About Libraries

There's an article in this week's issue of the New Yorker by the novelist, editor and literary critic James Wood about packing up his father-in-law's library after his death. The library had about 4,000 books in it, many never read, like most personal libraries. It was focused on Middle Eastern history - the collector was a French Algerian who ended up in the U.S. as a Fulbright scholar, took a stab at a PhD in Middle Eastern studies, but ultimately went into a career in business and settled in Canada.

It got me thinking about my own library. Like most aspects of my life, it is a messy, humble collection of my various interests throughout the years, some of which carried through, many of which have dropped or forgotten. I'm not a collector at heart, and I am not much of a thinker or writer, but I am a voracious reader and a good talker, my library reflects that, and I've always liked that about my collection.

The current state of my library
Over the years I have added to and subtracted from it, as most book lovers do, and so in some respects it does reflect an evolution of my thought and my reading. But it's also a dynamic area in other ways - because we live in a four-room apartment, our library is also our living room, media room, bike storage area, cat playground, dining area, and occasional guest room, and reading or collecting is not the major focus of that room. So it's difficult to keep the shelves just to books, or even get to the books sometimes. They sometimes get obscured by other items, like the collection of video games that have been stashed next to the TV, the photos and art we had no other place for, or the remains of our cat who died last year.

Curiously, some of my husband's and my books are mixed together, but some are not, and he has a couple of bookcases to himself in other areas of the house. Overall, we have about a thousand books, and there was very little duplication in our libraries when we moved in together. We didn't merge our books at all until we were married two years later, although in the case of separation it wouldn't be difficult to identify whose books were whose; mine are literary fiction, poetry, a wide range of non-fiction, and some trashy historical novels, while his are horror, fantasy, a little sci-fi, theatre, and books on the occult or spirituality. I think we just didn't merge them because we had very little interest in each other's books.


Yeah, I married this guy
I had a crisis last year when deciding whether I wanted a Kindle- among other things, I knew that it would change the character of my library. Although it's true that most people with book collections haven't read all of their books, I've purchased most of my books with the intent of reading them, as opposed to their collection value. As Woods says, while libraries are "personal," they can also be "an ideal statement of knowledge that is impersonal, [ . . .] universal, abstract, and so much larger" than the person's life. I'm not sure that is the case for mine.

It's not because I am so diligent that I have read all of my books, or that I have managed to absorb them in detailed or meaningful ways, as Woods says Susan Sontag claimed once to him about her own library. No, it's because I am a voracious but fickle reader and a bad collector, and my library is neither focused nor comprehensive in any particular area, is always in flux, and I've never made a successful effort to focus it.

I do have books that I've had for decades and may keep forever. But I'm not a sentimental person, and while books are some of the few things I can be nostalgic about, sometimes I just go through the whole thing and ruthlessly cull for the sake of space and cleanliness. Usually the castoffs are nearly worthless to a book dealer - if I'm lucky, I get enough credit to buy one new book from the whole pile; if not, they go to the Goodwill. I don't feel so bad about this now that I read about the trouble Woods had finding homes for his father-in-law's much more carefully curated collection.

It's been almost a year now since I started using my Kindle, and as expected, I haven't purchased nearly as many physical books as in previous years. And you know what? It's a huge relief.

In his article, Woods discusses the burden that the library became to him as he tried to sell it off, the burden it had become to the family who inherited it, who had begged their father to deal with it before his death. I have no heirs, and I'm only 38 years old, but my library can be a burden to me as well. A lifelong renter, I move every few years and on a shoestring budget, and the books make it very difficult. Living in apartments means making do with small space, and they take up a lot of space.

At first I was afraid to get rid of any books and replace them with ebooks - now it's comforting that books might eventually leave this place and not be replaced in my physical space. It's even possible that my collection will become less unruly and more beautiful, as I have already narrowed my physical book buying to just books where design or illustration is important, like cookbooks or art books. It could become more distilled, more meaningful to me as I probably will only keep physical books long term that I have read and loved. My Kindle is already littered with half-read or "intend to read" books, but those can easily be moved to a hard drive and stored in a drawer.

glossy magazines I read and recycle
smart magazines that I save, and my book slush pile

And then there are the magazines: Before e-readers and blogs, I was a magazine junkie. Now the New Yorker is the only paper magazine I read with any regularity, and I'll probably switch to reading that on a tablet whenever I end up getting one. I still love a few magazines, so I still subscribe to some and read them eventually, but they pile up in a way they never did before, and the subscriptions are dwindling. That made me sad for a while too, but again it is a relief now. Less to take out in the recycling bin.

I feel guilty sharing my relief. As Woods worked through his father-in-law's library, he began to believe that "our libraries perhaps say nothing very particular about us at all" because each book is a "borrowed brick" from someone else's wall, and not a particularly unique one.

I don't think I will ever live without some type of library - once a younger friend and her husband were guests in my home, and then later she thoughtlessly repeated that her husband was making jokes about the sheer number of books we owned. Apparently he had asked her a couple of years prior to get rid of most of her books (mostly leftover college books). She seemed fine with the fact that she had only one shelf of books left. One shelf! I remember blanching at the thought, imagining divorce and a midnight getaway with my cats in a U-Haul full of books and not much else. In fact, we are no longer friends - not because of that, but because of many more small, telling signals that we were not from the same planet, culture-wise.

But I can see having a haphazard, revolving door library becoming less important to me and focusing more on collecting fewer books that mean more. Unlike Woods's father-in-law, I don't have much money or much to prove. It's enough to me to have a smaller (and easier-to-move!) collection that I can enjoy. Maybe I can even put my cookbooks in a better spot, so I can remember I have them and actually use them . . .  or at least read them. :)

I really need to get organized.


1 comment:

  1. Interesting article. I imagine my family will feel that way about my quilting stuff!