read at 3 am when the library would be (sensibly) closed. And I have enough of them that if I wait a few years its like a rediscovery.

Plus books smell awesome. And feel awesome. And some are gorgeous (I do own some very old books, a hundred years old and more, with beautiful covers, that are more to look at than read because I don't want to destroy them). And when you carry them around and there is that comforting weight.

I get being uncluttered. But I don't get vilifying people who collect books. Of all the things in the world to collect, books have got to be among the most worthwhile.
posted by sandraregina at 2:40 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Carrying a dog-eared copy of Hemingway in your pocket should stop when you leave college.

So, you just chose to tell us that you'd prefer to keep it on your iPhone instead?
posted by Cyrano at 2:50 PM on October 9, 2009


I enjoyed this essay, for I, too, am one of those who could happily live without many things, but not my books.

My father, early on in my life, taught me the joy of spending hours browsing through used bookstores. In fact, when I visit my parents, I make a point to stop in my favorite little charity shop (British Heart Foundation, I believe). Yes, there are used bookstores here where I live (and some pretty good retail stores, too), but there's something so delightful about wandering up the creaking stairs to the upper-floor that people seem to forget exists, as all the cd's, dvds, popular fiction, and biography are all on the lower level. Going to a retail bookstore (and by retail, I mean new books -- is there a proper word for those?) is always a treat, but I generally spend my time browsing and not buying.

The few books I buy new generally tend to be books on places I'm visiting (art museums, historical sites, etc). I have a couple of shelves that are my "travel shelves" -- filled with the little guidebooks and museum exhibit catalogues. I find I'm more inclined to pull those down to remember my experiences and travels than I do with the pictures I've taken.

I suppose I think of myself as sort of a rescuer of books. Which is how I ended up with three copies of The Diary of Anne Frank and half dozen copies of Jane Eyre. (These books always seem to crop up in the "classics" section of the stores, and I seem to always forget that I already have a copy). Of course, they are different versions, different styles, and one day I will have to decide which one to keep and what others to donate.

Because I do donate. I make a valiant effort to keep my books contained in the space assigned for them, but soon I find them creeping over the edge, piling on top of each other, gasping for space. Perhaps does appeal to the hoarder in me, for I find something so comforting being wrapped in a world of words. But then I realize that in order for new words to make their way into this world, some will have to leave. Which is why there is always a box filled to some degree with books that I decide I can live without. For now. And to the library it will go, in one of my weekly visits (for yes, I also read books from the library).

But I also donate to friends. I'm regularly offering books to them, giving them permission to pass them along if they decide they don't like them or don't want to read them. I loan out books as well, but I've discovered that it's much better to give than loan, because as strong as our friendship may be, I know I may never see that book again.

And I have friends who delight in loaning me DVDs, since I have a hard time understanding the reasoning behind owning so many movies when I can just rent them from Netflix. We just agree to not understand each other's hoarding, and instead enjoy the fruit of each other's generosity.

But really -- it isn't merely owning the books that make it so satisfying.

It is the entire journey.

While I do dream of one day moving out of my small apartment and having a dedicated library -- two floors, at least (I purchased a postcard of Sir Walter Scott's study at Abbostford simply because I loved the cozy layout and dreamed of reading and working in such a space) -- the reality is that I know books have a season. There is a time for them to move on. There is a time when I will realize that I will never actually read that collection of literary essays edited by Henry James I picked up somewhere in Picadilly, and perhaps it's just a good idea to let it go, especially since my interests have veered on from my studious English lit days. The collection flucuates as does my life -- but there will always been the old stand-bys, the ones that I met in childhood and have moved across seas and towns and decades with me -- a steady constant in a world that is constantly changing.

"Books do furnish a life" -- indeed.

(Now I'm going to go make myself a cup a tea, wish for rain, and pretend that I won't regret this sudden outpouring of sentimenality.)
posted by paisley sheep at 2:51 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


During a recent sorting, my bookloving partner tried to give away his copy of Pride and Prejudice. I snatched it out of the giveaway box, to his surprise. "But," he said, "we have two copies. Why do you need both?"

The answer I gave: "The other is for reading in the bathtub, so it lives in the bathroom; this one lives on the bedroom shelf."

The actual answer is hidden in my choice of verb: in my mind and in my hands, some books are living things.
posted by Elsa at 2:51 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't own that many books. Mostly, I borrow books from the library and keep books until they are overdue. I don't mind paying because I figure that the library will get to buy another book or two every time I'm late so there will be more for me to read. Also I've moved across country a couple times and try to limit my luggage by not buying many books.

The books I do own are ones that I read over and over again. I love to look at my bookshelf because it's a weird summary of me. Right now it's out of order so I get great juxtapositions of science fiction next to romance next to classic adventure stories next to biographies next to biology texts (plus all the pretty colours make up for the lack of anything else on my walls).
posted by hydrobatidae at 2:56 PM on October 9, 2009


Having said that, I don't fetishize book ownership. I love used books, I rarely buy a book new, and I make frequent enough use of both my public library and my university library that the librarians can greet me by name. I pass on books with delight, sometimes by giving them to friends or family, sometimes in boxes delivered to Goodwill, sometimes by leaving a small stack in an informal bookswapping spot outside the library.

