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Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Who's counting?

the overcrowded bookcase

This throwaway comment by Fran Lebowitz--quoted over at Gawker, in a post about the 80th birthday party at the Strand, my favourite used book shop in New York--got me thinking:

Fran Lebowitz got off a good line about wishing the Strand was her apartment, and how New York is divided into two groups of people: "people with five thousand books and people with the space for them."

Five thousand doesn't seem an unreasonable number of books to have amassed by early middle age over the course of a readerly life, does it? By my rough estimate, the shelves in my small study can hold about two thousand books comfortably, so if I factor in the overflows onto floor, desk, and other items of furniture, there might be almost 2,500 books close to hand as I sit here typing.

There is another bookcase in the corridor outside--well, two, but one is full of magazines--and another in my bedroom. Somewhere in the house are about a dozen boxes of books in a more secluded form of storage--they include my shockingly large collection of ratty paperback detective novels, which I read avidly as a teenager. I recently discovered a stash of books in the freezer--double-Ziploc'd--where I'd put them months before in an attempt to end a powder-post beetle infestation. I don't think I'd have the energy to do a proper book census even if I wanted to, but a safe guess would be that I own about 3,500 books, in varying stages of moulder, decay, and consumption by insects.

Have I read them all? Hardly. I own hundreds of books, probably, that I'll never get around to reading, but it's nice to have them handy just in case. I also own many duplicate copies--two full sets of Jane Austen, for instance, just by chance. And many reference books or scholarly volumes I might dip into once or twice, in search of some abstruse fact, but which I'll never read cover to cover. And many many books I've already read, will probably never read again, but which I have no intention of discarding. I've never understood people who give away books once they're "done" with them. Are you ever really "done" with a book? If there's even the smallest chance you may re-read it someday? And isn't it in some sense comforting--physically comforting--to have books around?

And why--surrounded by books, as I clearly am--indeed, tripping over books, as I occasionally do--does it so often seem I have nothing to read?


jt said...

I used to feel it was comforting to be surrounded (or swamped) by books. They seemed friendly in those days. But now they tend to glare at me and make me guilty. They seem to say, "Time's running out: are you going to read me or not?" The category of books I really want to read is getting smaller, while the ones I feel I ought read is getting bigger.

A year or two back I had a big cleanout, the third or fourth of my life, getting rid of several hundred books, and I haven't missed any of them. (Though I kept all the Caribbean-related volumes and put them in our office library.) Now the shelves have filled up again, and I need to do another cleanout. I already know which books I'm never going to read again (and even if I change my mind, I'd rather buy a fresh new version), and which ones I probably will read again, though they're not many.

Trouble is, who do you give books to? Like pets, you want them to go to a good home where they'll be looked after and read. Libraries make you feel they're doing you a favour by accepting books, indeed by dealing with books at all. It seems they interfere with smooth administration.

Anyone feel like giving a home to a few boxes of soon-to-be-orphaned books, on a cat-in-bag basis? Mostly US/UK fiction but with a few other things thrown in, e.g. comparative religion, classical music and similar arcane subjects.

Jonathan said...

As Schopenhauer said, when we buy a book, we also believe we're buying the time to read it in.

I'd be more than happy to give some needy books a home.