When I listen to my writer-friends talk about the hundreds of books they own, I always feel like I don’t have enough. As if some certain number of books would make me more writerly, more intellectual, somehow better.
Never mind my four-shelf, glass-fronted barrister’s bookcase and the tall arts-and-crafts bookcase, both full of weaving and art books, or the several shelves on new-age spiritual matters. Never mind the sixty-odd cookbooks spread between kitchen and dining room (never mind, also, that I don’t cook). Never mind that I love lying in bed looking at the rows and rows of books in the three seven-foot-high bookshelves covering the opposite wall. Some shelves are stacked double. I can’t see titles, but I can see blocks of color and shapes, and they make me feel good.
One night I thought, that’s actually a lot of books. The next morning I counted three shelves worth, averaged, then multiplied by the number of shelves. The result was staggering. I didn’t have to go to the other rooms (did I mention that I have books in every room except the downstairs bathroom?) to know that I have more than a thousand books. I guess I can join the big kids.
I’ve always culled my books regularly, taking those I’m done with to West Side Books for credit. If I’m not running a credit at WSB, I feel uncomfortable. A little bit self-defeating, but fun. When the de-clutter bug hit, I amped up my disposal efforts. Even emptied a couple of shelves. Not that that makes much of a dent when you’re talking about a thousand books.
I heard about a serious writer who has no books. Her attitude is, if I can get it at the library why do I need to own it? This sounded eminently reasonable; I rushed right home to empty my shelves.
No such luck. There are reasons why I’m keeping almost everything. To begin with, I found that most of my books can’t be checked out of the library. They’re too long out of print. They’re on some esoteric subject. They’re from some tiny press. They’re self-published. They’re academic. Public libraries keep only what’s popular.
If it’s a series, it’s unlikely that you can check them out in the right order, or maybe the library has only two out of three. I know this from years of reading speculative fiction trilogies. Finally I just started buying them. In fact, that may be when my collection began to get out of hand.
Sure a lot of my books are available, but I still don’t want to get rid of my specific edition. While the library may stock it, theirs wouldn’t have these wonderful illustrations, that fabulous leather binding, it wouldn’t be a first edition. What about my 55-book King Arthur collection? Yes, you can get many of those in the library. But this is not about reading, it’s about having, and enjoying, the body of literature. Ditto my collection of books on the Beats and hippies.
Then there are three or four shelves of books I’m using for research on my own writing, and will want to refer to again and again. I could check them out every time, but that would slow me down, and just when I needed one, it would be out on extended loan, or the library would have dumped it because I’m the only one interested.
Some books have sentimental value. When I bought the fiftieth anniversary collector’s edition of The Hobbit, which falls into the ‘special edition’ category above, I could have, one might even argue should have, tossed my original paperback. How could I? The collector’s edition languishes pristine on the shelf in the living room with a first-edition Hemingway and some beautifully-bound antiques, while I reread the paperback every couple of years. In the days when it was new to America, I loaned it to friends and family, writing everyone’s initials in the front of the book. Yeah, you can get The Hobbit in the library, but you can’t get the soft feel of those old pages; the foxed edges; the completely detached front cover, which now doubles as a bookmark; the memories and history. No way am giving all that up.
Now here’s my dirty little secret. I bet I haven’t read half the books I own. They’re part of that research collection; they looked interesting when, rich in credits, I found them at WSB; I inherited them from my parents or grandparents. One is a text from my freshman year. I feel obligated to read it – someday – so they don’t rescind my degree. Most of the books I actually read do come from the public library.