I can even throw away a book when it seems fitting. I threw away a book recently --- it was a truly awful piece of genre fiction with a misogynistic tone and a broken spine, pages coming loose. In both function and style, it was a piece of trash. I put it in the trashbag with as much sentiment as I would devote to throwing out a snotty tissue.
posted by Elsa at 2:58 PM on October 9, 2009


Books are just overly long physical twitter entries. Flotsam and jetsam in the stream of our lives.
posted by blue_beetle at 3:05 PM on October 9, 2009


I think we need to distinguish between the physical object that is known as a book and the ideas contained within; I love written ideas, and I will take them in whatever form they come -- hence, why I am plenty happy to read stuff on my iPod as I am with a book. In fact, it's even better, because I can pack a slew of books into that slim little case. The people who are in love with having a huge book collection are more in love with the physical experience of reading than the ideas, because the ideas transcend their physical form.
posted by Big Fat Tycoon at 3:06 PM on October 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


I prize them above my dukedom. Fuck yeah.
posted by Joe Beese at 3:10 PM on October 9, 2009


And more copies will be printed at the cost of the forest. Are you going to read the book again? If not, why not give it to someone that will and decrease the need for a harmful industrial process.

I re-read books all the time. The ones I think I will never want to read again, or those that are easily available, I get rid of. The ones I would have a harder time replacing, or that I especially value, I keep. I wouldn't give up, for instance, my signed first edition of "The Land of Laughs" for anything, and I love the way you make it sound that I'm destroying the planet by hanging onto it.

I'm sorry, but this seems like a very strange thing to have a problem with.
posted by OolooKitty at 3:17 PM on October 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


I love written ideas.

AND I read stuff on my iPod.

THEREFORE people who have a lot of books value objects more than ideas.

QED, amirite?
posted by brain_drain at 3:19 PM on October 9, 2009


brain_drain, easy on the snark. I hesitated to write "more", and I probably should have hesitated even more, because of d-bag responses like yours.
posted by Big Fat Tycoon at 3:22 PM on October 9, 2009


It's true that an iPhone is friendlier to the environment than a paper mill. But having once expended a massive amount of industry, energy, petroleum to achieve a small material advantage over the library, we will do it again.

Another commenter is already talking about "augmented reality glasses...contact lenses" ten years on. How many iterations, factory hours, negligible improvements, and planned obsolescences will the landfills receive in that decade? The electronic solution shows all the signs of becoming just another madness, one much less sustainable than the disorder it seeks to supplant.
posted by Iridic at 3:35 PM on October 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


But I'll admit that I'm biased. They have a certain power over me, those places where one or more books are gathered.

I once had a dream in which I arranged my library in such a way that if you read from the front matter of the first book to the endpapers of the last, a single story, greater than the sum of its individual episodes, revealed itself to you.

There is no grand hermetic order, of course, but the grand narratives do exist; they partake of infinity, there is no end to their variations. Every library is a living gestalt, a theater of memory, a multifoliate rose; two books together on a shelf tell a story even before you select one, open it, and retire to a comfortable chair.
posted by Iridic at 3:37 PM on October 9, 2009 [4 favorites]


"The need for the screen to glow in order to see the text hurts after a while. So I go to my books. "

A Kindle screen does NOT glow. Christ. It is not like reading a computer screen or the display of an iPod. It is as easy on the eyes as paper. THAT is the appeal!
posted by newfers at 3:40 PM on October 9, 2009 [6 favorites]


I do not own an Ipod, or a Zune, or any of that nonsense.

Yeesh, give me a break. It's not nonsense. You do not experience music in a better way than people who store most everything on an iPod and have gotten rid of CDs, like me.

I haven't bought a kindle, and have a decent book collection, but I'm not really sure people reading books on them have a lesser experience of that book.
posted by ORthey at 3:52 PM on October 9, 2009


I'm pretty sure it's ok to throw away a copy of Shogun.

No way. You need that Shogun to use when they come to take your copy of 1984.

(It gots heft).
posted by ovvl at 4:03 PM on October 9, 2009 [5 favorites]


How can you say you love something if you keep it useless.

Are you serious? They're not useless, for one thing--I've reread just about everything in my (now sadly much reduced by an overseas move) library at least once. More than that, though, they're not just books--they're memories:

I have a Shakespeare complete works that I bought in 2004 for my "Read all of Shakespeare's plays" self-improvement project. It eventually led to my returning to school for a BA and master's in drama. (On a related note, I have a Riverside Shakespeare that I got for graduating with that BA.)

On my shelf right now is a copy of a Terry Pratchett book that I bought in the Denver airport on my way to London in September 2007. I needed something to read on the plane, and a new Pratchett novel was a very pleasant surprise. It was the last book I bought in the US before moving to England.

In storage back in America is a paperback of Larry Niven short stories that I bought from the secondhand book section of Muddy's Cafe in Denver in the early 1990s, a little bohemian late-night coffeehouse where I used to hang out and kid myself that I was cool. (It no longer exists, sadly.) It was autographed by Niven at an SF convention several years later, and it was that convention that taught me it's sometimes better to not meet your heroes.

I have a Harlan Ellison story collection that he autographed at the event where I first met him--it was a writer's conference in Fort Collins, Colorado, and the first time I ever heard anyone tell the "leprechaun nun" joke.

