February 11, 2007

Getting rid of books?

The time has come, I am forced to admit, to get rid of some of my books. I was looking around my flat the other day, thinking that I should really get around to bringing up the last few bits and pieces of my stuff, when it occurred to me that there was no practical way I could possibly fit in all my books.

Having spent the last 5 years moving round the country between various student lodgings I’ve been storing all my books at the house of my long suffering grandmother, which is beginning to resemble a library. So the last time I went down to visit her, I decided to try and work out which books I actually wanted to keep, and which could be safely consigned to a better home.

Now most people would simply gather piecemeal all the books they didn’t want, put them in boxes, and take them off to a second hand bookshop. But I decided to proceed more systematically. Now a while ago I discovered a rather curious site www.librarything.com that allows you to catalogue books and use them to generate recommendations and so on. Another of those sites that will probably be totally pointless to the vast bulk of the population, and ridiculously addictive to a tiny minority…

Anyway, I thought it would be quite nice to keep a record of books, even if I did decide to get rid of them, and it also seemed like an easy way to tag books for disposal, without the need to keep running up and down the country. That I way, I’d be able to work out a list, print it out, and post it to the long suffering grandmother, who could dispose of the books whenever she had time. Unfortunately this required manual entry of either title/author data or ISBNs. So I spent the best part of a day laboriously working my way along shelves, entering numbers into the computer. Thanks to the wonders of librarything, the results are actually viewable online…

For the first time, I became aware that I have literally hundreds of mediocre fantasy novels. I have scores of books that I have not the slightest intention of ever reading again, old course books, books that I bought on impulse because they were on special offer, random non-fiction books that caught my eye in second hand bookshops, and an entire collection of Teach Yourself language books for which the only justification is that I once used them in an essay on linguistics. So really, the question is not “which books should I get rid of?”, but “which books are worth keeping?”.

So which books are worth keeping? Well, reference books, for a start, but really, in the age of the internet, the only reference book I regularly use is a good dictionary. And a road atlas every now and then. The rest can pretty much go. But can I really bring myself to get rid of a perfectly good dictionary of languages? A guide to English usage? One of those delightful Victorian books that profess to contain information on just about everything? Who’s who in British history?

What are the books that everyone should have? Hmmm… A Complete Works of Shakespeare, a Bible? A Koran? Where do we stop? I’ve got a Bhagavad-Gita, a Book of Mormon I stole from a hotel room, one of those books the Jehovah’s Witnesses give out to anyone who talks to them for more than a minute, a couple of books of sayings of the Dalai Lama – one of which is in Italian. Oh, and the Tao Te Chi. Rather suspicious for an avowed atheist.

Fiction should be pretty easy – if a)I didn’t like the book, and / or b) I’m unlikely ever to read it again, it should go. But what about classics that I might not like now, but might appreciate in my dotage? What about books I enjoyed as a child? Should I keep them for sentimental reasons? What happens if it’s a series and I liked some and not others? Should I keep the series together?

Non-fiction is even worse. Should I get rid of all books I’m not likely to read again, no matter how interesting they were? What about old textbooks – can I really bring myself to just throw out all those books I spent hours slaving over? Coffee table books – so I don’t actually have a coffee table at the moment, but suppose I get one? What would I do then? And should I keep a smattering of erudite tomes around to look impressive?

Then there’re all the books I haven’t actually got around to reading – am I likely to read them or not? How am I to judge? Why the hell did I buy them in the first place? Why do I have an English / Norwegian dictionary?

I have to confess, before I put them in the database, I had long since forgotten most of these books, but now I’ve dug them all up again, they suddenly seem indispensable. I may be here some time….


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