Don't you dare tell me these books are "useless".
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 4:10 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


muddgirl: Folks, what can I do with half a set of Left Behind novels besides recycle them? And yet they sit on the shelf in my closet, mocking me with their terrible writing and morally dubious plot lines. It's been 3 weeks. At this point it is a disease
You have my permission to throw them out. I can do that, you know: I'm a librarian, and I deputize thee "chief weeder".
Big Fat Tyccoon: I think we need to distinguish between the physical object that is known as a book and the ideas contained within
QFT. Especially modern books--moving 6 times in 3 years weans you of object fetishism. Now, in the rare books room at my library, he have books with hand-painted illustrations of flowers. Folio-sized. We have bound volumes of agricultural magazines from the late 1800s. There's something there from 1640 as well, I think. I haven't even scratched the surface of what's there yet, and it's a small room. And it's climate controlled in there and everything.

Unless the book is notable as an object*, its only value is as a conveyor of content. The experience of story, whether fiction or non-, is the rare and precious thing.

* Having a personal story attached to it makes it notable... but now we're back to story, aren't we?
posted by Decimask at 4:12 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


You never OWN a book. you simply steward them. One day you will hand them to their next steward. It is the way of book ownership.
posted by joelf at 4:13 PM on October 9, 2009


I read Nicholson Baker's Kindle review (and iPhone as well) in a recent New Yorker. It's worth a look. I remain on the fence. I look forward to a day when I return to the tactile luxury of a book, hopefully when I retire and have long, unbroken moments to enjoy the written word in place on a favorite chair or travel destination. We should champion books for a number of good reasons, but sentimentality won't be enough to keep them in circulation. For now that just isn't possible. Any time I have to read has to be captured like errant molecules of nitrous in the scrubbers at the dentist's office.

I tried a Kindle for an hour or so and was underwhelmed. I downloaded Too Fat To Fish on a lark, figuring it wouldn't be too taxing, and reading it on an iPhone took a few hours to adapt to but surprisingly, my retention and focus was probably better than with a standard book. I'm almost done with the new Krakauer and the same applies. Perhaps it's that my reading is mostly in settings where I'm maximally alert as opposed to drifting off to sleep. I love that it immediately puts me back where I left off, and that I can read with a single hand while I eat (or wipe). Who knew.
posted by docpops at 4:14 PM on October 9, 2009


I love my books, and had to have them packed away in boxes in the garage for a while when my flat was being renovated. I had a cull before I packed them and took a few boxes to charity. I felt lost without my books around me and my flat only felt like home again when they were back on their shelves.

At work we have a paperback exchange - you drop in a book, you can take one out. There's a lot of dross in there - far too much chick lit, Dan Brown and celeb biogs. Nevertheless I've found some gems in there that I probably wouldn't have chosen to spend £8 on in a bookstore, but have taken a chance on because they're free.

Because a lot of my working day is spent reading documents electronically, my leisure reading is, by choice, paper-based.
posted by essexjan at 4:26 PM on October 9, 2009


I have a tiny library. I only have about seven hundred books. But every book (with the admitted exception of reference books like my grammar and dictionaries) is a friend.

I have lived my whole life in books. Books were there for me when I was all alone and friendless, a duckling in a henhouse. Books gave me the key to the wider world. I don't have a very good memory as a standalone product - I need things to remember my life sometimes.

So that battered copy of the complete works of Saki reminds me of lying under the high ceiling in the Victorian house my college had converted into a dorm. My copy of the complete works of Austen reminds me of lazy mornings in the barn, right down to the faded brown stains of pickle juice on some of the pages. My extremely worn copy of Peake's Gormenghast books reminds me of the fall morning I fell into that world for the first time. By touching and reading and feeling those books I am transported back into the past, and have the opportunity to make new memories associated with that physical object.

If I have a spare room and I choose to fill it with books so that I feel safe and loved and surrounded by the knowledge and wit and erudition of accumulated generations of human beings then I don't see how I'm hurting any damn body. It's not like there are hordes trampling to my door angry because they burn to read Aaron Copeland's book on learning to listen to music with the cover half munched off because the dog hadn't been taught that books were not for snacking yet.
posted by winna at 4:29 PM on October 9, 2009 [4 favorites]


I never really got the appeal of owning books. I mean, I guess I could understand it appealing to the urge to collect things (which I don't really seem that affected by), but I actually like going to the library because A) I already paid for them through taxes, and B) I don't need to waste paper and energy to make a personal copy of a book I'll likely only read once, and maybe end up regifting or selling later. And I also like having the deadline of returning a book. It keeps me motivated to read it, rather than just read through the first couple chapters, and then forget about it once I hit a boring part or something comes up in my life.

Of course, I make an exception for reference books (especially cookbooks), as well as books of poetry and anthologies. Those are pretty much meant to be visited off and on. I've also never thrown a book out. Even really awful books that I've received as gifts end up getting donated to a library or dropped off at a swap meet.

I'm not saying that people who buy books are killing the Earth or bad with money. I honestly just don't get the appeal. If anyone can explain it better to me, I'd like to hear it.
posted by mccarty.tim at 4:33 PM on October 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


Books are an insomniac's best friend. Except when you finally nod off while reading and your book drops onto your chest, startling you out of your sleep. Then you read another chapter or two, and repeat the experience. I've passed many a long night this way.
posted by metagnathous at 4:44 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Those with personal libraries are not hoarders, they are curators. Personal libraries are not places books languish. It's where they patiently wait until they are next needed. And those books live to serve their Shepard. They are not being punished. I believe they enjoy the variety of the collections they visit through their life. They are delighted by the diversity of their kin.
posted by Toekneesan at 4:57 PM on October 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


I was a huge introvert as a child and a teen, and even to this day, so I have read probably ten thousand books in my life, somewhere around there. I tried to catalog them all using Shelfari (I have a good memory for things I've read), but I hit a couple of thousand and hadn't even dented the total so I gave up.

I don't have every book I've ever read though. I left behind a few hundred pounds when I left Turkey because I didn't have the money to ship them back and they blew past my Army weight allotment (gave 'em to a fellow soldier friend). I had a house fire a few years ago and lost everything. Etc, etc. I've never sold any off, but life has forced me to do a reset several times.

After the fire, I transitioned to two tracks of books: those that are investments and will grow in value and which I do not touch, and those which I buy purely for the pleasure of reading and don't really care that much what happens to them when I'm done. My collectible books are mainly leather-bound, 22k gilt, mostly Easton Press, and 95% are signed by the author, with around 2/3 being first editions. An Obama-signed Dreams From My Father, 1 out of 50 Invitation To The White House in deluxe red leather and signed by Hillary Clinton, a first edition (signed) of the Foundation Trilogy from the 50s, Ted Williams' signed autobiography (1st edition, 1st printing), yada yada.

I don't consider myself a hoarder though. More of a caretaker, at least for the rare works. I have no children (by choice) so eventually I will sell them off and allow someone else to become the caretaker and accompany them through time after I'm gone. The signed copies have an emotional connection, at least for me and others like me. Knowing Obama himself set pen to page to sign that name, knowing Asimov wrote the limerick inside one of the books, that kind of thing, it makes me feel a closer connection to the author and the work. (Also makes it harder to part with them, but that's life.)

I'll probably buy a Kindle at some point, but mainly to read schlock. I could easily give up e-readers though. And I couldn't ever give up actual books. They've been my friends all my life. I never would have made it alive through childhood without the ability to leave the real world for some better world between the covers of a book. Even as an adult, with a much nicer life than that of my childhood, I still feel that way sometimes.
posted by jamstigator at 5:04 PM on October 9, 2009


joe lisboa - The Infinity quotation's from Alfred Edward Newton.
posted by Smart Dalek at 5:06 PM on October 9, 2009


As you look at your book collection you are looking at books taken out of the world and no longer to be read by anyone, probably not even you.

The best part is when urchins press their noses up against the windows, pining away for something to read.
posted by Zed at 5:40 PM on October 9, 2009 [11 favorites]


There are used book stores, charities, yeah.
Although one of the few times I’ve ever shown my wife some ire was when we were moving in together and we negotiated space (as couples do) and we got to my books.

‘Why don’t you get rid of some of these, Smed?’
‘Uh, what…?’
‘Howabout this?’ *grabs random book *
‘Get rid of… the Tibetan Book of the Dead?’
'Well, no, but we need more space and...'
'I'll ditch my heavy bag'

I suppose if you’re into collecting books just for books sake, but it is possible to collect a large library of some serious works and literature.
posted by Smedleyman at 6:33 PM on October 9, 2009


I've enjoyed reading the stories upthread about culling books and such. It can be liberating to relieve yourself of possessions, but also kind of embarrassing when I think about how I've lugged around my old college textbooks to the four corners of the continent before finally dumping them at a library book sale.

Right now, I try to limit myself to one small bookshelf. It really makes me think about which books to keep when I have a self-imposed limit of 100 books, more or less. I'm reminded of sea captains who could only take along 15 or 20 books on their long voyages, and there's something romantic about this idea of just choosing a few trusty companions for our own long voyage.

The first thing to go are all the classics, because I can get them at the local library. Next to go are the popular novels, again for the same reason, and also the children's books (do I really need my Hardy Boys from so many years ago?).

What's left is surprisingly utilitarian. Language books, local guide books, some texts on astronomy, and a dictionary and almanac. I really do need to get rid of the Emily Post Etiquette book... when am I going to have to plan a wedding, after all?

But the Fehrenbach history of Mexico, the Jonathan Raban book on sailing, the Paxman book on Central America, the G. H. Hardy "A Mathematician's Apology", these are likely to stay with me for quite some time. And the Chronicles of Narnia, of course.

But what if I only had to choose five books? Not desert-island books (because then we'd all choose How To Build A Life Raft and Guide to Edible Plants of the Pacific), but books that I would take with me to the retirement home. Probably the one on philosophy, the one on astronomy, the lovely lovely dictionary I've used for years, the book of prayers, and the Oxford Companion to the Year. My God but I love knowing that today is both Leif Erikson day and the feast day of Saint Denis!

(Of course, via Wikipedia I get a much-expanded biography of Saint Denis along with some 50 other events on this day, such as the execution of Che Guevara and the introduction of Hangul. Hmm. Maybe it's time for the Oxford Companion to go).

Still, the fewer books I have, the more they mean to me. Books in boxes don't do anyone any good at all.
posted by math at 6:49 PM on October 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


Of course, I make an exception for reference books (especially cookbooks), as well as books of poetry and anthologies.

I consider all of my books reference books.
posted by jayder at 7:27 PM on October 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


I used to have hundreds of books. And my wife a couple hundred. Most of hers were large format art books.

But after the fourth move... oh dear god... the move that broke the goodwill of our friends who kindly came to help us and we had dozens and dozens of hundred to two hundred pound boxes, trunks, and crates of books, videos, albums, and frigg'n magazines. I snapped. It was ridiculous. My buddy Ed sprained his ankle. And our friend Leah torqued her back out. People we're "going for a latte" and not coming back.

"I can't fucking take this. Pick out one hundred of your favorite books. And everything else, albums, magazines, all this shit — we are going to sell."

You would have thought I shot a puppy. My wife had a conniption fit. So I said fine. Let's hire some movers then. And we did. And it cost a god damned fortune because how stupid heavy all that shit was. By move five... and she had gathered more stuff by then... wisdom prevailed. The entire point of move five was to downsize. To go from 6,500 sq. ft. to 1,800 sq. ft.

It took her four months. Four months to, nightly, sort through her stuff and deliberate, hold conversations with her books, weep, and then finally triage and bid adieu to her cherished stuff.

We sold it all on Craigs List. I kept like fifty books. She kept like 70. We sold everything else. Albums. Magazines (seriously... what kind of disordered mind fucking collects magazines?). CDs. Paperbacks. Videos. All of it.

And you know I don't regret it a bit. We made a small fortune. Paid for the move and a trip to Paris. You can trade books. There are these things called libraries. You can rent videos.

Stuff owns you.
posted by tkchrist at 8:36 PM on October 9, 2009 [11 favorites]


> Not desert-island books (because then we'd all choose How To Build A Life Raft and Guide to Edible Plants of the Pacific)

May I suggest the SAS Survival Guide? I bring the pocket edition with me wherever I fly, mostly for laughs.
posted by Decimask at 8:49 PM on October 9, 2009


Did I mention most the videos were VHS. In 2003. VHS. And we had over 800 god damned VHS tapes. The other thing was that about 20% of the books had gotten mold or worms or something and gotten all eaten on the edges. But we were keeping them anyway. The more I think of the insanity of it the more relief I feel now. I feel lighter like I'm on the moon.
posted by tkchrist at 8:50 PM on October 9, 2009


That's pushing into hoarder territory, tkchrist. Ick.
posted by Decimask at 8:58 PM on October 9, 2009


There are likely very few Mefites unaware of the fact, but just in case: the theme of this week's This American Life podcast is The Book That Changed Your Life, and is completely wonderful... most especially, to me, the third chapter, about a construction worker who began, largely on a whim, to collect every book written on the expedition of Lewis & Clark, and how, in assembling the largest private holding of Lewis and Clark books in America, he grew from collector to reader to scholar.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 9:00 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


and how, in assembling the largest private holding of Lewis and Clark books in America, he grew from collector to reader to scholar

Many serious collectors of books have quite specific criteria for books in their collection. And the more serious the collector, the more specific the collection often becomes. This is actually a good thing: a dedicated, serious collector can amass an extremely specialized collection that can become quite helpful to scholars. So serious book collectors are in some ways a public good.

I rather enjoyed Johnny Depp's The Ninth Gate despite it being sort of, well, bad in many respects because it actually wasn't a terrible depiction of book collectors. There are a lot of shady, dishonest, eccentric, or just plain batshit book dealers and collectors out there. And a serious collection of every old, rare, and expensive book dealing with Satan as a character would be pretty cool. Plus, you know, Lena Olin.
posted by Justinian at 9:18 PM on October 9, 2009


I own a book entitled Ingenious Mechanisms for Designers and Inventors Volume 1.

It is subtitled "Mechanisms and Mechanical Movements Selected from Automatic Machines and Various Other Forms of Mechanical Apparatus as Outstanding Examples of Ingenious Design Embodying Ideas or Principles Applicable in Designing Machines or Devices Requiring Automatic Features or Mechanical Control."

Pry it from my cold dead hands. It is amazing.

Also, you can hollow out books with a razor to make a safe for your diamonds or stash of drugs. Can't do that with a Kindle.
posted by Camofrog at 9:33 PM on October 9, 2009 [3 favorites]



"The need for the screen to glow in order to see the text hurts after a while. So I go to my books. "

A Kindle screen does NOT glow. Christ. It is not like reading a computer screen or the display of an iPod. It is as easy on the eyes as paper. THAT is the appeal!


Does it? Really? That's nice. Really, it is. My poor sad eyes might be able to handle it. However, a book does not need batteries to power it, and the content isn't DRM locked. I can give it away to whomever I want. You can call me a hoarder, a sentimentalist, an 'object worshipper' (though seriously, just because I prefer a physical thing I can hold to digital bits doesn't mean I 'worship' it), but I think I'll stick to a good old fashioned book or hundred.
posted by sandraregina at 9:38 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Still collecting those LPs, too?

Yes. I also have tube amps. Why do you ask?
posted by ryoshu at 9:39 PM on October 9, 2009


Also. With a room that has 5 large bookshelves and two stacks of books that won't fit on the shelves, I kind of get it. I've done the culling of books many times, but more wind up in the library. This week I pulled out four books out as reference material (and put the five books back I had out from last week).

Things I've learned about books:

- Don't buy programming books. They are a waste of paper.
- Don't lend out Snow Crash. You'll never get it back.
posted by ryoshu at 9:54 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


anazgnos: Every one of you book-loving motherfuckers traded your CDs and LPs for iPods years ago.

CDs and LPs don't smell like knowledge.

(Also, I love Kindle, but that has no bearing on how many books I own/buy. One doesn't negate the other.)
posted by tzikeh at 10:17 PM on October 9, 2009


"Don't lend out Snow Crash. You'll never get it back."

“Never lend books, for no one ever returns them; the only books I have in my library are books that other folks have lent to me.”

In the high turnover apartment building where I live, there has been a tradition to leave books that aren't coming with the departing tenants in the lobby. From this, I've collected a book of Imagist poems which supplied the lyrics for a ~ half a dozen songs, an interesting analysis of the modern misinterpretation of Jesus entitled "For Christ's Sake", and a textbook on Understanding Symbolic Logic. It's pretty likely I would never have been exposed to any of this content except for these books dropped from passing trajectories.

But most of all - a great find was "Sex Life and Sex Ethics" by Rene Guyon - first published 1933 with the NOTICE: The sale of this book is strictly limited to members of the medical profession, psycho-analysts, scholars and such adults as may have a definite position in the field of physiological, psychological or social research.

So yeah - don't lend books that you can't stand to give away - and - don't throw out books. They're like the littlest hobo - it might be time to move on, but will they'll find a home where they're needed.
posted by sloe at 10:25 PM on October 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


"Outside of a dog, a book is always a man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read."
-- Groucho Marx
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 11:01 PM on October 9, 2009


Books? Don't talk to me about books. I've spent the past two weeks gradually moving my book collection from downstairs to upstairs. It's a matter of meters. The staircase has about fifteen steps. I want to kill myself. One positive side-effect has been the culling. I love to cull. Sure I've got books that I've had for twenty years but not so many, because the shit I was reading twenty years ago was really embarrasing. They don't define me as a person now, they don't even define me as what I once was - they were just what I gleaned enjoyment or education from. Same with books from ten, five, two years ago. I used to read American Psycho when it was banned in Queensland and therefore very naughty and made me seem quirky. Then I got rid of it because, man, whatever. Then I got it again because I remembered that I enjoyed it for more than just the naughtiness. Then, I don't know, that was stolen or something. I got another copy because it's just plain hilarious. And then I've got hundreds of books I haven't even more than skimmed. I tell myself I will one day - The Arcades Project, Godel, Escher, Bach, The Decameron - but, well, I probably won't. Others I can't bear to part with for one reason or another, such as my parent's ancient copy of A Confederacy Of Dunces with about twenty or thirty pages missing. But I've culled all my Shakespeare and Dickens and some other stuff like that, not because it's not genius, but because it does nothing for me and I haven't the room. I can't take the physical book and burn it to disk like I could a CD or DVD, so it pains me for a moment to place them in the pile for the secondhand bookstore. I find myself subtracting from it more than adding to it, some nights. Of course, there are the books I wish I had back. Anyway, my point is, god bless you for reading books and treasuring them, but sometimes they just have to go, like lovers.
posted by turgid dahlia at 11:04 PM on October 9, 2009


and a textbook on Understanding Symbolic Logic.

By Virginia Klenk? I took her class at WVU, in my aborted first attempt at college. It's the only textbook I kept.
posted by rifflesby at 11:31 PM on October 9, 2009


I fear I must be publicly sentimental here for a few moments, as during my aforementioned book relocation project I found a small cache of children's books my mother gave me a little while ago. They were mine, and are mine again now I suppose. But I found this one and I am going to transcribe it in its entirety, so sorry for wasting all your bandwidth.

The title is Let Us Read, Revised Edition, part of the Endeavour Reading Programme (B) by The Jacaranda Press. This particular version was printed in 1980, when I was two. It was first published in 1969.

It is illustrated, so picture the colourful illustrations inside your fleshy headboxes.

It begins:

“Sam.” [a boy]

“Pam.” [a girl]

“Sam and Pam.”

“Digger.” [a dog]

“Digger and Pam.”

“Sam and Digger.”

“Sam is funny.” [playing with a hose]

“Pam is funny.” [doing likewise]

“Look at Digger.” [ditto!]

“Look at Sam.”

“Sam, look at Digger. He is funny.”

“Digger, look at Pam. She is funny.”

“Look at the cat.” [cat is eyeing off some pantyhose on the washing line]

“Oh!” [Sam and Pam are shocked!]

“Look at the bad cat. He is bad.” [cat is mauling the pantyhose]

“Look at Digger. He is good.” [as he chases the cat away!]

“Good Digger!”

“Digger is a good puppy. He is not bad.”

“Woof! Woof! I am a good puppy. I'm not bad.”

“Woof! Woof! I'm good. I'm funny. I am a funny puppy.”

“Look, Pam! Look at this. This is good.” [Sam is splashing in the puddle.]

“Look, Digger! This is good fun.” [Pam has joined him.]

“Oh! Oh! Woof! Woof!” [Sam and Pam have slipped over and Digger is concerned!]

“This is not funny. This is not good.” [uh oh, Mum's arrived!]

“What is this, Sam? What is this, Pam?”

“Pam, you are not good. Look at you. Sam, you are not funny.”

“You are wet. You are bad. Digger is good. He is not wet.” [as Mum strips off their sopping wet clothes]

[final illustration is of Pam and Sam sitting in fresh clothes on the back verandah, watching Digger hide behind a tree.]

Fin

The best part? An inscription written by my mother inside the front cover:

“This book was given to James to teach him to read before going to school (he did too) with help from Mum & Dad. - Townsville, 1983”
posted by turgid dahlia at 11:42 PM on October 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


After you buy a book and read it, you keep it on your bookshelf as a motherfuckin' trophy for having read the fuckin' thing.
posted by mathlete at 12:47 AM on October 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


Exactly. Some people have the rack of a 14 point buck on the wall. I have books.
posted by Justinian at 2:23 AM on October 10, 2009


Books are just overly long physical twitter entries. Flotsam and jetsam in the stream of our lives.

It's posts like this that make me long for a negative favorite option...
posted by fairmettle at 3:04 AM on October 10, 2009


On "imprisoning knowledge": Oh give me a fucking break. Ever been to a used book sale? Old books are worth approximately nothing. I get most of my books at book sales and I rarely have to pay more than a buck a book. A quarter or 50 cents is more common. This stuff is not in high demand.

And don't try to tell me reading on an e-reader is anything like curling in bed with a book. Crystal clear text from your augmented reality glasses? Maybe after I get that flight to the moon in my fucking flying car.
posted by DarkForest at 5:49 AM on October 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


I don't know whether to be proud or appalled that I own more books than Roger Ebert.

> I never really got the appeal of owning books.

I was going to compose an eloquent attempt to explain it, but then I realized it was hopeless. If you don't understand, you don't understand, and nothing I can say will make you understand. It's like those people who are impatient with the time "wasted" eating meals and wish they could take nutrition pills instead.

I appreciate your (mccarty.tim's) polite and respectful approach, but those of you who are slagging what you don't understand and inventing trumped-up reasons why book-lovers are Bad People are being dicks and can go jump in a lake.
posted by languagehat at 6:24 AM on October 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oh, and in googling for more information on Cranford's (where Ebert got his Shaw plays), I found Alf Wannenburgh's reminiscence of old Cape Town bookstores, which has several paragraphs on Cranford's and is well worth reading in its own right.
posted by languagehat at 6:27 AM on October 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's like those people who are impatient with the time "wasted" eating meals and wish they could take nutrition pills instead.
Again, you seem to be conflating reading with owning books.
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:40 AM on October 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


>By Virginia Klenk? I took her class at WVU, in my aborted first attempt at college. It's the only textbook I kept.

That's the one!
It's really good - for a topic not related to my background, it was a great introduction - accessible but rigorous.
posted by sloe at 6:57 AM on October 10, 2009


> Again, you seem to be conflating reading with owning books.

No I'm not. You don't understand the deep pleasure some of us take in owning books (and being able to write in the margins and return years later to see our earlier thoughts, and have access to them at any time we like, and... oh, never mind, it's wasted effort), just as the pill types don't understand the pleasure the rest of us take in eating actual, physical food. To them, it's all just nutriment, just as to you, it's all just words on a page.
posted by languagehat at 8:09 AM on October 10, 2009


...Excuse the interruption but I had to add the following quote to the thread for posterity. A few years ago I heard John Waters speak and this quote just stuck with me.

If you go home with somebody, and they don't have books, don't fuck 'em!

Words to live by.
posted by wundermint at 9:01 AM on October 10, 2009 [5 favorites]


Even libraries throw books away.
posted by zzazazz at 9:06 AM on October 10, 2009


“The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encylopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others - a very small minority - who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight read-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

"We tend to treat our knowledge as personal property to be protected and defended. It is an ornament that allows us to rise in the pecking order. So this tendency to offend Eco’s library sensibility by focusing on the known is a human bias that extends to our mental operations. People don’t walk around with anti-resumes telling you what they have not studied or experienced (it’s the job of their competitors to do that), but it would be nice if they did. Just as we need to stand library logic on its head, we will work on standing knowledge itself on its head. Note that the Black Swan comes from our misunderstanding of the likelihood of surprises, those unread books, because we take what we know a little too seriously.

"Let us call this an antischolar - someone who focuses on the unread books, and makes an attempt not to treat his knowledge as a treasure, or even a possession, or even a self-esteem enhancement device - a skeptical empiricist.”

- Nicholas Nassim Taleb

http://ruchir75.blogspot.com/2008/01/umberto-ecos-anti-library.html
posted by greytape at 9:24 AM on October 10, 2009 [7 favorites]


Oops, that was odd: my html error spliced out a whole paragraph. Here it is again, and correct, I hope:
_________________________________

You don't understand the deep pleasure some of us take in owning books (and being able to write in the margins and return years later to see our earlier thoughts, and have access to them at any time we like

This, this, this, this.

I have been divesting myself of books a few milkcrates at a time over the past decade, and one of my standards for giving away a book is the question Can I pick it up off the library shelf on a day's notice?

Then one night, I found myself needing to quote a particular passage from Dracula. I could allllllmost picture it on the page, but I needed to get it verbatim. No problem, because I have a copy of Dracula right here on the.... oh. I gave it away, knowing that I could pick it up at the library. Only it's Saturday afternoon, and my branch doesn't open 'til Tuesday this week. The internet is down, so I can't look up the text online, and I no longer have the book. I am simply out of luck.

Actually, something similar happened just this week, but with a happier ending. I needed a particular quote from (I thought) Hamlet. Searching online didn't work, because the transcriptions from different versions were just dissimilar enough to defeat Google. The instant I turned to my bookshelf, though, I found it, in part because the sense memory of handling the book reminded me: it wasn't in Hamlet but Macbeth. I could have searched for hours to find it without those simple sensory cues.

I'm sure many people don't have the same gratifyingly sense-based interaction with books, and I have no quarrel with them. But don't assume that, becasue my reaction to a bundle of paper and glue is different from yours, that I am a knowledge-hogging monster or a sentimental fool.
posted by Elsa at 11:45 AM on October 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


> Even libraries throw books away.

No-one's going to miss those tattered copies of The Da Vinci Code and Windows 3.1 For Dummies.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:45 AM on October 10, 2009


Ah, Mefi. Is there any human activity onto whose practitioners you cannot project base motivations?

Even libraries throw books away.

Yeah, so do I, when it's clear that it's of no possible use to me or anyone, as with outdated technical books. (Of course, someday people are going to be writing history of technology doctoral theses or something based on the contents of short shelf-life technical books of the '90's; hope they can find them OK.)

I also send out books through Paperbackswap, sell them to Moe's, give them to the Bay Area Free Book exchange, and give them to friends.

And, I keep a bunch.
posted by Zed at 12:48 PM on October 10, 2009


Ohh Elsa, I was about to ask if I could borrow your copy of DraculaHamlet..
posted by juniper at 12:52 PM on October 10, 2009


I might have to write Dracula Hamlet.
posted by Elsa at 12:57 PM on October 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Every year or so, I have to cull my books to get rid of those which I will never read. This always causes some sadness, since I don't know if I'm giving away a book that might change my life or comfort me in hard times.
posted by reenum at 1:56 PM on October 10, 2009


As you look at your book collection you are looking at books taken out of the world and no longer to be read by anyone, probably not even you.

Nope. That's the thing: Some people aren't re-readers, some are. I definitely am, and I read damn fast. Any book that I've read and liked enough to buy is something I will read again. Even books I don't re-read frequently for various reasons are still there as reference. Some books - particularly foreign language books - would actually be very hard to find at your average library, and it will be very hard to re-read or refer to them if I don't have my own copy. No chance I'm going to be able to walk to the nearest branch of the Chicago library and pick a copy of Emine Sevgi Özdamar's "Das Leben Ist Eine Karawanserei..." off of their bookshelves. In fact, the CPL website tells me that there isn't a copy in the entire system.

Furthermore, my books will be read by other people: I lend books out to friends all the time. Sure, they might get damaged, or lost, but I like to be able not just to recommend a book but to be able to actually share it with others who might love it.

I'll admit, there might be a certain fetishism in my love for books - I just finished putting up my latest set of cinderblock shelves, and I'm very excited about being able to sit comfortably in a room full of books and read, again. Plus, so many books are really beautiful - gorgeous covers that have aesthetic value even without the content. But heck, even if I only picked up books for these reasons, I'm certainly not somehow taking the Only Copy Of Buddenbrooks In Existance out of circulation.

I do sell books, or give them away, when it's appropriate, but as long as I'm willing to keep hauling the damn things around, I get a lot of pleasure out of them. Past experience tells me I won't be getting rid of them any time soon: I've lived in 5 places in the past 2.5 years, and moved across the Atlantic with as many of my books as I could afford to bring, even, and through moving day is awful, the day when I get to unpack my books is the day my new place becomes home. My books might gather dust between reads, but they will be read again, by me or by someone else.

Every one of you book-loving motherfuckers traded your CDs and LPs for iPods years ago.

Nope, still buy both, along with mp3s. Not only do the art, liner notes, etc. make a difference, but there's also the fact that it's a lot easier to lose your entire mp3 collection to a hard drive crash than it is to have all your CDs or vinyl destroyed. There are no guarantees either way, but despite having backups, my mp3 collection feels fundamentally more vulnerable. I try especially hard to get the physical music for obscure artists, since it might not be easy to find again. (I've got similar issues with the Kindle - which also has those pesky DRM issues, its comparative fragility, and some other limitations - no color, need for power, not great note-taking options, etc. - that mean it's still way inferior to real books for me.)
posted by ubersturm at 3:15 PM on October 11, 2009


Check out bookmooch, it's sort of like being your own lending library. You get points, which can be exchanged for books.

You can easily donate points to charities and they can choose books that work for them; my personal goal is to donate 10 points to a NYC-area prison library this year.
posted by kathrineg at 3:56 PM on October 11, 2009


On two sad occasions at local thrift stores I have heard parents tell a child who is clamoring for a new book, "You don't need any more books." Perhaps one of the saddest sentences I have heard.
posted by thebrokedown at 6:13 PM on October 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


I stopped buying a lot of books when I was around 16 and discovered the magic of the public library and downloaded audiobooks/ebooks. So basically my book collection is a whole bunch of really embarassing science fiction and fantasy. However I still occasionally go back to one of those books and experience a little bit of my imaginative childhood again, so there's that.
posted by tehloki at 3:58 AM on October 12, 2009


Check out bookmooch, it's sort of like being your own lending library. You get points, which can be exchanged for books.

Paperback Swap, also mentioned a bit upthread, does the same thing (I slightly prefer PBS). I got turned on to it by a former roommate when ANOTHER former roommate left 15 boxes of books behind when she moved (in her defense, she was moving to Australia rather unexpectedly). I culled those 15 boxes down to about one single bookshelf in fairly short order, and I've gotten a lot of books myself using those resultant points -- it's been working pretty well for older books that I read years ago, and remembered recently thinking "hey, actually, I wouldn't mind a copy of that." I got a children's book I read years ago (in fact, it was the subject of my first AskMe ever), and I just placed an order for about 10 volumes of the Time-Life Science Library (I remembered my parents had it when I was a kid, and have always been meaning to get it for nostalgia/curiousity's purposes; I just logged on last night and ordered ten volumes all in one fell swoop).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:51 AM on October 12, 2009


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